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Chicken Suit

When Paul Talanda's boss at KFC told him to reassign an employee because of her appearance, he refused. What happened next wasn't pretty.

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Every time Paul Talanda drives by a Kentucky Fried Chicken he's an emotional cocktail: he feels depressed, alienated, hurt, nostalgic. For 15 years he worked for the company at restaurants north of Chicago. He started in high school as a part-time server and within two years advanced to management, eventually opening new restaurants, hiring and training employees, and conducting orientation sessions. In 1990 the restaurant Talanda managed had such high profits and received such good evaluations that the company promoted him into the President's Club, an elite group of managers whose members were called on to train new managers and attend division meetings on new products and procedures. Talanda and other regional club members also sat on the Chicago safety committee, which was formed to reduce safety hazards on the job. For their hard work and expertise President's Club members received not only prestige and recognition, but a new watch and a plaque honoring them for "outstanding achievement in sales performance, customer satisfaction, and management innovation." By all measures Talanda was an asset to the company. But when he refused to discriminate against one of his employees, Kentucky Fried Chicken fired him.

Now, 18 months later, he's working two jobs to earn half of what he made at the time he was fired, which was more than $37,000 a year. He's recovering from what his wife calls "a year of hell," during which he became clinically depressed and they briefly separated. And he's slapped Kentucky Fried Chicken with a $5 million lawsuit, charging employment discrimination.

When Talanda was growing up his uncles owned a restaurant in Kankakee, over an hour's drive from Mundelein, where he lived with his mother and older brother and sister. Some of his earliest memories are of watching his uncles move among tables greeting customers, taking their orders. He was aware of the privilege that came with being the owners' nephew: he could pass freely through the kitchen door and into a world that was off-limits to everyone else, a world of tall white hats, stainless-steel stoves, pungent garlic and rosemary, utensils clashing on pots. He would sit on a counter and watch the chefs shave meat from a gyros spit and top off 16-inch sundaes.

Talanda's mother, Catherine, was also in the restaurant business, supporting her three children by waiting tables at a diner. When Talanda was 11 a stroke temporarily paralyzed her, and he and his siblings moved in with their father until she could look after them again. But she couldn't return to work, and the family had to rely on her disability check. Not long after the family got back together, Talanda's older brother and sister got jobs at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and when Talanda turned 16 the chain recruited him. He became a manager at 20. "He took pride in his work," his mother recalls. "He'd even bring it home. I'd tell him, "Paul, it's not your business.' He'd give out his phone number to the people at work. They'd call for him, and he'd give them advice. He was running the business as if it was his own. And he was running it on his own time."

In 1981, when Talanda was 18, he began dating Christy Lanphier, who worked in the same restaurant he did. They married four years later, and Kentucky Fried Chicken offered to cater their wedding for free.

Christy eventually took a job as an accountant for the village of Mundelein, but Talanda kept moving up in the company, bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, taking on more and more responsibility. He believed dedication and cooperation paid off, and with good reason. Though he had little more than a high school education--the company had paid for a few college courses--Talanda was already earning more than $30,000 a year.

In 1992 the company transferred him to a restaurant in McHenry, asking him to turn it into a training site for new managers. His job was to show them how to run an efficient and profitable business. It meant a lot to Talanda to be in McHenry, and not only because the new responsibility was a sign of the company's faith in him; he was also back in the restaurant where he'd met his wife.

"He was probably one of the most consistent and caring managers in the company," says Victor Elarde, one of the managers Talanda trained. "He ran a good store. He was sharp. I don't think there were many like him who really cared about the rules and guidelines like he did. I've worked with about 100 different managers, and I'd say he's in the very top ten."

Talanda didn't have much of a social life, because he worked such long hours. But he was satisfied. "I liked the interaction with the customers," he explains. "And I felt close to my coworkers. A lot of the management I had trained. I felt like part of a family."

Kentucky Fried Chicken employees were supposed to smile when waiting on customers. If they didn't, their managers might not receive a quarterly bonus. Twice a month "mystery shoppers" came into the restaurants unannounced and unidentified to evaluate service quality, product quality, and cleanliness. Forms called QSCs told them what to look for and how many points to deduct for infractions. Each store started with 103 points.

