A consultant hired by Turner Broadcasting System recommended candidates for hiring and promotion based on a concept called “cultural DNA” driven in part by the consulting firm founder’s bias against Latin Americans, according to a lawsuit filed in Atlanta federal court by a former Turner executive.
Gretchen Colon, a Latin American U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico, who until February was Turner’s executive vice president of Latin American sales—alleges in her complaint that Turner consultant Gurnek Bains maintained databases of personal assessments he has made, which he drew upon in evaluating candidates for corporate posts. To the extent that Bains’ assessments are based on ethnicity and cultural stereotypes, they violate federal civil rights laws, Colon’s suit contends.
Bains is co-founder and until December 2016 was chairman of business psychology consulting firms YSC (Americas) Inc. and Young Samuel Chambers Limited, the defendants in Colon’s suit. He is also author of the 2015 book “Cultural DNA.”
Colon’s suit—filed by her attorneys Thomas Munger and Ben Stone of Atlanta’s Munger & Stone—asserts that Bains’ personal and professional assessment of her at the behest of Turner International president Gerhard Zeiler cost her a 20-year career at Turner. Colon had sought a promotion to president of Turner Latin America and, according to the suit, had been recommended by its then-president, Juan Carlos Urdaneta, who stepped down last December. Instead, the job went to a white male, Colon said. Zeiler then fired her, effective May 31. She is now unemployed. Atlanta-based Turner is not a defendant in the civil suit because Colon and Turner are in arbitration over her claims, Munger said. He declined to comment further on the lawsuit, saying he prefers to let the complaint “tell the story.”
Turner spokesman Michael Marinello said Thursday that Turner has no formal or ongoing relationship with YSC. “It was consulted in this matter but is not regularly used by Turner. YSC is a well-known, worldwide consulting firm whose clients include Discovery Communications, Thomson Reuters and the BBC. Turner management had no prior knowledge of the contents of Bains’ book.”
Speaking for Turner and its management, including Zeiler, Marinello emphasized, “Turner neither adopts Bains’ theses nor believes they are scientifically based.” Bains, according to the suit, has compiled databases organized by ethnic group, two of which are Latin Americans and sub-Saharan Africans. He then uses those self-contained databases to “draw conclusions about the ‘predilections’ and psychological attributes of those ethnic groups for employers to read, consider and utilize in employment decisions,” the suit contends.
Colon’s suit claims that in “Cultural DNA,” Bains “publicly asserts that employers should consider the ethnic group identity in making decisions because each group has a distinct ‘cultural DNA’ that is shaped by its unique gene pool, a ‘deep-rooted history’ and ‘historical predilections.’”
According to the suit, Bains also suggests “that Latin Americans have a ‘very high level’ of a certain gene allele [a form of mutation] that makes them ‘likely hardwired’ to be more independent-minded, rebellious, and hyperactive.” In his book, Bains also suggests that Latin Americans “are ‘people who like to have their say,’ have a leadership ‘style’ that is ‘far less likely to produce results’ and ‘are difficult to get really close to on an interpersonal level,’” the suit contends.
Bains, according to the suit, is a social psychologist, not a geneticist or a historian.
YSC attorney Daniel Schwartz of Day Pitneyc said Colon’s allegations “completely distort both YSC’s role in Turner’s decision-making process and the meaning of … “Cultural DNA.” The lawsuit, he continued, “falsely portrays Dr. Bains and his book,” which, the lawyer said, “does not support or encourage stereotyping or discrimination. It does exactly the opposite.”
“YSC’s assessment of Ms. Colon was based on a lengthy interview of her and her responses to a number of evaluative questions. It was an individualized assessment and it was not based on her race, ethnicity or gender.”
Schwartz also contended that YSC’s assessment of Ms. Colon “was positive. It noted that she would be a ‘sound candidate’ for the position of President of the Latin American Division.”
The assessment, he added, was just one data point in Turner’s decision-making process. “While YSC was not privy to and did not participate in Turner’s decision-making process, Turner presumably utilized considerable information that was entirely separate from YSC’s assessments. … Contrary to Ms. Colon’s allegation in her lawsuit, it simply is not credible to believe that Turner made the promotion decision at issue based solely on an interview of each candidate conducted by an outside consultant.”
The suit claims that Zeiler adopted Bains’ cultural paradigm, which included Bains’ supposed assessment that white Americans of European descent, including the executive who got the job instead of Colon, were “positive, action oriented, goal focused and more prepared to embrace disjunctive change than people from just about any other part of the world.”
The suit also alleges that Zeiler had “a long and close connection” to Bains. In speaking with Colon about the desired promotion, the complaint said Zeiler showed Colon a copy of “Cultural DNA” while allegedly praising the book and telling her the important role Bains would play in the promotion decision.
After an extensive interview, Bains informed Colon that his rating of her was not in comparison to her corporate colleagues but, instead, was derived from his Latin American ethnic database, comprised mostly of professionals drawn from banking and related financial professions.
Bains subsequently rated Colon so negatively that his report “was effectively a decision that Colon should not be placed in the position,” the suit said.
“In describing Colon, Bains uses the words ‘passion,’ ‘emotionally,’ ‘instinctive,’ ‘intuition’ or ‘emotions’ eleven times,” the suit contends. “He wrote that, while she is ‘people oriented,’ she needs to ‘manage her innate tendencies’ and she needs ‘to ensure that her emotions do not cloud her thinking around both business options and people.’ He wrote that Colon’s ‘feelings can influence her behaviour and decision making to a large extent.’”
“These descriptions,” the suit concludes, “essentially come straight from defendants’ views of Latin Americans in ‘Cultural DNA.’” Bains’ assessment, based on his theory of “cultural DNA,” according to the suit, allowed Turner and YSC to assert that naming a white male as president of its Latin American operations instead of Colon “is not really discrimination because Latins simply cannot match up to Americans in leadership because of the badges of their ethnic genes and history.”
Schwartz defended “Cultural DNA,” saying it is “based on data gathered over the past 50 years by a variety of well-respected researchers.”
While the book “includes a few references to historical facts in a variety of global cultures (including America, India, China and Europe), it focuses on the importance of respecting people from different cultures and understanding how to develop more effective workforces in global organizations.”
Each section of the book, he said, “discusses both positive and negative qualities associated with different cultures.”
That includes Latin American society, that Schwartz said Bains noted for “resourcefulness, flexibility, and creativity,” and Latin American executives who, according to the book, “had strengths in being engaging, likeable, and building relationships easily.”
Schwartz said that Bains also explained in “Cultural DNA,” “One should not judge individuals lazily with reference to the themes that are relevant to their culture. Each person is different and understanding broad cultural patterns can never be a shortcut to understanding particular people.”