Swiss Private Equity Firm Sued by Woman Who Complained About Racist Slurs
(Bloomberg) -- A Black former employee at Partners Group Holding AG is suing the Swiss private equity firm for $10 million over claims she was forced out of the company after complaining about a senior colleague’s alleged racist slurs.
Harmonie Mulumba, who spent two years as a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analyst, says she was unfairly pushed out in July 2018 following her complaints despite performing well during her time in Partners Group’s associate program.
In a letter she filed to a U.K. employment tribunal, Mulumba alleges Juri Jenkner, the head of private infrastructure, made a joke comparing Black people to monkeys on a trip she attended, mocked the accent of a female Indian colleague while he was muted on a video conference meeting, and held Mulumba to a higher standard than White and male peers.
Lawyers for the company said the allegations are unfounded.
“Mr. Jenkner did not tell a joke that was intended to equate black people to monkeys,” they wrote in court documents arguing for dismissal of the claims. Rather, the lawyers wrote, “Mr. Jenkner said to a group of colleagues that, on a cruise holiday stopping at a remote island, his son had said that residents of the island ‘look at me like I’m a monkey.’”
According to the lawyers, Mulumba “intentionally and cynically misrepresented the comment in order to portray it as racist when it obviously was not -- and was not perceived by anyone present to be racist.”
As to the episode involving the Indian colleague, Mr. Jenkner did mute the microphone to say “he had difficulty understanding a colleague who spoke with an Indian accent,” they said in court filings. “Mr. Jenkner did not ‘mock’ the accent at all and the allegation is vexatious.”
Partners Group “is proud to be an equal opportunity employer,” the company said by email. “We regret –- and treat with the utmost seriousness –- any allegation claiming otherwise,” the firm said, declining to comment on the specifics of the case.
Switzerland’s financial industry, like those in other countries, has struggled to shake a reputation for lacking diversity and, at times, racial sensitivity. In one of the worst incidents, Tidjane Thiam, the Black former CEO of Credit Suisse Group AG who was hired with much fanfare in 2015, was subject to a skit involving a Black man dressed as a janitor at the bank’s chairman’s 60th birthday party that prompted him to walk out. Credit Suisse apologized for “any offense” taken by the incident.
Partners Group argued at a hearing last week that the case doesn’t belong in a U.K. court because Mulumba, a Congolese national and a U.K. resident, was hired by its U.S. arm. The firm appealed an initial decision that gave her the right to sue in the U.K. Partners Group earlier opposed a claim brought by Mulumba in the U.S., arguing that her lack of citizenship prevented jurisdiction there, too.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “was unable to conclude” that the information she provided established any violation of the discrimination statutes, Partners Group lawyers wrote in court documents.
If unsuccessful in the U.K., Mulumba would be left to pursue her case in Switzerland. Employment tribunals in Switzerland are confidential, limiting the public’s awareness of employment claims.
Mulumba rotated through teams in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland and ranked in the top 5% of the firm in an internal performance ranking, according to court documents. But when she complained about her colleague’s remarks, the company threatened to let her visa expire, she said in a court filing.
An external lawyer hired by Partners Group to investigate the case dismissed the complaints in February 2018, concluding that Mulumba “presumed bias based on her race, gender and national origin” and may have misheard the comments or took them out of context.
The lawyer said she found Juri’s account in response to the allegations of the racist joke credible, particularly given the consistent reports from senior managers that they had not heard him make racial jokes. As to the alleged incident in which he made fun of a colleague’s accent, “I find no basis to conclude that he was mocking her because she was Indian,” wrote the lawyer in the report.
Mulumba, who joined the firm in 2015, took a two-month break from her job in Switzerland to treat a benign tumor in late 2016, and was never diagnosed with cancer. Mulumba claims the discrimination against her escalated after her return from medical leave, which was used to mount a case for her dismissal.
“Let’s not create a paper trail in case we need to present her an exit proposal ‘without prejudice’,” an HR executive wrote in a January 2017 email disclosed in court documents. That executive didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
In August 2017, the firm’s HR chief approved a note to the firm’s global executive committee, saying, incorrectly and without her knowledge, that Mulumba had cancer and that her dismissal was planned, court documents show. That note cited her performance before and after her medical leave as “not meeting expectations,” in apparent contrast to her earlier performance reviews.
That indicated Partners Group was “prematurely labeling me as a leaver,” Mulumba wrote in court documents.
Mulumba says she first approached a colleague about her concerns about the racist remarks in confidence shortly before that August email. That colleague denies ever sharing her comments with HR, according to Partners Group’s investigation. Mulumba first formalized her complaints in a letter to the U.S. unit of Partners Group in 2018 before bringing her case to the U.K.
“While branding itself as socially responsible, the firm has spent years fighting the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts and the U.K. tribunal,” Mulumba said in a statement to Bloomberg. “Genuine social responsibility is about accountability.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.