The Black Ceiling

An African-American Target employee's lawsuit alleges that Dayton Hudson set him up for failure

Ever since he turned 20, Lawrence McNutt has been single-minded about his career ambition to manage a Target department store. The big, affable 36-year-old spent years working toward that goal: He enrolled in college, studied business management, and graduated with a bachelor's degree--all while holding down various jobs at the Target store on West Broadway in North Minneapolis. He did what his bosses asked of him, McNutt asserts, and believed he was right on track to climb the company ladder into an executive position. "I thought," he says, "that I'd be rewarded."

On May 30, after 15 years as an employee, McNutt filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court alleging that his employers at Target Stores, Inc. and its parent company, Minneapolis-based Dayton Hudson Corporation, practiced a pattern of discrimination against him by refusing to promote him because he is black. The suit, which seeks damages in excess of $800,000, also claims that Target management kept him assigned for years to the least profitable store in the metro area--a site referred to among workers, according to one company veteran, as "Tar-ghetto."

There, McNutt said last week at the office of his attorney, Jordan Kushner, he held little hope of advancing because of the store's low sales, on which employees' performance is in part rated and managers' pay based. In addition, the suit charges that after McNutt filed claims with the Minneapolis office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 1996 and 1997, his employer retaliated by assigning him to less auspicious jobs. Dayton Hudson's refusal to recommend McNutt for executive ranking, the complaint continues, came despite more than a decade of positive annual evaluations and "numerous letters of praise... from higher managers within the company--including the CEO."

Between 1983, when he first hired on as a cart attendant, and 1990, McNutt received a series of advancements from customer-service manager to assistant store manager at the North Minneapolis store. In 1990, according to the complaint, he was transferred to a more profitable site in Bloomington, where he served as an area manager. The following year he was stationed as "world manager" at a Target Greatland in suburban Plymouth, only to find himself shuttled back to North Minneapolis in a matter of months. At the time, the suit alleges, McNutt was "specifically told by Target management that he was being transferred because of demographics--the North Minneapolis store is in an African- American neighborhood" and, in turn, served a primarily black customer base.

"They told me, 'We need you to do this,'" he recalls. "I was not at a point in my career at that time to say no." His position as customer-service manager, McNutt points out, called for extensive interaction with customers and community leaders--suggesting that Target higher-ups may have found it in the company's best interest to situate an ambitious, articulate black employee in a high-profile role at the store. The suit goes on to contend that "he was therefore placed in a position with less career opportunity because of his race."

Between 1992 and 1995 McNutt made repeated requests for a transfer from the North Minneapolis store, arguing that his situation left him "isolated from all mechanisms designed to prepare executives for promotion" and that his salary, based in part on store sales, was limited by the fact that the Target where he worked showed the worst financial performance of any in the Twin Cities. In 1995 he was again transferred, this time to the position of assistant store team leader at a Target in Brooklyn Center. By then McNutt was in his mid-30s--an age, he notes, well beyond that of most first-time Target executives--and had been branded as a problem employee with little to recommend him for future advancement. As McNutt's attorney puts it, his client had hit the company's "black ceiling."

Dayton Hudson chief counsel James Hale declined to comment for this story, but company spokeswoman Susan Eich says she expects a quick end to McNutt's grievances. "There is no discrimination in the denial of his promotion," she asserts. "It's certainly disappointing not to receive the position you're seeking, but it does not automatically mean that's a case of discrimination." Eich argues that after McNutt filed complaints with the human rights department and the EEOC, he was offered chances to advance professionally when the company presented him with a formal "action plan" meant to prepare him for promotion interviews with upper management--a move, she suggests, that demonstrated Target's willingness to consider McNutt for more influential positions within the company. She goes on to stress that Dayton Hudson holds a strong track record when it comes to diversity hiring: According to statistics compiled by the company, 26 percent of its more than 165,000 workers nationwide are minorities, as are 12 percent of its managers (just 2 percent less than the retail industry average across the U.S.).

Still, Dayton Hudson has had problems with regard to race. In the mid-1980s, former Twin Cities Target manager Leon Rice, who is black, sued Target in U.S. District Court, charging that he had been discriminated against. According to his attorney Dan Shulman, Rice alleged he had been denied promotion and fired from the company because of his race. His case went to trial, where U.S. Magistrate Janice Symczych ruled in Rice's favor on the promotion allegations but awarded him no monetary damages; the decision also found that his dismissal was not motivated by racial discrimination. Shortly thereafter, Shulman says, his client and Target reached a cash settlement. The terms are confidential, but Rice, now a board member of the Minneapolis Initiative Against Racism, says he received a "six-figure sum" from his former employer.

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