Monica Hill had worked at Sony for about three months when she and other Black employees were invited to appear in the company’s Black History Month video earlier this year and speak about the power of Black voices as “Sony shining stars.” Actor Michael B. Jordan was featured in the video as well, which Hill said made her feel that the company was taking racial issues seriously.
Yet Hill soon found that Sony’s representations of diversity did not match her reality, she said. She claimed that after she raised concerns about comments and treatment by her supervisor that she found to be racist, Sony management retaliated against her, excluding her from meetings she said she should have been a part of, stripping her of certain clients, and ultimately firing her while she was on sick leave after catching COVID-19. In a lawsuit filed this week in California state court, the “Sony shining star” claimed she was hired “as a token to fill Sony’s diversity numbers.” “It was a lie,” Hill said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
Asked about Hill’s claims in the lawsuit, a Sony spokesperson said “the company does not comment on confidential personnel matters,” but that “diversity, equity and inclusion are core to Sony.” The spokesperson said the company takes complaints “seriously,” conducts proper and thorough investigations, and has a “committed focus” on the success of all of its employees.
Around the country, people of color are wondering whether the reckoning over racial inequality over the last year will have any meaningful impact, including in corporate America. BuzzFeed News recently spoke to people at nearly a dozen companies who said they dread confronting racism in the workplace again when offices reopen. While Sony stated on its diversity page that “diversity and inclusion are encoded in our DNA and shape a vibrant corporate culture” and last year expressed solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the Black community at large, Hill said that in her experience the company did not live up to such statements.
Have you witnessed racism or other forms of discrimination at your workplace? Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her experience at Sony was riddled with “microaggressions,” Hill, who is 40 and lives in Orlando, said in an interview. “It’s the disparaging comments that are often made, that people look past. It’s being blocked from opportunities that others would have.”
After Sony asked Hill to appear in the Black History Month video in January, Hill said, her supervisor, senior sales manager Jaime Raffone, pushed back on Hill appearing in it. Hill claimed in her lawsuit that in conversations, Raffone said the “Black Lives Matter movement had made Blacks feel more powerful than they are and that Blacks should feel grateful for whatever they are given,” that “she appreciates Blacks ‘who know their place’ and are willing to work hard instead of being given welfare,” and that Kamala Harris was picked to serve as vice president “because of pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Raffone, who is among the defendants listed in the lawsuit and has worked at Sony for more than 20 years, did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment. Sony and Raffone have not yet filed a legal defense to the claims. A third-party investigation conducted for Sony earlier this year looking into Hill’s allegations of mistreatment and offensive comments concluded that there was no evidence that company policy had been violated, according to the lawsuit.
Hill said she spoke to sales director Kevin O’Connor, company vice president of B2B Rich Ventura, and human resources manager Matthew Whelan about her manager’s alleged statements and treatment of her, but said they dismissed her complaints. Hill later went back to Human Resources with concerns that Raffone, O’Connor, and Whelan were all personally close and therefore had a conflict of interest, according to the complaint. O’Connor, Whelan, and Ventura are also listed as defendants in the lawsuit. None of them responded to multiple requests for comment, and they have not yet responded in court to the suit.
Raffone and other members of Sony management “began a campaign of retaliation against [her] in an attempt to sabotage her success at Sony and to cast her out,” according to the complaint. Her manager started a “success plan” on April 22 to improve Hill’s performance over the next 30 days but took opportunities away from her — like pulling her off certain accounts and excluding her from a meeting despite the client’s requests to include her, the complaint stated.
Hill said that working for the company had been a dream since she’d gotten her first pair of Sony headphones years ago. When she was interviewing for a position last October, Hill said, Sony emphasized diversity and inclusion. She was encouraged to apply and was hired for a job forming strategic partnerships with companies that would buy Sony products such as projectors and screens.
In her complaint, however, Hill said that she had been hired so that Sony could “fulfill its diversity requirements” but was not given “equal opportunities for success.”
As an affirmative action employer, a distinction granted to federal contractors, Sony is required to “recruit and advance qualified minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and covered veterans or lose its current contracts and eligibility for future contracts,” according to Hill’s attorney Nancy Abrolat. Hill claimed that despite these requirements, her managers at Sony subjected her to racial and gender discrimination during much of her nearly seven months at the company, a time she spent working remotely, communicating over phone and video calls. She is suing Sony for damages, lost earnings, and injunctive relief to comply with affirmative action employment laws and to stop discrimination based on race and gender at Sony.
An employee who worked with Hill and asked not to be named to protect their privacy echoed Hill’s claims, recounting that managers asked them to not explain certain business practices to Hill and exclude her on relevant calls unless otherwise necessary. Often, the employee said, Hill was passed up for work opportunities.
“It seemed very directed [against Hill],” said the employee, who was at Sony when Hill filed her complaints but has since left the company.
The employee who worked with Hill said that a representative contacted them as part of an HR inquiry involving Hill, but that the gist of the questions revolved around Hill’s behavior, according to their interpretation of the conversation: “Was she out of hand? Was she, you know, was she an angry Black woman?” the employee recalled. “They didn't ask that question specifically, obviously, but that's what it felt like.”
BuzzFeed News also reached out to four other Sony employees in an effort to corroborate allegations made in the lawsuit, though none had responded by the time of publication.
In May, Hill’s husband, daughters, and eventually Hill herself got COVID-19, she said. Shortly after she went on sick leave on May 19, she was let go, her lawsuit stated. According to her complaint, “Sony’s reasoning for her termination was [her] supposed failure to meet the requirements set forth in her 'success plan.'”
Hill saw it differently.
“Diversity and inclusion fraud is real,” Hill said in an interview. She hoped to speak up for others experiencing discrimination despite their employers’ pledges, she said. “I want to give them a voice.”