In August 1993 the company placed greater emphasis on the smiling policy, issuing a new QSC form that increased the number of points that smiles, in conjunction with attentiveness and courtesy, were worth. The new form pushed possible points for smiling up to a total of 19; previously they'd been worth no more than 3. Three bonus points were added if an employee other than the server smiled and said "Thanks for coming in." If a store lost all its smiling points in a quarter its score would now drop below 90 and managers would be ineligible for a bonus. "Smile" and "smiled" were also the only two words in bold print on the new form.

About a month after the company came out with the new form Talanda offered Dorothy Bellson a job as a server at the front counter. As a manager, Talanda's goals were to receive high QSC scores and reduce the high rate of employee turnover, which burdened the whole fast-food business. Bellson, he thought, might be inclined to stay awhile. Her tenacity impressed him--after filling out an application, she'd called him several times to check on whether a position had opened--as did her employment history, which revealed three years of experience at Taco Bell and Wendy's. Her references checked out, and Talanda hired her.

On September 28, 1993, Bellson's first day on the job, she inadvertently offended the regional manager, Joanne Overly, by doing precisely what Kentucky Fried Chicken asks of its employees. Bellson smiled. But unlike other employees, Bellson exposed a mouthful of gums. Several of her teeth had been knocked out in a car accident, and she couldn't afford dentures.

According to a memo Overly later wrote, now part of the lawsuit, the next day she asked Talanda to remove Bellson from the front counter. "She told me she objected that I hired Dorothy and that she couldn't believe I'd hire a person like that," Talanda says. "I was kind of listening in awe to see where the conversation was going." Overly told Talanda to immediately reassign Bellson to the back of the restaurant, in the position of either prep person or cook.

But Talanda thought moving Bellson would be unfair and insulting since he'd hired her for the front counter. Unless she proved negligent in her duties, he decided, he'd let her stay and hope the matter didn't come up again. Yet the more he thought about it, the more it bothered him.

A day later he brought his answering machine to work and recorded a conversation with Overly, the transcript of which is now part of his lawsuit. She told him, "I do not want her waiting on customers. . . . If QSC wants smiles, and she needs to smile, then I'm sorry. But that's really a turnoff to me as a customer to see that mouth. I mean, if she got her teeth fixed that wouldn't be an issue."

He tried to get Overly to change her mind. "I worked with Dorothy today and everything seemed to be pretty good. . . . The customers are pretty friendly towards her and everything."

"Well, what are they going to say? 'You have ugly teeth,' you know? . . . This issue is not up for discussion. . . . You know what really concerns me is that you would even consider having someone like that on your service line, because it gives a very bad impression of your restaurant."

In a last-ditch attempt to persuade Overly to reconsider, Talanda said, "Well, she's very friendly, you know."

"I'm sure she is," Overly said. "But that's not the issue."

At the time Overly oversaw approximately 14 restaurants. According to Talanda, she came into the McHenry store about once every six weeks to check on the restaurant and drop off paperwork. Her bonus, like Talanda's, depended on the stores in her area scoring high on QSCs.

Talanda expected the tape to save him from getting disciplined. "I had hoped that if it got to the point where if I didn't move her and upper management found out about it they would side with me immediately." To him, Overly's disparaging comments and her order to move Bellson solely because she didn't like her teeth seemed incongruous with the company's written policy, the "Team Member Handbook."

Talanda knew the handbook well since he'd taught it to new employees at orientation sessions. On page 12 the Fair & Equal Treatment policy states, "KFC forbids treating associates [employees] or customers differently because of their race, age, sex, national origin, citizenship, disability, or religion. You are required to treat all persons with respect. Your discriminatory treatment of others will result in disciplinary action up to and including losing your job."

Talanda didn't know if Bellson's dental condition qualified as a disability, but he strongly believed that Overly was asking him to violate the spirit and intent of the policy. Moreover, he thought moving Bellson on those grounds would be immoral--he wouldn't feel right about treating her differently from other employees based on something as superficial as a toothless smile. Do unto others, he thought.

Talanda took the tape to Bellson, who'd agreed to meet him one day before work. They sat in a Burger King next door, and Talanda played the tape for her. "I told her I'd stand up for her and that I had heard and read in newspapers that courts could fine corporations for treating employees like this."

Bellson told another employee about the tape. A rumor spread through the restaurant that Talanda had acted illegally by secretly taping the conversation, though under Illinois statute people can lawfully record conversations to which they're party without notifying the other participants. Bellson got scared and wanted to distance herself from Talanda and the tape. She told him she'd move to the back to avoid problems. Talanda said he wanted her to do the job he'd hired her for and moving her to the back would mean displacing an employee who'd been there several years.

