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BusinessNews

Former employees accuse BlueGrace Logistics of racism and leadership failures

Scroggins: CEO Bobby Harris shouted at me in a meeting meant to address blackface incident

Former BlueGrace Logistics employees are sharing stories on social media and with the press alleging that BlueGrace management fostered a hostile work environment that tolerated racism and intimidated employees who spoke out about it. BlueGrace Logistics is a Tampa, Florida-based freight brokerage concentrated on less-than-truckload freight. It reported gross revenues of $368 million in 2019.

Nicole Scroggins, the woman who brought the allegations to light, said she wants BlueGrace to be held accountable, and she wants the company to do the right thing by supporting all of its employees.

“I couldn’t recommend working at BlueGrace to my friends or family because I knew what I was going through,” Scroggins said in a phone interview. “They created a culture of survival of the fittest, but it was only ‘super chill’ or ‘cool’ for certain kinds of people.”

Scroggins, who worked in billing and collections at BlueGrace’s headquarters, initially posted on Instagram her story of two incidents that happened while she worked at BlueGrace. Scroggins, who is black, was responsible for collecting payments from shippers for certain sales representatives. Employees who knew her described her as an extremely hard worker who “never slacked off, even on Fridays.”

Scroggins’ main job was collecting shipper payments for the accounts of sales reps who worked at BlueGrace branches all over the country, but she also analyzed lost revenue due to nonpayment of freight bills and issued reports directly to BlueGrace’s C-suite.

Scroggins and her payment resolution team followed their sales reps on social media to stay in touch and get to know them better. What she saw in January 2017 shocked her: One of her sales reps in Chicago had tweeted a photo of himself at work in blackface the previous October. What was worse, the sales rep used official company hashtags, and other BlueGrace employees and executives had “liked” and retweeted his tweet. 

BlueGrace CEO Bobby Harris told FreightWaves that the company was not aware of the post until four months later, when Scroggins raised the issue. As of press time, there were still public social media images and videos of BlueGrace employees tagged #culturebg on Twitter.

Loretta McCracken, a 20-year veteran of the transportation industry who worked across from Scroggins, corroborated Scroggins’ account in a conversation with FreightWaves. McCracken said that upon seeing the tweet, Scroggins’ face “turned white, and she looked like she was going to vomit” and was very upset. After discussing the incident, McCracken urged Scroggins to report it to human resources. After talking to other black employees, Scroggins did so.

What she wanted was simple: an acknowledgement that the incident occurred, an apology from the company, and some form of sensitivity training so that BlueGrace employees would know that kind of behavior was unacceptable in the workplace. Ultimately, none of those things happened.

Scroggins emailed Jerry Morris first, a human resources representative, who ran it up the flagpole to Sean Butler, chief human resources officer at BlueGrace. Scroggins didn’t hear back for a week and reached out to Butler directly. Butler wrote on Jan. 26, 2017, that it was “unacceptable” and that he would discuss the matter with Bobby Harris, BlueGrace’s founder, president and chief executive officer. Butler also asked Scroggins for recommendations about how to resolve the issue.

A week later, after nothing had happened — the incident was never acknowledged by the company, the sales rep never apologized and no sensitivity training was offered — Scroggins emailed Butler on Feb. 1, asking him to “please tell me what the game plan is here? I’d like to know if this is going to be handled soon.” Butler wrote that he had already handled the situation in “a professional and discrete [sic] manner,” and that he had “provided coaching and education to a few individuals.”

The problem as Scroggins saw it was that BlueGrace was still unwilling to tell its employees not to come to work in blackface or tell its black employees that they mattered and that the company would try to do better. She reached out again to Butler on Feb. 9, and he said that from his perspective, the issue was resolved. Butler also pulled Scroggins’ director, Carol Haeck, Bobby Harris’ older sister, into the matter. Then Scroggins was called into a meeting with Harris and Butler in Harris’ office.

Scroggins said that she was told to sit down while Harris, the chief executive officer, stood behind his desk. Harris “proceeded to stare me down and scream at me for causing more problems and bringing up things from the past and not letting it go.”

Scroggins wrote down what happened the day of the meeting, and shared those notes:

“[Harris] said that if I thought he was the type of person who was going to apologize and say he’s so sorry this happened and kiss my ass, he’s not that guy,” Scroggins’ notes read. “I was told that they cannot dictate what is and is not offensive for social media and can’t tell [people] what they can and cannot say online. He said it’s my right to confront the person and I said that I had never experienced something like this before and it seemed like HR was my best bet.”

“[Harris] also tried bringing up animal cruelty, sexism, and how women dress, and football teams and the rebel flag and immigration … all things that did not have anything to do with blackface,” Scroggins wrote. “He said that if he had only worn the wig or a name tag or something else it wouldn’t be offensive and I said that’s not what the issue is.”

“I got very emotional and was on the verge of panic multiple times during the conversation and vocalized my distress. [Harris] continually told me that I don’t get it, I don’t understand, and I’m not open to his ideas: ‘you don’t get it, you aren’t trying to understand’ and that I wasn’t listening. He was talking over me as I said this. I was lectured to the entire time and felt completely uncomfortable.”

Finally, Scroggins was told that BlueGrace would not implement any sensitivity training because a companywide training session would be too disruptive to the business, and furthermore that Scroggins herself was being disruptive by taking Harris’ time.

