Was it Racism or Politics that Led to Man’s Firing?
Steve Blow, The Dallas Morning News, Feb. 14
Something is seriously wrong here.
Either I’m not hearing the full story — or racial and political sensitivities at Southwest Airlines are badly out of whack.
I fear it’s the latter.
Jeff Bogg worked almost 16 years in Southwest’s maintenance department. He was a quality-control supervisor, overseeing about 10 people.
His work record is unblemished, he said. “The only thing you would find in my file is commendations.” Several of his co-workers said Mr. Bogg, 48, was one of the best-liked, most-respected employees in the department.
But a silly remark at a Christmas party has cost him his job.
To back up a little, Mr. Bogg and his wife took their daughter to a Christmas party for handicapped children on Dec. 5. Their daughter is mentally disabled.
A photographer was there taking pictures of the children with Santa Claus. “Instead of saying ‘Say cheese’ to the kids, he was saying ‘Say monkey.’ And the kids would laugh real big,” Mr. Bogg said. “My wife and I talked about what a good line that was to get a smile.”
You can probably see where this is headed.
The next night was the maintenance department’s big Christmas party at the Wyndham Anatole. It’s a lively, hard-drinking sort of affair. And during the course of the evening, Mr. Bogg passed by a fellow employee who was there with several family members.
Someone was taking their picture, and as Mr. Bogg walked by, he blurted out, “Smile! Say monkey!”
It was a black family. Both the fellow employee, Kevin West, and another family member informed Mr. Bogg that his remark was offensive and not appreciated.
“I told them both, ‘I apologize. I assure you I didn’t mean anything by that,’ “ Mr. Bogg said. “We went on our way, and I really thought that was the end of it.”
But at work a day or two later, he was summoned to meet with a young staff member from Southwest’s human-relations department. “She said there had been a complaint, and I told her everything that happened — including about the party the previous night. I told her there was no racial intent and that I apologized immediately.”
Mr. Bogg said he told her he would be happy to apologize again to Mr. West or write him a letter of apology. But she told him not to do that because any contact might be misconstrued as retaliation.
The staff member gave Jeff the impression that she was satisfied with his explanation and that little more would come of it.
But one day last month, he was called into a vice president’s office and handed a letter. “I looked at it and couldn’t believe my eyes. It said ‘Letter of Termination.’ “
The letter said, “… It was alleged that during the course of a photo session involving an African American Employee and his family, you used the word ‘monkey,’ to which the Employee and his family took great offense. During the investigation into the matter, you admitted to using it toward the Employee and his family; however, you denied that it was meant to be derogatory.”
The letter goes on: “Jeff, your behavior during the Christmas party was not only offensive and rude, but it also created a negative environment for those who heard your comment. More importantly, your behavior blatantly flies in the face of several Company and Departmental policies. … In a nutshell, Jeff, your behavior showed lack of respect and extremely poor judgment.
“Based on the foregoing, we have determined to terminate your employment effective immediately.”
Jeff was dumbfounded. “They took something that was just like ‘Say cheese’ and made it something ugly. It was not racist. It was not meant to be racist. It was having a good time at a Christmas party.”
I telephoned Mr. West, the other employee involved, to hear his side. “I can’t talk about it because it has already been resolved, and the company has done what they thought was right,” he said.
I asked if he thought the firing was proper. “My brother and I, my family and I, feel very good about what the company did,” he said.
Did senator intervene?
It was interesting that Mr. West brought up his brother. That’s another wrinkle to this story.
I asked if he was referring to state Sen. Royce West of Dallas. He said he was.
The feeling among Mr. Bogg’s supporters at the airline is that intervention by the senator led to the drastic punishment.
“It’s really a shame that Southwest Airlines has chosen to be run by politicians,” said Lyndon Heffernan, a Southwest mechanic and former union leader.
Mr. Heffernan was among a dozen or so mechanics who met with maintenance vice president Jim Sokol to protest Mr. Bogg’s firing. Three people in that meeting told me that Mr. Sokol said Sen. West had called him several times about the matter — to the point of becoming a bother — but that the decision to fire Mr. Bogg was his alone.
Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart said he couldn’t say much about the situation since it was a personnel matter. But he said, “That one was thoroughly — and I do mean thoroughly — investigated, and the company certainly feels the appropriate action was taken.”
Mr. Stewart said the company did receive calls from Sen. West but did not consider them political pressure and they did not influence the firing decision.
I would love to have had the senator’s input, both about the party and his calls to the airline. But my repeated calls to Sen. West were not returned.
This case really comes down to intent — what Mr. Bogg was thinking when he used that word.
If he innocently blurted a word that has racial connotations, surely no one believes that is a firing offense.
And is Mr. Bogg the kind of guy who would knowingly use the word as a slur? “Absolutely not. That’s not me,” he said. “I get along with everybody.”
I talked to four of his colleagues who agree. They’re white, and said they have never heard him make racially disparaging remarks — and don’t believe the “monkey” comment was meant as one.
Mr. Bogg’s neighbor and close friend, Spencer Hill, said the same thing. “When I heard what happened, it just completely blew me away. That’s just not him. I think they took that completely out of context and used it against him. This is just so wrong,” said Mr. Hill, who happens to be black.
Look, as I said at the start, I can’t be certain I’ve heard the whole story. I’ve got a real passion for racial harmony, and the last thing I want to do is defend a bigot.
But also because I’ve got a passion for racial harmony, I hate to see racial sensitivity carried overboard. It’s a good way to foster racial animosity where none existed before.
A diverse workplace is going to lead to occasional racial blunders and misunderstandings. We’ve got to learn to work through them with calm, with conversation and with common sense.
As best I can tell, a little of that here ought to lead to a sincere apology for a foolish remark and a good man back on the job.