Longtime BMW temp files racism, sexism complaint with EEOC: 'Enough was enough'

Company says it is investigating situation

Michelle Savoy was put on paid leave as a Mini market coordinator.

BMW of North America says it is investigating claims of racism and sexism in its Mini division after a decadelong temporary worker lodged a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint also says the company retaliated against her illegally, after she asked about becoming a permanent employee.

Michelle Savoy, a regional market coordinator for Mini's central region in Illinois, said she has carried a substantial workload as a temp for 10 years. Until she was put on paid leave in mid-April, her duties included coordinating auto-show logistics, accounting, event planning and dealer communications, she said. As part of those duties, she regularly solicited contracts on behalf of the organization, created and issued legally binding vendor purchase orders, ​ handled a company credit card and assisted with employee onboarding.

When Savoy spoke with a manager about her temp status in September and raised concerns that much of the company's employee diversity was clustered within its contingent work force, she said he responded by cutting her hours, reducing job responsibilities and making sudden allegations — which he later recanted — about her committing time-card fraud.

Savoy, who is African-American, said she had been highly praised during her tenure, including by the manager who allegedly retaliated against her. He had said in the past that she was the brain of the operation, and that he wouldn't stand a chance without her, she said. The manager couldn't be reached for comment.

Investigating

Savoy said she had never been promoted, even though several managers over the years said they would work to make her a permanent employee. In a letter to BMW's corporate counsel and staffing agency, Pinnacle Group in Dallas, which has been her employer during her time in Mini's offices, Savoy's attorney wrote that the reasons for not hiring her are easily discerned when looking at BMW North America's organizational chart: It's made up almost exclusively of white men, while most of the minorities and women are temps.

Going further, Savoy said she has had to contend with a toxic work culture in which management discussed lewd topics and used insensitive language around her and her co-workers.

Automotive News obtained a copy of the letter her attorney sent to BMW and the complaint filed with the EEOC.

The automaker says it's aware of the situation and is looking into it.

"It is our normal policy not to discuss any pending investigation or litigation. BMW of North America does not tolerate any discriminatory treatment of workers within the workplace and takes any such allegations seriously," a spokesman wrote in an email to Automotive News. "The company is aware of these allegations and has initiated an investigation looking into these matters further."

Savoy's staffing agency, meanwhile, has enlisted a third party to investigate. The investigator has been in touch with Savoy and her attorney, but Pinnacle declined to comment for this report.

In November, Savoy filed a complaint with the EEOC's Chicago office against BMW and Pinnacle, which her attorney said "participated in, enabled or ignored BMW's conduct." In that complaint, Savoy said she was discriminated against because of her gender and race, and in retaliation for engaging in protected activities, including complaining about her temp status to her manager, and specifying that her status and treatment differed from those of other coordinators who were permanent employees.

If a resolution cannot be reached, Savoy could request a right to sue from the EEOC and file a federal discrimination complaint against BMW and Pinnacle, said her attorney, Jeff Rosenberg, a partner with O'Halloran Kosoff Geitner & Cook in suburban Chicago.

An EEOC spokesman said possible charges made to the commission are confidential under federal law. The commission is prohibited from commenting on them or even confirming or denying their existence.

Minorities

Savoy is seeking compensation that includes losses related to lost wages, emotional distress and anxiety.

Rosenberg pointed to a potential cultural issue within the company. When Savoy asked her manager — a white man — why her peers with the same titles and similar duties were permanent employees while she was a temp, Rosenberg said, he allegedly responded, "Well, that's how the Germans operate."

While Savoy awaited a promotion to permanent status, she watched as BMW used two full-time openings to hire two white men — in 2015 and 2017 — instead of her. They were new hires from outside, Rosenberg wrote in the letter to BMW.

"I think the bigger problem is that the bulk of the minority employees at BMW" are temps, Rosenberg told Automotive News. "That's where they all come from. That's where they all tend to stay," he said. "If you look at the nontemp workers, it's many less minorities involved there."

Savoy said temps carry workloads equal to those of the permanent staffers, adding she is one of three market coordinators in the central region. The other two are permanent employees and white.

She said BMW should accept the fact that its staffing processes need to change because those processes are having a disparate impact on women and people of color.

"I have to take a stand," Savoy told Automotive News. "Things don't change unless you demand that they change."

Offensive

Rosenberg's letter cited several instances of inappropriate conduct and comments that Savoy found offensive by two individuals: the regional business manager at Mini who allegedly retaliated against Savoy and, earlier, a senior executive who was responsible for BMW and Mini sales in 14 states.

