Is Hanes guilty of racism? Someone thinks so. A racial discrimination lawsuit against Hanesbrands (makers of Michael Jordan’s undies-of-note, Playtex, and Champion, among others) has been filed in New York on behalf of Yunusa Kenchi after his termination from his role as creative designer at the company. Kenchi, who is African American and Muslim, allegedly faced “consistent insults and ridicule from a hostile supervisor,” in a company in which “racial improprieties abound.”
According to his lawyer, Patrick Boyd of the Boyd Law Group, “At one point at the office, before Kenchi’s firing, the employees were all looking for some black gym shorts. His supervisor raised Kenchi’s hand and said, ‘I’ve got the black one, here.’ This was consistent with what Kenchi thought was a predominantly hostile work environment. Other African Americans there were saying yes, this is going on.”
Then Kenchi discovered an email sent by his direct supervisor to a higher-ranking supervisor computer referring to him (with his name as the subject line) stating, “We should go forward with getting this [n-word] out of here and getting [a white employee who had left] back.”
According to the complaint, Kenchi was told by another supervisor that his direct supervisor was biased against him because of his race. He’d also “observed from early on that his supervisors viewed him only as a minority quota-filler.”
Kenchi started at Hanes in April of 2007 and was terminated on August 22, 2008. Though he’d recently had a good overall review, he’d been put on a “trajectory of improvement” that he knew signified an impending termination. In addition, he’d been told by a boss that HR could not be trusted, and led to believe that there would be repercussions for going to them.
Despite the strong suspicion that he was going to be let go, “he was trying to work through it and find another job,” Boyd tells us…until a computer technician showed up to do some email maintenance on his boss’s computer terminal — they shared an office — and he happened to see flashes of text on her screen, including an email referring to himself in a particularly derogatory way, from his boss to her supervisor. He forwarded it to himself.
The day after the “n-word email” came through, the company held an anti-sexual harassment and discrimination training.
Three days after the email was intercepted, Kenchi was fired.
Following the email being sent, the sender and recipient apparently discussed it without knowing Kenchi had seen it, and agreed to delete it and fire him. The sender told the recipient “thank you for understanding,” said Boyd.
Meanwhile, Hanes, which Boyd contacted with evidence of the email, is denying wrongdoing, but does not deny the email; in fact, they fired its sender, Boyd told us. He added, “In my career of some 13 years I’ve never had better evidence of discrimination… The subject line is his name. The email is sent from a Hanes email address. There’s documentation that [the two parties ] met afterward, and that [the emailer] was fired about four months after notice of the email. I look forward to the opportunity to try the case in court if the circumstances permit.”
Kenchi, who now has another job, is seeking “a meaningful apology from Hanes” and unspecified compensation from the company “in excess of $1 million.” Boyd is also thinking about amending the complaint, originally filed in March of 2010, to reflect that the company knew about and tried to cover up the email until they heard from the law firm.
Beyond that, there’s a principle at stake, says Boyd. “A company this large, dealing with a diverse community, is not taking responsibility. [The emailer] was a designer for the Michael Jordan line of clothing for many years! It goes to show you that even companies with prominent African American spokespeople can have racist elements at a high level.”
Hanes has responded with this statement:
Hanesbrands Inc. is proud of its diverse worldwide workforce and does not tolerate discriminatory behavior. After allegations emerged of improper conduct in the termination of Mr. Kenchi, Hanesbrands conducted a thorough investigation and found evidence of an offensive attitude and use of language that is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. We sincerely regret that the situation arose and are troubled that Mr. Kenchi’s termination process may have been tainted by unacceptable attitudes. In lieu of these findings, Hanesbrands took decisive disciplinary steps, including the termination of a supervisor, and made Mr. Kenchi an unconditional offer of employment to return to the company.
Again, we’ll update as things proceed.