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Leadership Tuesdays -- Developing Women Leaders

October 2, 2012

This blog is Part III of the series, "Are We There Yet? My Climb and Journey". In this blog, I talk about a few bumps in the road or incidences at AT&T that occurred while I was getting my MBA in an Executive Education program at the University of Pittsburgh.  These incidences became a turning point in my career.  

A conversation with John T. Delaney, PhD., Dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, about the current state of women in executive leadership and why women do not choose to get advanced business degrees at the same rate they obtain professional degrees in other areas, like law and medicine, was the catalyst for this series.

Bumps In The Road At AT&T!

V. Nona Ogunsula

As a company, AT&T was committed to diversity. First of all, they had a company statement to support diversity and denounce discrimination. They also provided diversity training for their employees. In fact, across all of their divisions, AT&T had implemented by the late 1990’s all of the steps referenced in Frank Kalman’s recent article on Diversity-Executive.com, “Five Steps to Embed Diversity and Inclusion Into Organizational Culture”.[i]  (See below for the “Five Steps”) Personally, I saw their support of my business education at the University of Pittsburgh as a demonstration of this commitment. However, two specific incidents that occurred during my MBA program with my local division’s leadership left me with a very negative impression of my local management.

Let me start off by saying it was the company’s policy that once they decided to support an employee in an Executive Education program, they would be fully funded for the duration of the program.  However, my division, without cause, tried to re-nig on certain parts of its financial commitment to my Executive Education program. While I was completing my MBA program, I along with several other employees in my group was moved into a new division because of the dissolution of an international only government marketing team. As time drew near for the capstone class trip that would include travel to Prague in the Czech Republic, Italy, and France, my new division did not want to pay for the travel costs associated with the trip. Without any justification and against company policy, they threaten to withdraw financial support of my program.  I was devastated. I had worked very hard to maintain stellar work performance as well as stay current on my school assignments. Although I had been given a new work assignment during my MBA program and I was still traveling quite a bit, I put in the long hours to keep my GPA well above 3.5.  I had always been a top performer at work achieving what would be the equivalent of A’s and B’s in a simple “A-F” rating system. However, during the last year of my MBA program, my new managers’ first significant interactions with me centered on trying to de-fund my MBA program.  They sought to justify their decision based on their budget and a “needs of the business” explanation, but this was totally against company policy. The company had specifically stated in their written policy that the funding for these types of company-sponsored programs could not be revoked. Senior AT&T leaders who wrote the policy foresaw that budgetary constraints could potentially negatively impact their previous decisions to invest in developing leaders and they did not want this to be the case. Just like a division could not reduce its financial commitment to fund employee benefits, they could not reverse Executive Education commitments without just case (e.g., termination, etc.)

My new division leadership’s attempt to withdraw their support of my MBA program rubbed me the wrong way because it felt personal. It felt like they were trying to penalize me because they disagreed with my previous leadership’s decision to support me.  Further, what bothered me most is that they drew me into their subjective and somewhat questionable decision-making process. I had to attend several meetings it felt like I had to re-justify why my previous Vice President had decided to support my selection for this company program.  


Also, there was another incident during the same time frame where my performance rating was mysteriously downgraded from an “A” or “Far Exceeds” to a “B” or “Exceeds” after all of the ratings and rankings had been completed and I had been already informed that I had received a “Far Exceeds” rating. I was called in to my new manager’s office and I was told that my previously reported performance rating was being changed. The explanation I was given was that my accounts were not considered of the same caliber as two of my colleagues.  I was younger than both of them and the minority. They were supporting U.S. government accounts while I was assigned to international Embassies/Missions located in the U.S. and some of their Ministries of Foreign Affairs. This rating reversal occurred after my former division’s management team, who had managed all three of us, had ranked and rated our performance.  The truth is, my accounts had increased in their overall yearly business revenues to AT&T and that revenue was significant because the accounts I managed made a lot of international calls and required international services (e.g., data, email, etc.). This was very profitable business for AT&T. This experience for me was like being kicked off the “Biggest Loser” because my competitor, who weighed 500 lbs lost 80 lbs. and I who, let’s say, weighed 325 lbs, had only lost 70 lbs. Well, when comparing my weight loss with the other person’s weight loss, my percentage of weight loss was slightly more, 22% vs. 20%. Again, the decision seemed very subjective. This decision also had a negative economic impact on me. Because of the rating downgrade, my raise would be less and my end of the year bonus would also be less.

