Homebuilder's treatment of sales agents is probed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Ryland Group Inc. -- the nation's third-largest homebuilder -- is being investigated by Howard County's Office of Human Rights as the result of allegations that it discriminated in the hiring and assignment of black sales representatives.

The examination of the company's treatment of black sales agents in Howard and Harford counties was sparked by federal racial discrimination complaints filed by two fired employees who had been assigned to Ryland's Columbia sales office. The probe also includes queries about some aspects of the company's operations throughout its Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Maryland and three other states.

"What appears to be the Ryland formula is a return to that old belief that a black customer is more likely to buy from a black salesperson," said John London Clark Jr., the Columbia attorney representing the two employees. "And even more so for them is that a white customer probably will not buy from a black salesperson."

A Ryland spokeswoman denied last week that its hiring and promotion decisions are based on anything other than performance and merit, but said the company's personnel policies prohibited her from commenting on the specifics of either complaint.

Company defends policies

"We strongly support equal opportunity employment, equal opportunity hiring and equal opportunity lending," said Anne Madison, Ryland's vice president for communications.

Hiring and promotion decisions are "done without any bias or concern for the demographic makeup of the community or the demographic makeup of the sales representatives," she said.

The two separate complaints against the Columbia-based homebuilder were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last fall by former Ryland sales representatives O'Dell Lewis and Joan Thompson-Hill. Both left Ryland in October.

Other allegations

In addition to their broad allegations about Ryland's assigning and hiring practices, both Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Thompson-Hill charge that the company unfairly singled them out for poor sales performances -- while other white sales representatives with worse records were not fired.

Mr. Lewis also alleges that he was harassed by a white supervisor -- who no longer works for Ryland. He also has a claim pending with the state Workers' Compensation Commission for work-related stress.

The pair's complaints are being investigated by Howard's Office of Human Rights, which probes about 75 complaints a year. In this case, the Howard office is doing the investigation -- instead of the EEOC -- because of a work-sharing arrangement.

Under that partnership, complaints filed with the federal agency also are filed automatically with the local office. Complaints typically are investigated by the first office to receive them. But a recent backlog of cases at the EEOC has forced the county to take on more of the workload, said James E. Henson Sr., the administrator of the county office.

Citing confidentiality laws, neither Mr. Henson nor the EEOC would confirm the county's investigation of Ryland or the existence of the complaints.

But copies of the complaints and follow-up letters from the Howard Office of Human Rights and one of its investigators -- all provided by Mr. Clark, the former sales agents' attorney -- indicate that an investigation is under way.

Investigation's scope

The letters show that the discrimination investigation covers the specific situations of Mr. Lewis, 50, of Columbia and Mrs. Thompson-Hill, 34, of Woodlawn, and some of the broader allegations they make.

A county investigator has requested specific information on the company's sales offices in Howard and Harford counties and also general data on the entire Mid-Atlantic region, according to copies of letter sent to Ryland by the Office of Human Rights.

A decision on whether there is reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred likely will be made by the Office of Human Rights this spring, Mr. Clark said.

Such a finding would permit Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Thompson-Hill to request either hearings before Howard's Human Rights Commission or "right to sue" letters from the EEOC that would allow them to take their claims to federal court, Mr. Clark said.

While their situations differed, both charge that they were fired .. while white employees with worse sales performances were retained.

Mr. Lewis charges that for almost all the time he was selling homes, beginning September 1993, Ryland assigned him to lower-priced developments in Randallstown that "primarily attracted black customers."

'Harder in poorer areas'

"It's a lot harder in poorer areas, because the buyers tend to have credit problems. Sales representatives also receive lower commissions because the homes are lower-priced, and we work on a percentage basis," Mr. Lewis said.

Ms. Madison, the Ryland spokeswoman, denied that any of Ryland's developments could be labeled as catering primarily to black or white customers. She said the company does not collect any information on the race of its buyers.

Mrs. Thompson-Hill also claims that black sales agents were assigned to lower-priced developments, but she acknowledges that her last assignment was an exception to this alleged pattern. She said she believes she became Ryland's first black sales agent to be assigned to sell homes in an upscale project when she was assigned in 1993 to Pointers Run, a Clarksville development where the homes ranged in price from $200,000 to $450,000.

Both Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Thompson-Hill called Ryland's general hiring practices "unfair," pointing to what they say are only a handful of blacks in the sales staff and management in the Baltimore area.

Columbia 'better'

They say that the staffing pattern at Ryland's office in Columbia also was discriminatory but better than at the company's other offices.

During much of 1994, they say, there were three black sales representatives -- including the two of them -- on Ryland's 14-member sales staff based at the Columbia office.

"In Columbia, it is more of a melting pot and there was a black sales manager for a while, so it was easier for a few blacks to be hired. In the other divisions, there are no blacks or just one," Mrs. Thompson-Hill said. "I believe that the lack of minorities is a result of Ryland's hiring practices."

While denying the pair's allegations of unfair hiring practices, Ms. Madison said Ryland's personnel policy prevents her from releasing statistics on the percentage of minorities in the company's offices.

Company honored

As evidence of the company's commitment to diversity, Ms. Madison cited an award given to Ryland last spring by Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. -- an area fair-housing group -- recognizing the company for its use of minorities in its real-estate advertising.

In their complaints, Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Thompson-Hill allege that they were given notices in September 1994 instructing them that because they were not meeting their quotas, they would be fired -- unless they sold three new homes in the next 30 days. Neither met the demand. The standard Ryland quota is two new home sales per month, they say.

Five white sales representatives ranked lower than Mrs. Thompson-Hill in new home sales but were not given such notices, she said in her complaint.

"The white sales representatives are not being held to the same standards as the black sales representatives," she wrote. "I believe the sole reason they are requiring me [to] make three sales solely in Pointers Run is because I am black."

Neither complaint seeks a specific course of action from Ryland.

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