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Cancer center’s DEI program promoted anti-White agenda, lawsuit alleges

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Dive Brief:

  • A clinical social worker sued a Seattle-based cancer center for allegedly discriminating and retaliating against her because she is White, Jewish and politically conservative — and because she objected to the facility’s diversity, equity and inclusion program, which she claimed considered Whites as “oppressor[s] of disadvantaged segments of society” and promoted race-based and progressive politics.
  • Per the Jan. 16 complaint in Weitzman v. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, the social worker was employed by Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (which subsequently merged with Fred Hutchinson). The lawsuit alleged that SCCA decided to “re-educate” employees on “White privilege” and targeted the social worker for being White and having different views. For example, after sharing that she could understand racial discrimination because of her experiences with antisemitism, she was allegedly dismissed from a DEI meeting and told that because she is White, she “could pass.” Prior to this, when she reported being called a racial slur and a Jewish epithet, SCCA required her to attend a racial sensitivity course but didn’t discipline the offending employees, according to the lawsuit.
  • In addition, the DEI supervisor allegedly emailed employees articles with specific political goals, including one in January 2021 that made offensive assumptions about Jewish people and pushed readers to use their “skills and influence to resist the upcoming Trump administration.” The social worker informed the DEI supervisor she had family who supported Trump and wished that politics could stay out of the discussions, the lawsuit alleged. In an email response, also sent to HR personnel, the DEI supervisor insisted the social worker had to agree with her views to be effective at the job, according to the complaint. Shortly thereafter, the social worker was told she was being terminated for having values incompatible with the SCCA’s, the complaint said.

Dive Insight:

The social worker later sued the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center for violating federal, state and local laws, including for race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for political affiliation discrimination under the Washington Law Against Discrimination. Other than her “unwillingness to push ‘woke’ identity politics,” SCCA gave no other basis for terminating the social worker, the lawsuit alleged. FHCC did not respond to a request for a comment prior to press time.

Two years ago, as the DEI backlash was beginning, a talent management expert offered prescient words for employers: DEI leaders should involve the widest breadth of people in discussions about politics and practices — including those who belong to the majority, the expert told HR Dive. Equity is about all people, and they, too, must be invited to the table, he said.

In the face of widespread pushback, some organizations may be tempted to scrap DEI training entirely, but doing so poses its own risks, an attorney explained to HR Dive in 2022. Making sure all employees feel valued for who they are can decrease turnover, increase productivity and reduce the risk of getting sued, the attorney said.

The attorney added that instead of focusing on specific protected classes like race and gender, DEI training might include talking about how everyone’s life story brings value to the organization and how groups are stronger if they welcome different backgrounds and viewpoints.

As of the start of 2024, most business leaders remain committed to DEI efforts: 57% of executives surveyed by the Littler law firm said they’ve expanded their commitments over the past year, according to a Jan. 16 report.

Execs acknowledge that handling politically divisive topics at work is a challenge, the report found. But rather than eliminating DEI initiatives, business leaders are demonstrating that DEI principles are part of their organization’s core values and auditing and assessing these initiatives, a Littler attorney said.

One standout trend — data-driven DEI — should catapult accountability and change, a chief people officer recently told HR Dive. For example, a strong data-gathering process can help front-line managers see factual patterns that impact outcomes on belonging, such as which employees get invited to meetings or are called on for certain projects, the CPO said.

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