At the end of the day, I did not feel I was being treated fairly by my new division.  I tried to interview out of the division and I specifically targeted several positions in the company’s New Jersey headquarters because, besides obtaining an MBA, doing a tour in New Jersey was another box that needed to be checked in order to progress along the AT&T leadership path.  However, I was not successful in getting another position outside of my current division. So, after one-two many bad experiences, when a buy-out package was offered about six months after the completion of my MBA, I decided to take it.  I was sad to go but it was important to me that I be treated fairly and I did not feel that I would be treated fairly in my current division. I wonder how many other women and minorities have had similar experiences in their business careers. When there is discrimination, you get this kind of sinking feeling within and it feels like after all the progress that has been made, there is still more hurdles on the track for you than for some of your peers.

I definitely felt this way about these incidences. My other four AT&T colleagues from other divisions who were in the MBA program with me did not have this problem.  I also felt that the rating downgrade was discriminatory.  It appeared to me that they were trying to set up a business case for withdrawing financial support of the MBA program. Unfortunately for me, I consulted with a friend who was an attorney who advised me not to pursue legal action. I regret this. I should have at least gotten the company to justify their decision regarding my rating.

So after all these years, looking back with hindsight what do I know now? What I experienced was discrimination. As stated in an American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences’ white paper, entitled “Discrimination In The Workplace” by Adbulla M. Al-badawi of the University of Dayton:

                Important decision-making processes such as hiring, firing, promoting and evaluating

                can be rife with discrimination, as employers often determine competence through

                subjective factors. As human beings generally like those who are similar to them, upper

                management may take this sometimes unconscious attitude with them when making  

                decisions.  Those who are most similar will be considered as more competent, and those

                who are most different are more likely to be considered incompetent.[ii]


Also, racial and other forms of discrimination are not always overt. “Racism can occur individually through overt, or malicious means, or through covert, or subtle, means. “[iii] It can be intentional or unintentional.  What we most often recognize is the intentional overt forms of discrimination related to race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and age, etc. However, what is sometimes confusing is when you know that you have been singled out or excluded but you are not sure why. You also know that you are different in obvious ways from everyone else.  The best course of action that I should have taken and that I would advise now is to consult a few reputable lawyers who specialize in employment discrimination.  The other action that I should have taken was to escalate the decision to change my rating up the senior leadership chain. As you know those type of actions can negatively brand you and may not be the easiest thing to do.  But if you feel very strongly about the action, it is the next logical step. I did escalate the decision one or two levels above my immediate manager; however, I decided not to escalate the decision beyond my division’s Vice President because:

1)    The Vice President did not seem very sincere in his explanation. Rather he seemed like he was preparing for a law suit instead of giving an explanation for how I was rated.

2)  I was already overwhelmed with trying to finish school and keep up with work.

                Escalating further meant additional meetings with senior leadership outside of my

                division and I just couldn’t prepare for those, continue my daily duties, and finish school

               on time.


Although funding for the remaining portion of my MBA program was later approved, that company experience left an indelible impression of unfairness on me.  It somewhat signified for me that no matter how hard you worked or what type of qualifications you brought to the table, you could be treated unfairly. Sadly, in some situations, gender, age, and ethnicity can still trump all of your qualifications.


Hindsight is 20/20, but I’m interested in hearing your opinion.  Could I have done things differently? Should I have taken legal action? Should those experiences have played a role in me deciding to leave the company? Please weigh in.


[i] Frank Kalman, “Five Steps To Embed Diversity and Inclusion Into Organizational Culture”, Diversity –Executive.com, 4/30/12. http://www.diversity-executive.com/articles/view/five-steps-to-embed-diversity-and-inclusion-into-organizational-culture/1

They are:

  1. Develop the Business Case
  2. Educate Business Leaders
  3.  Involve Key Players on Change Management Efforts
  4.  Align With HR
  5. Create An Implementation Team For Support

[ii] Abdulla Al badawi, University of Dayton, “Discrimination In The Workplace”, American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences, February 2012, http://www.asbbs.org/files/ASBBS2012V1/PDF/A/AI%20badawi.pdf

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