A lesson for corporate executives


WASHINGTON -- I tip my cap today to Peter I. Bijur, the chairman of Texaco Inc., for the straightforward way in which he is extricating that company from what could have become a social-legal disaster.

Texaco has been the symbol of racial bigotry in corporate America ever since it was revealed that some of its executives sat in corporate offices denigrating blacks and other minorities and plotting how to destroy company documents that might enable black employees to win a lawsuit in which they accused Texaco of egregious discrimination.

Mr. Bijur has just dismissed one senior executive, suspended another and cut off retirement benefits for two former employees -- all deemed guilty of racist behavior that was in violation of company policy.

His bold action came in the wake of an agreement to settle the race discrimination lawsuit for a record $176.1 million, with a stipulation that an outside task force will oversee personnel operations at Texaco for five years.

I know that some will question praising Mr. Bijur in any way, since he presided over Texaco when much of the discrimination took place. It would be easy to say that he has no choice now but to take drastic steps to save Texaco, given the fact that executives were caught red-handed on tape. Some will say that Mr. Bijur is paid handsomely to do damage control.

Mr. Bijur knows, his critics say, that Texaco still faces perhaps millions of dollars in fines by a federal judge if it is determined that Texaco officers destroyed documents critical to the court's judgment of the lawsuit's merits.

I know that Mr. Bijur might be operating more out of a desire to cut Texaco's losses than out of any new commitment to fair employment, diversity of staff and racial justice.

Resisting bigotry

But I also know that he could have resisted a settlement of the lawsuit, hoping that America's current anti-affirmative action passions would protect Texaco. Mr. Bijur knows that the same employment and promotion bigotry exposed at Texaco is practiced rampantly in most corporations in America, so he could have hoped that other business leaders would pressure politicians and the courts on Texaco's behalf.

A corporation that hopes to sell gasoline, newspapers, shirts or automobiles cannot meet its sales potential if it is not fair to all the people. A lot of Fortune 500 firms and lesser companies have not yet figured that out, but Mr. Bijur saw the folly of trying to fight off the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, the NAACP, a boycott inspired by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the bad publicity in newspapers and magazines, which to some degree practice the same racism that was exposed at Texaco.

The uninformed will say, "How can you praise Mr. Bijur when one of the people he is punishing is Richard Lundwall, the former Texaco official who made the tape recordings of the racist statements and delivered them to the black plaintiffs' attorneys?"

But the record might show that Mr. Lundwall was going along with the scheme to cover up racism at Texaco by destroying documents -- until Texaco wiped out his job in a downsizing. It is unclear whether Mr. Lundwall then gave the recordings to the black employees' attorneys out of sudden devotion to fair employment, or out of a flash of hatred for Texaco. The courts probably will provide the answer.

I salute Mr. Bijur because I know that every step he takes and every sentence he utters about Texaco's plight can be a lesson to all the corporate executives and federal and state officials who are wrestling with problems of fairly diversifying staffs, or even dealing with minority lawsuits, of which there are many.

Mr. Bijur's actions say to his contemporaries, "If you're smart, or just principled, you will want to get your hiring and promotion policies in shape morally and legally, long before anyone sues you."

I think the furor over Mr. Bijur and Texaco might have blasted out of deep denial those executives who have blinked at bigotry, and who have even joined the hypocritical cry that no meaningful racism now exists in the United States. Surely, we must hope that that is the case.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/14/97

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