Race, gender discrimination lawsuit takes aim at WeWork’s culture

Ayesha Whyte claims she was demoted and forced to review candidates for her job

Ayesha Whyte claims she was demoted and forced to review candidates for her job (Credit: Getty Images, iStock)
Ayesha Whyte claims she was demoted and forced to review candidates for her job (Credit: Getty Images, iStock)

UPDATED, 1:51 p.m., Feb. 28: A former human resources director at WeWork has filed a race and gender discrimination lawsuit against the co-working startup, claiming she was replaced by an unqualified white woman and later unjustly fired.

The plaintiff, Ayesha Whyte, says her experience was part of a pattern at WeWork, alleging that other women of color were overlooked for positions that were offered to less qualified white candidates.

In a lawsuit filed in New York Supreme Court on Friday, Whyte claims that she left her plum job as human resources director at the Walt Disney Company in August 2018 for a position at WeWork’s headquarters in Chelsea. Her lawsuit alleges she was told she would earn $195,000 a year and receive the title director of employee relations.

But once she took the job, Whyte alleges WeWork told her she would remain in Washington, D.C., and that her role was temporarily undetermined. Months later, she alleges she was given a different title and her salary cut by 20 percent — to less than what she earned at Disney.

“Whyte had no practical choice but to stick it out with WeWork and hope things would improve,” the complaint states. “They didn’t.”

“At WeWork, we prioritize equal employment opportunity, including hiring, promotion and compensation, and believe these claims are wholly without merit,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement.

According to Whyte, superiors at WeWork told her to review and consider candidates for the role she had initially accepted — director of employee relations. Her lawsuit alleges that the job ultimately went to a white woman who had been rejected as unqualified for two other roles at WeWork.

In April 2019, Whyte, who is black, filed a complaint with WeWork’s human resources department, alleging race and gender discrimination. Her lawsuit says that an investigation by the department concluded in June 2019 without finding wrongdoing.

After she complained again in September and October, another inquiry by WeWork found no wrongdoing on the company’s part. Instead, Whyte said she was terminated in October.

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When Whyte threatened discrimination litigation against WeWork, the company said it would seek legal costs from her unless she pursued the matter in confidential arbitration, her complaint alleges.

Whyte also claimed that racial discrimination existed at the executive level. In one instance, Whyte alleges that WeWork’s chief legal officer and co-president Jennifer Berrent told WeWork’s diversity team that she “can’t empathize with black people.”

“At multiple levels throughout the organization, WeWork keeps people of color out of leadership positions and under compensated,” states Whyte’s complaint, filed in New York County Supreme Court.

Whyte’s claims echo other discrimination lawsuits filed against the company. A suit filed in June also took aim at Berrent, claiming that she said “men take risks and women don’t” in response to allegations of gender pay discrimination. A separate lawsuit filed in October by the former chief of staff to ousted CEO Adam Neumann claimed she was demoted twice after revealing she was pregnant.

And last week, Business Insider revealed that WeWork had paid $2 million in 2018 to settle claims of sexual harassment and excessive drug use in the company’s real estate group.

Such allegations against WeWork have been persistent as the company undergoes a drastic transformation. Since abandoning plans last year to go public, it has sought to distance itself from its former party culture and installed new executives, including Marcelo Claure as chairman and Sandeep Mathrani as CEO.

WeWork did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Whyte could not be immediately reached for comment. Seth Rafkin, the attorney representing Whyte, and who represents other plaintiffs suing WeWork, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This story was updated to include a comment from WeWork.