At American Express, Some Workers Question the Culture, Too - TheStreet

Diversity isn't a hollow word at

American Express Financial Advisors

. Of its planner recruits last year, 20% were minorities. Three of the company's six senior vice presidents are women. In the field, the firm goes out of its way to appeal to ethnic minorities and gay and lesbian investors.

To hear some female advisers tell it, though, the company isn't as progressive as it's made out to be. They have filed complaints with the courts and federal employment officials that they have been belittled, bullied and harassed on the job. All of the accusations are pending.

American Express has rejected the allegations as groundless and is seeking to dismiss them.

In Buffalo, N.Y., a veteran adviser charges that a superior who was trying to get her to quit threw paper airplanes at her during meetings. Four Minneapolis-area women say they gave up trying to launch American Express careers because of favoritism toward young white males. A black adviser in Illinois says the company gave white advisers better client leads and then fired her over performance issues.

"Contrary to an image that American Express would like to project, my sense is that it's the Wild, Wild West out there," says Susan Stokes, attorney for the Minnesota women. They have filed a discrimination and harassment complaint with the EEOC, seeking permission to file a class-action lawsuit against the company.

American Express says the complaints, which it believes will be rejected, don't comport with the firm's track record.

"This is a very welcoming place to work," spokesman Tom Joyce says. "American Express has long been recognized as a rewarding workplace for women, minorities and older people."

But discontent in the ranks is nothing new at the firm. In 1992, the company, then known as

IDS Financial Services

, paid $35 million to settle an age-discrimination case brought in federal court by 32 former division managers and the

EEOC

, although it denied that it engaged in any improper activity. And in recent controversial defections, key male advisers with hefty client portfolios left the firm, unhappy over compensation and company products.

The American Express Advantage

The women's cases center on the argument that the company gives men, particularly young white males, more advantages in finding clients and getting ahead. Top management has been told of the alleged discrimination but does nothing about it, the women say.

Shirley Krieger, a 13-year American Express veteran, said in a 1998 federal court lawsuit that her superiors engaged in a long-running effort to get rid of her as too old, even though she says she had rescued the Buffalo office from the doldrums as district manager.

She says superiors took her clients away, demoted her and harassed her. When she complained about the company's failure to recognize her contributions by promoting her, a division vice president, George Lurz, "told me I was 'too old to begin thinking about advancing in management.' "

Krieger says management also targeted her because she suffers disabilities, including a sleep disorder and carpal tunnel syndrome. According to Krieger, Lurz's son, Mark, her immediate supervisor, occasionally stood outside her door to demand that she finish meetings quickly.

Once, he tossed in a paper airplane containing a message to cut things off. She also says he followed her to the bathroom to remind her that she had work to do. Others also harassed her, she says. While on a dinner outing once during training, she says, several colleagues made vulgar remarks about women. According to Krieger, one colleague joked, "I've got a rocket in my pocket and it's looking for a socket."

George Lurz, now retired, couldn't be reached for comment. Mark Lurz didn't return telephone calls. American Express denies any wrongdoing.

Frat-House Atmosphere?

Lois Wisocky and Shelly Kosen, two of the four women involved in the Minnesota case, say they found themselves as American Express trainees in 1997 and 1998 in the middle of a fraternity-house atmosphere in which the women were belittled while the men organized paintball tournaments and beer outings.

Wisocky, who joined the firm out of college, says the big blow for her came when her district manager, Gregory Thurin, allegedly changed performance rules so that a male colleague could get a promotion she sought. According to Wisocky, she and the colleague finished with an identical number of points under an evaluation system, but Thurin allegedly told her she needed to meet a higher threshold to get the job.

Wisocky says the firm also dealt lightly with a male colleague who badgered her repeatedly about her personal life. The adviser, whom she declined to name, was originally transferred but then brought back. He resumed the harassment, she says.

Kosen, a lawyer, alleges that Thurin helped young males in the office by favoring them with unassigned accounts. When she complained about this and similar practices, she says, she was ordered to stand in front of other trainees and read a dictum about the fruits of collective behavior.

"The context was, don't make complaints, don't stir the pot," Kosen says.

The company denies the charges and has asked that they be dismissed. Thurin declined to comment, citing the pending case.

Similar charges have been brought to the EEOC by two New Jersey advisers. One of them, Liz Bradler, said her unidentified district manager assigned her 10 accounts but gave 200 to an allegedly lesser-qualified male adviser.

The district manager also allegedly told the other adviser, Eleni Kulinski: "You will not make it in this business because you are a woman. Women would rather stay home and have a man take care of them."

In another case, Thelma Bonds, a fired adviser from Decatur, Ill., who is black, said in a federal lawsuit filed in November that during her seven months as a trainee, the company imposed training and other requirements not asked of whites and that it reduced her client leads.

"My performance was, in fact, comparable to white" advisers, she says. Bonds seeks $675,000 in damages.

American Express declines to discuss each case in detail, citing pending litigation, but says it believes it will overcome all of the complaints. "In each case, we have a strong defense and we think our position will be validated," says Joyce.