According to Overly's memo, she found out about the tape within a matter of days, and on October 19 Talanda was called into division headquarters to meet with her and John Malloy, the regional human resources director.

"It was pretty open and shut," Talanda says. "I was there for ten minutes. He told me I'd been insubordinate." Talanda, who knew insubordination was grounds for termination, asked if he'd just been fired. He says he left the meeting with the understanding that Malloy would respond in writing in three weeks.

But when Talanda went home he called to check on the restaurant and learned a security officer was there to collect Talanda's keys. He drove to the restaurant, turned over his keys, and cleared out his belongings.

The other employees in the restaurant were never told exactly why he was fired, according to Tricia Biggerstaff, the assistant manager at the time. "I don't really know why he was terminated," she says. "It happened really fast. It was like, "Here's another manager. Life goes on.' I'd heard of the tape, but I didn't know what was on it and I wasn't even sure it existed." Bellson, she says, worked for another month and then quit.

Bellson says that once she heard the tape "everything changed. All I wanted to do was leave." She finally managed to get dentures, but she's still having trouble finding work. "I can't get a job in McHenry to save my goddamn life. Everything is owned by Pepsico [which owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut in addition to Kentucky Fried Chicken]."

Three months before he lost his job Talanda had received his annual "Performance Scorecard." Overly had given him good marks, a $1,081 raise, and positive comments, including "Paul is a good role model. Customer Service is excellent" and "He is a solid leader with direct and honest skills." His letter of termination, dated October 26 and written by Overly, paints him as someone who'd been a problem manager all along. Overly listed several incidents of "totally unacceptable" behavior by Talanda. First and foremost was that he'd "violated" Overly's authority by not removing Bellson from the front counter. He'd also posted a handwritten schedule instead of a computer printout, he hadn't properly trained Bellson, and he hadn't begun selling the new BBQ chicken sandwich.

Talanda says most of the claims came out of nowhere. "Those are what we call quick fixes. It's a joke that they were on my termination letter." He also claims that at the time his store wasn't equipped to sell the BBQ sandwich, and besides the company didn't officially introduce it until months after he was terminated.

Kentucky Fried Chicken protocol is to give verbal and written warnings, then suspend an employee before termination. "They skipped all that with me," Talanda says.

A former Kentucky Fried Chicken manager, who asked to remain anonymous because relatives still work for the company, says around the time Talanda was terminated Kentucky Fried Chicken was making a systematic effort to get rid of its high-paid managers. "It's easy to hire new ones at a lower salary rate. I was privy to a lot of conversations in the division office. I would hear district managers at meetings saying so-and-so's not fitting into the scheme. Occasionally they'd say, "This person's got to go. Let's watch him and get him on something.' I think Paul was being targeted."

Talanda immediately tried to get another job, applying for positions in the only business he knew: restaurant management. He went to Sbarro, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut. But everyone wanted to know why, after 15 years, he was no longer with Kentucky Fried Chicken

He told them he'd been fired for insubordination. "It was always a stumbling block in the interview process," he says. The offers didn't roll in.

Without store business to fill up his time, Talanda suddenly was a fish out of water. "He was a workaholic," says his wife Christy. "You couldn't get him away from the store. If they needed anything he was there--regardless of whether it was during working hours or not or whether he was scheduled or not. So watching him with nothing to do was very hard. He lost 20 pounds in two weeks and began sleeping a lot."

Talanda also began to feel he was one man against an enormous corporation. He began to believe that Pepsico wanted to silence him. He'd watch out the window, convinced that people in parked cars were on a stakeout. One day he and Christy came home to find the stove's pilot light out and the gas running; Talanda assumed someone had broken in to poison them. He started sleeping with a crowbar by the bed and the dresser against the door. Everybody seemed to have some connection to the company. It was around this time that he and Christy briefly separated.

In May, after seven months of being unemployed, Talanda took a job working with disabled adults. He and Christy got back together, and things were starting to look up. Then one morning Talanda ran into the house and breathlessly told Christy that he'd met a child in church who was actually the devil and a woman sitting next to him who was his angel. Did you ever notice, he said, that in the religious picture hanging on their wall one of the Virgin's eyes had changed color? "He scared the hell out of me," Christy says. "I didn't know where to call. It was obvious though that it couldn't go on without him being treated."

