A black executive claims he was fired as president of a Thrivent Financial subsidiary because he accused a co-worker of racial discrimination, according to a lawsuit he filed against the financial services firm.
Gregory M. Smith, who said he was recruited by Thrivent in 2016 to help grow its network of independent insurance brokers, said he was stunned to encounter discrimination at a Fortune 500 company whose mission is “helping Christians be wise with money and live generously.”
“I was shocked,” said Smith, 56, who has worked at some of the largest insurance companies in the U.S. “I have never been treated so badly in my life.”
In a written statement, Thrivent denied the allegations and predicted the company will win the court battle over the lawsuit filed this month in Hennepin County.
“Mr. Smith’s employment with Thrivent ended less than a year after he was hired because, among other things, he failed to conduct himself according to the standards of leadership and integrity that Thrivent demands of all of its employees,” the company said in the statement.
Thrivent Financial, which manages more than $100 billion in assets, boasts of its corporate culture, noting on its website that it has been named one of the world’s “most ethical companies” six years in a row by the Ethisphere Institute.
Smith said he shook things up when he joined Thrivent Independent in July 2016. At the time, he said, the insurance subsidiary was tiny and staffed by Thrivent veterans with little or no experience in the independent insurance market. He said he was tasked with growing the business, even if that meant making significant personnel changes.
Within months, Smith had laid off about half of his 15-member staff, most of whom quickly found jobs with other Thrivent companies, according to Smith’s attorney, Clayton Halunen. In an interview, Smith said some of the workers lacked the skills he needed, while others were terminated because he was concerned about their “exorbitant” spending on business trips. He said all of the terminated workers were white.
“I was the only person of color when I came in,” Smith said in the interview. His lawsuit claims that the presidents of seven other Thrivent subsidiaries are all white.
Thrivent declined to provide any data on the racial makeup of its executive team or its overall workforce.
“Thrivent is committed to maintaining a work environment free of unlawful discrimination, thereby utilizing the full range of talent and perspectives of all employees,” the company said in its statement.
In the interview, Smith said his personnel moves rankled colleagues, including Amy Huth, his unit’s chief engagement officer, who reported to him. In his lawsuit, Smith said Huth objected when he moved to replace two of the fired employees with black candidates. According to the lawsuit, Huth was “furious” when he refused her suggestion to hire a white candidate for one of the jobs, allegedly telling a co-worker that Smith was “bringing all of his friends in.”
Despite the friction, Smith said in the lawsuit that he thought Huth was doing an excellent job and approved a promotion for her that came with a 52 percent raise. Smith claimed he told Huth she was a “rock star” and a “valued business partner.”
Smith said his new team produced quick results, with the number of new clients climbing from 1,000 to 10,000 in less than a year. He said he also recruited 4,000 new financial representatives. Altogether, Smith said, he was beating his first-year goals by 250 percent, putting him on track for a bonus of $1 million or more. His annual salary was $270,000.
Thrivent did not dispute Smith’s success in meeting financial goals.
To celebrate, Smith said in the interview, he took his team out for dinner at the Capital Grille in downtown Minneapolis after work one night in December 2016. About 6 p.m., while waiting for some of his workers to show up, Smith said he strolled into the bar area and overheard Huth talking about him with another member of the team.
In the lawsuit, Smith said Huth allegedly said to the other worker: “We are going to get rid of that black piece of shit,” referring to him. In the lawsuit, Smith said Huth noticed him standing there and looked at him “sheepishly … apparently scared that he had overheard” the remark.
“I was hurt. I was crushed,” Smith said in the interview. “I had been working really hard to win the entire team’s confidence.”
Thrivent declined to make Huth or any other employees available for an interview, but it denied that such a statement was made.
‘Let it go,’ he says he was told
“At Thrivent, employees are expected to uphold the organization’s code of conduct and behave in accordance with the Thrivent Way, which requires every individual in Thrivent’s workforce to be trustworthy in character and competence,” the company said in its statement. “The organization expects employees to know and understand the code of conduct and follow its principles.”
In the lawsuit, Smith said he reported Huth’s remark to his boss, Thrivent Holdings President James Thomsen, in January 2017. Thomsen allegedly encouraged Smith to “let it go,” offering no words of condolence or support, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says Smith complained again a few weeks later, telling Thomsen that he was having problems with Huth “because I’m black.” Thomsen allegedly told him he would take care of the situation.
Instead of taking action against Huth, however, the company launched an investigation of him, Smith said in the lawsuit. First, the company reviewed his expense accounts for improper submissions. Smith was reprimanded in February even though all of the expenses had been “preapproved” by Thomsen, according to the lawsuit. Halunen said Smith was required to pay back $3,900 in allegedly improper expenses.
In March or April, another investigation was launched in response to a complaint of retaliation filed by Huth, according to Smith’s lawsuit. Smith said the investigation concluded without a finding of wrongdoing on his part.
In June, Smith said he was summoned to the Chicago O’Hare Hilton, where Thomsen fired him, according to the lawsuit. When he asked for an explanation, Smith said in the lawsuit, Thomsen told him that the two investigations had left him “too tarnished to be successful.”
Smith said in the lawsuit that he later learned Thrivent replaced him with a white male.
Halunen said Smith was never warned that his performance was unacceptable.
“That would be customary in any business,” Halunen said. “The last resort is to put them on a performance improvement plan, and none of this happened. It is very unusual and very suspect.”
Thrivent is now seeking repayment of a $275,000 bonus paid to Smith, claiming he didn’t earn the money because he voluntarily resigned, according to the lawsuit. Halunen said Smith expected to earn at least $607,500 in 2016. In his lawsuit, Smith asks for lost wages, compensatory damages and unspecified restitution.
“What’s strange is that if I wasn’t performing well, you might be able to say that has something to do with” my firing, Smith said in the interview. “But we were performing at such a high level that at the end of the first quarter, my boss came to me and said, ‘I want you to reforecast your plan because you are doing too well — you guys are going to blow through all of the goals and objectives we had set for you.’ ”
In the lawsuit, Smith said his race and his reports of racial discrimination were “motivating factors” in his termination.
“The organization just didn’t do anything,” Smith said in an interview. “And I think that is largely because they don’t have any experience with any other senior level African-American people there.”
Thrivent denied Smith’s claims of discrimination.
“Mr. Smith’s claims that his employment with Thrivent ended because of race or retaliation are completely false,” the company said in its statement.