Gender row sees Mark Lamberti resign as Imperial CEO

Mark Lamberti has resigned as CEO of Imperial.
Mark Lamberti has resigned as CEO of Imperial.
Image: Martin Rhodes

Mark Lamberti has resigned as Imperial CEO‚ following an adverse judgment in the case brought by fired employee Adila Chowan‚ whom he called a “female employment equity candidate”.

Imperial has promoted its chief financial officer‚ Osman Arbee‚ to succeed Lamberti as CEO on May 1.

Lamberti’s April 30 departure from Imperial‚ announced on Wednesday morning‚ follows his resignations from the boards of Eskom and Business Leadership SA.

“The [Imperial] board has noted the content and tone of the judgment‚ in which there is no finding of defamation‚ racism or sexism despite extensive and frequently inaccurate publicity directed at Mr Lamberti suggesting that there was‚” Imperial said in its statement announcing Lamberti’s resignation.

“In light of this‚ Mr Lamberti has resigned in the interests of the Imperial group and its stakeholders‚ who may be prejudiced by such publicity.”

Imperial said its board had carefully studied the judgment‚ “and accepts the conclusions reached therein”.

“In addition to finding that the ex-employee had suffered damages arising from dismissal by [Imperial subsidiary Associated Motor Holdings]‚ Mr Lamberti was found to have impaired the dignity of the ex-employee during a conversation on April 15 2015. Mr Lamberti has apologised unreservedly for any unintended hurt.”

Imperial said its board "has further resolved to implement corrective action to address deficiencies in Imperial’s gender and race relations culture highlighted in the judgment‚ bearing in mind that substantial progress in gender and racial transformation".

Earlier this month‚ in a letter Lamberti submitted to public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan to resign as an Eskom director‚ he maintained that “while mistakes were made and there are important lessons to be learnt‚ there were no findings in the judgment of race or gender discrimination against AMH‚ Imperial or myself. Despite this‚ there has been a mainstream and social media frenzy of generally inaccurate commentary. This is being fuelled by a political agenda and legally incorrect interpretations of the judgment‚ which have culminated . . . in the most vitriolic defamation of my person."

In an email to Imperial staff in early April‚ Lamberti said his reference to Chowan - an experienced chartered accountant - as a "female employment equity" candidate was not intended to demean her. "My statement‚ intended to indicate attentiveness to the Employment Equity Act and society’s expectations of business‚ was not malicious or meant to hurt or demean her in any way and I regret and apologise for any hardship that it caused‚" he said.

Chowan brought the court application against Lamberti last year after she was fired in September 2015 over allegations of misconduct. She was summarily suspended and investigated after she laid a grievance over Lamberti's comments. The North Gauteng High Court found Chowan to be a credible witness‚ who gave reliable evidence about how she was sidelined from being appointed as company CFO - despite promises made to her by Lamberti. Judge Piet Meyer found Chowan's belief that she had suffered racial and gender discrimination was "justified"‚ based on the facts before the court.

The court also found that Chowan proved that she suffered damages as a result of Lamberti and AMH’s conduct.

Chowan said Lamberti's comments made her feel like the only reason she’d been employed within the Imperial Group was because she was an “equity employment employee”. She testified that she’d never been spoken to like this before - and was particularly humiliated because she was addressed in this way in front of other senior managers.

“I had built my career. I had been a CFO. I had acted as a CEO. All those achievements were not being recognised‚ apart from the fact that I was now being objectified in terms of being a female employment equity candidate‚” she testified.