For example, shortly after the business manager was hired, Savoy was in his office training him on budget operations. He asked about her age, if she was married, how many children she had — and if they all had the same father.

This manager used coarse language around Savoy and her team during weekly conference calls and sometimes during interviews on a routine basis, Savoy said, including such terms and phrases as "bitch," "dick," and "down ass ho." Savoy said he openly stated to people that he is an "HR nightmare."

On Sept. 29, 2016, Savoy responded to a query from that manager asking if she was dissatisfied about anything, according to the letter. She didn't hold back.

She noted that a large number of women and minorities were limited to contingent roles and excluded from leadership posts, Rosenberg wrote in the letter to BMW. She added that she hadn't been hired as a permanent employee even though she excelled in the role for nearly a decade, and that during that time multiple managers said they would seek to make her a permanent staffer.

Retaliation

The retaliation began the next day, Rosenberg's letter said.

The manager, who had never before raised any issues about Savoy's hours, told her she now would work 29 to 32 hours per week instead of 36 to 40 hours. He said it wasn't a budgetary concern, saying only that she should not do any work outside of her normal workday even though the temp-help budgets were approved and funded for 40 hours.

The manager also insisted on Sept. 30 that Savoy sign a temporary work contract, which was unnecessary for her because that contract was put in place in 2014, which was years after she started, and already-employed contingent staffers were grandfathered in. At least three other white female temps from Pinnacle said they have never been asked to sign temporary worker agreements, Rosenberg wrote.

On Oct. 24, the manager began reassigning Savoy's duties. He tried to give Savoy's auto-show management responsibilities to a new ad agency representative from Mini's agency, Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners. But, Rosenberg wrote, Savoy ended up having to handle these tasks because the agency rep had no experience doing them.

On the same day, he tried to give Savoy's fleet-management duties to an employee in another department in the central region. That employee left the company in November, so Savoy regained those responsibilities, the letter said.

By Nov. 2, Savoy said "enough was enough" and filed a complaint with the EEOC. She continued to work until being informed by Pinnacle that she was being placed on a paid leave of absence while it had a third party investigate.

Savoy said she was put on leave a day after sending an email to BMW's human resources head and legal counsel along with Pinnacle's legal counsel stating that her manager's behavior was discriminatory, retaliatory and violating her rights.

On April 18, Savoy's manager said during a conference call to the Mini team that she was on a "much-needed vacation and not to disturb her," Rosenberg wrote.

'Chitlin circuit'

Incidents with the other executive occurred years earlier, Rosenberg's letter said.

In 2011, after a regional operations meeting at the Peninsula Chicago hotel, the executive had the return limousine rides for Savoy and another female temp worker canceled. He said that "limos are for people like me, not secretaries." Savoy and her co-worker, who is Hispanic, reported the incident to the staffing agency, which said it would look into it but never followed up, Rosenberg wrote.

In another instance cited in the letter, the senior executive was attending a multicultural fundraising event on the South Side of Chicago when, Savoy said, he turned to a black employee and asked, "What is this, the chitlin circuit?"

Savoy's former co-worker, whose limo ride with Savoy was canceled in Chicago, told Automotive News this executive once asked her if she wanted to be spanked. She mentioned the incident to a manager who contacted BMW's human resources division. She said human resources then contacted her and suggested that she leave the company if she was having problems.

Her work was criticized soon after and she was accused of time-card fraud — as Savoy would later be. She thought this was strange because her supervisor approved her time cards every week.

This co-worker, who asked not to be named, told Pinnacle about the alleged sexual harassment by the senior executive. She was terminated in April 2013 after the statute of limitations had passed for her to file a formal complaint with EEOC, Rosenberg wrote.

Savoy's co-worker said the executive also made racially discriminatory remarks about her Mexican heritage. She said the office wasn't a comfortable place to work at times, citing the consistent use of profanity as one reason.

"It's an office of men, so you always hear them cursing," Savoy's former co-worker told Automotive News. "Each one had to show how much bigger he was than the other. You would hear them on the phone [and] the language they used."

Opening

In 2013, Savoy's then-manager, who was black, said he had found a full-time position for her. But the senior executive told him that the opening would have to go to the manager of certified pre-owned operations. The CPO manager's role was being eliminated, but he wasn't ready to retire, Rosenberg wrote in the BMW letter. The senior executive said the company had to "take care" of him.

The senior executive later transferred to an overseas post. BMW said the executive would be unable to comment on open litigation. Attempts to reach him directly were unsuccessful.

You can reach Vince Bond Jr. at vbond@crain.com -- Follow Vince on Twitter: @VinceBond86

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