A doctor at a Buffalo Grove counseling center diagnosed Talanda with depression and adjustment disorder, which, according to the American Psychiatric Association, develops within three months after the appearance of a stressor and goes away six months after it disappears. When Talanda began considering suicide he voluntarily admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital in Libertyville for ten days. He and Christy are still seeing a therapist.

In the nine years they'd been married the Talandas had always been conservative spenders and conscientious savers. The hospital bills from Talanda's breakdown depleted their entire savings.

Last January Talanda took a job working with developmentally disabled people at a daytime treatment program, and he recently started moonlighting at Burger King, selling Whoppers with the hope of working his way up the ladder.

Chicago attorney Candace Gorman met Talanda just weeks after he'd been fired. He came to her office near Dearborn and Harrison, and Gorman liked him immediately. "He's such an honest, sincere guy. He's someone who really believes in the American system--and you don't see that very often. He knew that this was wrong, and he didn't want to be a part of it. He was in shock. He really did not think his employer would fire him."

Gorman took his case on a contingent-fee basis, and filed a complaint in U.S. District Court against Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Americans With Disabilities Act protects people like Bellson from employers who discriminate against them on the basis of a cosmetic disfigurement. In fact, Bellson is almost a textbook example. Section 1630 15a of the ADA deals with "disparate treatment," which occurs when an "individual is being treated differently because of the employer's attitude toward his or her perceived disability." The law gives as an example an employee with a severe facial disfigurement who's excluded from staff meetings because the employer doesn't like to look at the employee--an example Gorman thinks parallels the stance Kentucky Fried Chicken took toward Bellson. Talanda wasn't the target of the discrimination, but Gorman says he too is covered under the law. "There's a provision to apply discrimination laws if you're being retaliated against for opposing the discrimination," she explains.

According to Gorman, Overly's oral instruction to remove Bellson from the restaurant's front counter because of her teeth was in direct conflict with the written and implied conditions of Talanda's employment contract, as well as with the "Team Member Handbook" and federal and state laws. "If they asked him to rob a bank and he didn't, would that be insubordinate?" Gorman says.

Gorman and Talanda agreed to sue for $5 million. "He asked me if, as part of the suit, we could demand that KFC hire a certain number of people with disabilities, which I think shows this is not a self-motivated suit in any way," she says, though she points out that a judge could only order the company to stop discriminating.

As far as Gorman knows, the company doesn't dispute the basic facts of the case as she laid them out in the complaint. Around the time Talanda was fired Overly wrote an internal memo about her run-ins with him regarding Bellson, admitting that she'd asked him to find another position for Bellson because of her "severe dental problems."

Kentucky Fried Chicken contested Talanda's application for unemployment compensation, but without success. At a December 14, 1993, hearing, Overly testified that "four or five teeth in [Bellson's] mouth was not an appetizing situation" nor a "professional image we wanted to portray." The presiding officer asked if she'd conducted any studies to verify that Bellson would cause the company to lose business. Overly admitted she hadn't, that her conclusion was strictly opinion. The officer asked if Overly had ever observed Bellson performing her job duties, and Overly responded that she hadn't.

"She said just what we wanted her to say," Gorman said afterward, "that the total reason, the only reason she wanted this person to be moved was because of her teeth. I think it's in their interest to admit they made a mistake. Things just got out of hand with the QSCs that place importance on people's physical looks and therefore discriminate. I wonder how far that could be taken--in areas where most people are Caucasian it might be offensive to someone to have an African-American wait on them."

Attorneys are now taking depositions for the lawsuit, which is expected to be tried before a jury next fall. Bellson, who does not want to be part of the suit, gave a deposition that Gorman thinks will be helpful to Talanda.

Overly says she has "no comment about the situation." John Malloy, regional human resources director, and Jeni Bailey, regional director of operations, didn't return phone calls. Jean Litterst, manager of the national public affairs department, would only say, "We're looking into these rather bizarre allegations and conducting an investigation."

If you call the company's headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, you'll be subjected to a long menu of options and long periods of waiting, during which you can hear the promotional jingle "Make 'em laugh, make 'em smile. Make 'em come together for a while. Everyone needs a little KFC." Apparently Kentucky Fried Chicken still cares about smiles.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs/Lloyd DeGrane.

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