Six current and ex-employees of Best Buy Co. Inc. sued the retailer Thursday, alleging it has purposefully excluded women and minorities from top-paying jobs.

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SAN FRANCISCO — Six former and current employees of Best Buy Co. Inc. sued the electronics retailer Thursday, alleging the company has purposefully excluded women and minorities from top-paying jobs as part of a sales culture catering to white men.

The civil complaint, filed in a San Francisco federal court, seeks to be certified as a class action so it can potentially represent thousands of women, blacks and Hispanics who work in Best Buy’s 731 stores nationwide. The Minneapolis-based company currently employs about 114,000 workers.

The lawyers who filed the suit also hope to represent women and minorities who applied for jobs at Best Buy, but were never hired. The complaint alleges Best Buy’s managers routinely ignore applications from people “who do not conform to the (company’s) young, white, male culture.”

Best Buy hadn’t seen a copy of the entire complaint Thursday, but “vigorously” denied the allegations after reviewing a summary contained in a news release from the lawyers who filed the suit.

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The allegations “are inconsistent with our policies, values and culture,” the company said. “Best Buy is committed to a workplace free of discrimination. We do not tolerate discriminatory practices.”

But Cheryl Chappel, who is black and who recently transferred from a Best Buy store in Chico to another in San Diego County, said she has been trying to be promoted to a better sales job for more than two years only to be rebuffed because of her gender.

“I was told by several managers that I didn’t need to be on the sales floor. I was told females can’t sell,” Chappel, 48, told reporters at a news conference.

Expanding Thursday’s lawsuit into a class action won’t be a simple task.

It took three years and more than 1 million pages of evidence before a similar lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was certified as a class action in June 2004. Wal Mart, the world’s largest company, is still appealing that suit’s class-action status.

The Wal-Mart suit has emboldened class-action lawyers to target other large employers, said Jeff Tanenbaum, a San Francisco attorney specializing in labor law.

For now, the lawsuit against Best Buy looms as a public relations headache as the merchant gears up for the final stretch of its busiest — and most profitable — time of the year. Best Buy ranks as one of the nation’s largest retailers, with its sales expected to exceed $30 billion this year.

“It’s unfortunate that you can be tarred by the allegations in a lawsuit, even if they are never proven,” Tanenbaum said. “The public still remembers them.”

The complaint paints an unflattering portrait of Best Buy, alleging the company has identified white people, especially men, as its most desirable customers.

Best Buy created four hypothetical stereotypes to identify its most promising prospects, the suit alleges.

The list includes: “Barry,” a white man with a six-figure income eager to buy expensive equipment; “Ray,” a white man who likes high-tech gadgets, even though he can’t always afford everything he wants; “Buzz,” a younger man fixated on video games; and “Jill,” a stay-at-home mom married to Barry.

Best Buy spokeswoman Dawn Bryant said the suit misconstrues the retailer’s effort to fulfill the divergent needs of its customers.
The suit alleges Best Buy’s sales approach has had a domino effect on Best Buy’s employment patterns by steering women into lower-paying cashier jobs and minorities into the warehouse.

Those practices have given most of the top sales jobs to white men, giving them a better chance to become managers, said Todd Schneider, one of the San Francisco lawyers who filed the suit.

Bill Lann Lee, another attorney involved in the case, estimated white men manage more than 80 percent of Best Buy’s stores. Fewer than 10 percent of Best Buy’s store managers are women, lower than Wal-Mart, where 14 percent of the store managers are women, Lee said.