By Pinky Khoabane
Imperial Holdings CEO Mark Lamberti
IT IS now official, South Africa will fine in Rands those who make racist and sexist remarks against others, impairing their dignity.
In a second landmark ruling against racists in as many weeks, the North Gauteng High Court found Imperial Holdings CEO and now Eskom Board Member, Mark Lamberti guilty of impairing the dignity of former employee, Adila Chowan after calling her “a female, employment equity,” when she challenged being overlooked twice for a post she had been promised and for which she was qualified. “‘I had built my career. I had been a CFO. I had acted as a CEO. All those achievements was (sic) not being recognised, apart from the fact that I am now being objectified in terms of being a female empowerment equity candidate”, Chowan testified in court.
It emerged from court papers that Lamberti had discriminated against qualified chartered accountant Chowan on the basis of race and gender. Judge Meyer ordered Associated Motor Holdings (a subsidiary of Imperial Holdings), Imperial Holdings and Lamberti to pay damages for the impairment of her dignity.
Meyer in his judgement couldn’t put it any more succinctly: “There is a great public interest in ensuring that the existence of systemic discrimination and inequalities in respect of race and gender be eradicated.”
Chowan was employed by AMH in the capacity of group financial manager from 16 March 2012 until she was dismissed with immediate effect at the end of September 2015. Harvey Adler was AMH’s chief financial officer (CFO) at the time when Chowan was appointed and the director to whom she reported. During June 2012, Peter Hibbit was appointed in that position of CFO. He left the employ of AMH at the end of September 2014. During October – December 2014, Chowan fulfilled not only her own duties as group financial manager, but she also ‘held the fort’ as far as the position of CFO is concerned. Hibbit had undertaken to recommend her for the post and even asked her to take a psychometric test to determine any skills gaps she might have. She was never informed of any. She was later, with other candidates, interviewed for the CFO job. The interviewers included Lamberti who later wrote her an email telling her she would not be appointed as a CFO but “I give you a personal commitment that by virtue of the executive development interventions I intend introducing to the Group, you will be a more assured and competent leader one year from now”. Ockert Janse van Rensburg was appointed in that capacity and he has been the CFO of AMH since the beginning of January 2015.
Lamberti would later tell Chowan she actually needed three to four years to develop her leadership skills.
Chowan is one of many women, and black men, who are discriminated against in the workplace in terms of race and gender and many often give up and leave without a fight. In fact, she too tendered her resignation when she lost out to Janse van Rensburg who had no experience in the motor industry but was reassured again by Lamberti that she would be given the post in other subsidiaries of the Imperial Group within a year.
The chartered accountant was overlooked for the chief financial officer job twice and when she complained Lamberti told her she was ‘a female, employment equity, technically competent, they would like to keep her but if she wants to go she must go, others have left this management and done better outside the company, and that she required three to four years to develop her leadership skills’. Such was the pervasiveness of racism in this institution she was silenced when she voiced her unhappiness with the colour of her company car and told it “matched her skin colour” because it was brown.
When she took offence to the utterances by Lamberti and informed the human resources manager at AMH, Otto Koornhof, of her intention to lodge a grievance against the ceo with the chairman of the Imperial Group, Thulani Gcabashe, Koornhof warned her ‘that it would be a career limiting move if [she] raised a grievance against a powerful man like Mr Mark Lamberti’. And indeed it would be a career limiting move albeit one which, unlike many, ends well for Chowan.
She nevertheless went ahead and lodged a grievance letter with Gcabashe in which she said she had wanted an apology from Lamberti and for him to honour the promise he had made to her when she was overlooked for the CFO job the second time.
Gcabashe, for his part, called for an investigation into her complaint but in a startling turn of events, she as the complainant was summarily suspended while the respondents remained in their jobs.
What is chilling is the testimony by a representative of Dewey Hertzberg Levy Inc, the firm of attorneys appointed to undertake the investigation into the claims made against Lamberti.
Lamberti, from the testimony, was directly involved in how Chowan would be dealt with in as far as her suspension was concerned and worst still, the attorneys were the same firm that were advising the company on her suspension.
In response to her grievance, Gcabashe wrote: “I am satisfied that your allegations are completely without foundation in fact, and are devoid of substance. Accordingly you “grievance’ application is dismissed, and is now closed.
However, this does not mean that this is the end of the matter. As your actions constitute misconduct and an abuse of the grievance procedure, it has been decided to institute the disciplinary procedure. Disciplinary charges will be drawn up and issued to you by an AMH executive within a matter of days.”
Disciplinary charges were sent to Chowan within two days of the letter and a month later a disciplinary hearing was held and days later on September 4 2015, she was summarily dismissed.
Chowan decided to sue.
She testified that she categorised Lamberti’s utterance “as part of racial and gender discrimination against herself, because she had never been addressed in that manner before. It humiliated her, degraded her, objectified her, and worse, it was being said in front of other senior executives”.
“Because I pride myself on the fact that I am a qualified professional chartered accountant. I had built my career. I had been a CFO. And in Mark Lamberti’s eyes I was being narrowed down because of my colour and being female.”
Chowan also felt discriminated against in the light of AMH’s poor performance on diversity in the workplace at that time as far as its senior leadership was concerned. They were all white males, except for a white female who was the CFO of Liquid Capital. Furthermore, in the two and a half years preceding mid-2015, there had been fourteen executives appointed by AMH of whom eight were appointed since Mr Lamberti’s appointment as CEO. Except for one Indian male, they were all white males.
Judge Meyer found it was “indisputable that AMH, as far as its senior management was concerned, fared very badly in redressing the imbalances and wrongs of the past.
And so we have a man highly ranked as one of South Africa’s leading lights in leadership being found liable for racist remarks against a black woman and the companies he’s involved with have nothing much to say. Eskom brushed-aside the matter by saying it didnt happen while Lamberti was on its board. Elsewhere, Public Enterprise Minister Pravin Gordhan is said to be consulting lawyers over what is clearly a shameful and unlawful incident.
Here’s the full link to the case.