Agency: Kalispell Company Discriminated Against Employee Due to Race

Montana Human Rights Bureau found reasonable cause of discrimination by local TeleTech firm

By Tristan Scott

Updated: April 27, 3:30 p.m.

The Montana Human Rights Bureau has found reasonable cause that a Kalispell call center unlawfully retaliated against a black employee after she complained of racist remarks by coworkers, including a colleague’s suggestion that her grandchildren could work on another colleague’s property as “slaves” on a “plantation,” according to an investigative report by the state agency.

The company, TeleTech Services Corp., which opened a firm in Kalispell in 2004 and employs around 350 people locally, denied the allegations in its August 2016 response to the complaint, filed with the bureau in June.

The complaint alleges violations of the Montana Human Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and alleges that the employee, Kiondra Bullock, was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her race.

In an affidavit to her complaint with the bureau, a subdivision of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, Bullock says the company retaliated against her after she reported the racist remarks to her supervisor.

In its response to Bullock’s complaint, TeleTech said Bullock’s on-the-job performance was poor and her demeanor unprofessional, despite positive performance reviews awarding Bullock high scores prior to the incident. A prompt internal investigation determined that the offending comments by the colleague, Alex Goodnight, had been misconstrued, according to TeleTech’s response.

“The investigation revealed that although Mr. Goodnight’s comment was inappropriate for the workplace and one that TeleTech does not condone, it was not racially motivated,” the response states.

According to the bureau’s investigative report, on April 11, 2016 Bullock and a coworker were discussing a property the coworker had recently purchased when Goodnight walked by and commented, “With all that acreage you could start a plantation and bring back slavery and [Bullock’s] grandchildren could be the first slaves.”

The company’s response states that Goodnight attempted to explain to Bullock that his comment was meant as a joke about child labor, “not racially based slave labor.”

“Mr. Goodnight apologized and noted how his comment could have been misinterpreted,” the response continues. “The investigation also revealed that although Ms. Bullock took offense to the comment, which TeleTech understands and respects, she unnecessarily escalated the situation by repeatedly yelling at the employees so loud that it disrupted the entire building. This behavior is not appropriate for a company leader.”

Hired at TeleTech in January 2015, Bullock served in a managerial role overseeing between 14 and 20 employees, according to the company’s response.

On May 16, Bullock was issued a final written warning for her unprofessional response to Goodnight’s comment the month before. Bullock said while Goodnight was never disciplined, she was written up for her response to Goodnight’s “race-based comment.”

In January, Human Rights Bureau Investigator Tam Newby determined Bullock’s complaint was credible and the case will now move to a contested hearing before the bureau’s Office of Administrative Hearings.

Bullock’s attorney, Nate McConnell of Missoula, said there was not yet a date set for the hearing.

In the company’s preliminary pre-hearing statement, attorneys Joshua B. Kirkpatrick and Michelle L. Gomez, of Denver, seek to have the complaint dismissed with prejudice.

In the final investigative report, Newby also found there was credible evidence to suggest the final warning was a pretext for unlawful retaliation by TeleTech against Bullock for her “complaining about race discrimination.”

On June 6, 2016, Bullock resigned from TeleTech, which bills itself as an equal opportunity employer.

“Please be assured that at no time was Ms. Bullock subject to discriminatory, retaliatory, or otherwise unlawful practices,” the company wrote in its response to Bullock’s complaint. “Furthermore, TeleTech stands by its legitimate business decisions, and Ms. Bullock ultimately voluntary resigned from employment. TeleTech requests that MHRB dismiss the charge.”

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