“They closed it by saying how much everyone likes me and how much equity I have at BlueGrace,” Scroggins wrote. “I asked for them to tell me exactly what I did wrong and was told I did nothing, but I was being disruptive because they had to take the time out to sit with me.”

In a statement to FreightWaves, BlueGrace CEO Bobby Harris wrote that “when Ms. Scroggins escalated her concerns four months later, I met with her personally along with our Chief Human Resources Officer to hear her opinion and suggestions. Her input was taken constructively,

and Ms. Scroggins continued to remain a contributing member of the BlueGrace team for over a year afterwards.”

McCracken was at her desk when Scroggins returned from the meeting: “She wasn’t in tears — she was professional enough to hold them in — but she looked like she had the s—t beat out of her.” McCracken said when they took a lunch break, Scroggins told her what had happened in the meeting, crying the entire time. McCracken said that she believed every word of what Scroggins said, both because Scroggins was one of the best employees BlueGrace had, and because McCracken herself had witnessed Butler’s combative, aggressive attitude toward perceived troublemakers during a previous matter.

“Everything [Scroggins] said about Sean was exactly what I’ve seen with my own two eyes,” McCracken said in a phone interview. “That’s the culture there — Bobby hired Sean specifically to squash things like that.”

McCracken went on to say that of all of the transportation companies she’s worked for, which include top freight brokerages as well as publicly traded 3PLs, BlueGrace had the best culture on the surface but the worst culture “under the surface.” 

“When you scratch the surface beyond Free Beer Fridays, underneath it’s the worst company I’ve ever worked for,” McCracken said. “There’s so much nepotism — you’re either part of the family, or you’re a troublemaker who’s lucky to have a job.”

Scroggins said that when she left Bobby Harris’ office, she realized she needed to find another job, and she made plans to leave. Before she could do so, though, she says she was harassed by another BlueGrace executive, Nick Klingensmith, who was executive vice president of sales and the person who hired Scroggins for her first job in sales. 

A few months later, in May 2017, Scroggins changed her hairstyle and came to work with her hair in a wrap. Scroggins said that Klingensmith walked by her desk and loudly called her “Aunt Jemima,” looking around the workspace for laughs from other employees. Scroggins felt humiliated and told him that what he said was racist, it wasn’t funny, and that he couldn’t talk like that to her. Klingensmith laughed it off, Scroggins said, and Klingensmith said he meant nothing by it. Later that afternoon, Klingensmith passed by Scroggins’ desk again — she sat near his office — and again loudly said, “Look, it’s Aunt Jemima!” Scroggins said she never reported the incident to human resources because of her experience reporting the prior blackface incident.

Scroggins decided to go public with her story because she noticed that BlueGrace never made an antiracist statement despite representing itself as a minority-owned and -operated company. 

“If BlueGrace had handled my complaint properly,” Scroggins said, “I’d never have a story to tell. There would be nothing to tell, and Nick would have been obligated to complete training to teach him not to say the things he said to a woman at work. I want BlueGrace to be held accountable in a way they have never held themselves accountable. They care more about animals than their black employees [referring to the company’s philanthropy in support of the Humane Society]. BlueGrace needs to step up and do what it should have done years ago, which is recognize and protect its women employees and its [black, indigenous, and people of color]. We worked extremely hard for them. They need to pay us back and do what needs to be done.”

BlueGrace and Warburg respond

FreightWaves reached out to BlueGrace management, BlueGrace’s public relations representatives and Warburg Pincus, the private equity firm that owns a controlling interest in BlueGrace, for responses to Scroggins’ allegations and to learn whether BlueGrace thought the blackface incident had been handled appropriately and whether the company had taken steps to make sure that employees knew how to treat each other professionally and with respect.

“We take these allegations very seriously and support a full investigation and response,” said a Warburg Pincus spokesperson. “Warburg Pincus has always been committed to the highest standards of diversity, equal opportunity and inclusion. We do not condone any behavior that compromises respect in the workplace, either in our own firm or in our investment portfolio.”

Bobby Harris also responded with a statement.

“As the CEO of BlueGrace Logistics, I do not tolerate bias or mistreatment of our employees of any kind, whether based on race, color, age, or sexual orientation,” Harris wrote. “Our #1 Core Value is Be Caring of All Others, and we live by this creed every day in how we work together and service our customers. We are very disheartened that Ms. Scroggins endured any behavior that put her in an uncomfortable situation. As a minority myself, and the owner of the largest minority-owned 3PL in the United States, I take racism very seriously, and we hold ourselves accountable to treat everyone with respect. We are sorry this event occurred.”

“Since 2016, BlueGrace has taken a number of steps to ensure an open and caring culture,” Harris continued. “We actively hire and promote women and minorities into senior leadership positions. Our Chief People Officer has created and will continue to create and publish company-wide diversity training sessions for all employees. We are learning new lessons every day on how to better ourselves and demonstrate our commitment to creating a safe work environment.”

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John Paul Hampstead, Director, Passport Research

John Paul conducts research on multimodal freight markets and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. Prior to building a research team at FreightWaves, JP spent two years on the editorial side covering trucking markets, freight brokerage, and M&A.
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