After an eight-year absence, Coca-Cola will return to the Super Bowl, not by advertising during the game itself, but by sponsoring the kickoff show, the final pre-game segment. Coke will promote its energy drink Full Throttle in two 15-second commercials and a 60-second commercial costing an estimated $13 million. Coke is also moving ahead full throttle when it comes to treating its employees more fairly: in contrast to the Super Bowl advertisers mentioned in this report thus far, Coca-Cola is an employer whose treatment of its employees has made it a true industry leader. It took a big-league lawsuit, however, to force Coke's turnaround.
In a class-action lawsuit filed in April 1999, four named plaintiffs represented a class of 2200 current and former salaried, African-American employees of Coca-Cola who alleged race discrimination in promotions, compensation and evaluations. Among other things, the plaintiffs alleged a substantial difference in pay between African-American and white employees; a "glass ceiling" that kept African-Americans from advancing past entry-level management positions; "glass walls" that channeled African-Americans to management in areas like human resources and away from power centers such as marketing and finance; senior management knowledge of these problems since 1995 and a failure to remedy them.
In mid-2000, the parties reached one of the largest employment discrimination settlements in history, valued at $192.5 million, which was also designed to ensure dramatic reform of Coca-Cola's employment practices. The final settlement agreement was officially approved by the Court in June 2001. Since that time, each year, a court-appointed Task Force evaluates Coca-Cola's progress towards a number of diversity goals identified in the settlement, identified as the "Gold Standard." Each year, Coca-Cola has reported significant progress in reforming its human resources practices to ensure equal opportunity for all employees. These practices, which mandate diverse slates of candidates and high-level review of those slates, have been vital to achieving the success to date in diversifying senior management and the pipeline for those positions. Mentoring and career development programs also help boost minority representation in Coke's workforce. The company has also voluntarily agreed to extend the Task Force's monitoring period for an additional year, through 2006, to ensure all of its goals are fully met.
Those watching this year's Super Bowl can have a Coke and smile knowing that Coca-Cola has made significant strides in improving how its minority employees are treated: Coke's efforts are the real thing. Coke's progress demonstrates how lawsuits can play a significant role in motivating a real turnaround in corporate culture, as the company has now come from behind to take a large lead over some of its advertising competitors in treating its workers fairly.