It wasn’t long ago that Ernst & Young was considered a paragon of workplace virtue.
The accounting and consultant firm touted its place on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, with a managing partner describing the company as having an “inclusive environment that maximizes and values differences, as well as offers enriching experiences for our people to thrive both personally and professionally.”
The company has also been listed on Working Mother Magazine’s 100 best companies for working mothers, People’s 50 companies that care, DiversityInc’s Top 50 Hall of fame.
But all of that has been largely swept aside recently by some truly outrageous allegations of sexual harassment – and worse, of how the company reacted to complaints from victims who came forward.
For example, there was the experience of Karen Ward. A former investment banker, she joined E&Y in 2013 in search of a workplace that was more conducive to her desires to start a family. She soon discovered that while the firm employed more than 260,000 people globally, it had only a sparse handful of female senior managers. That outcome appeared deliberate, a product of a culture that was designed to demean and devalue women, she alleged in a sexual discrimination case.
Her male direct supervisor told her she had “great big boobs” and a “nice ass,” and undermined her, stealing credit for her work when she rejected his advances, according to her allegations filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. She claimed men on her team talked openly about women’s body parts in vulgar language, hosted meetings at strip clubs, and invited Ward to join (she declined).
Her complaints in the office were met with comments that she should “tone” herself down and that she was “perceived as a bitch.” Ultimately after enduring the harassment, and being shut out of deals and projects by team members, she left the firm.
Ward’s story bore a striking resemblance to that of another E&Y partner, Jessica Casucci. Casucci claimed in an EEOC complaint that a high-ranking partner in her division groped her and harassed her at Disney World, of all places, during a corporate event.
The senior partner grabbed her breasts in public and later sent her lewd text messages asking her to come to his room. When she rebuffed his advances, he texted: “Oh well. Can’t blame a guy for trying,” according to her complaint.
The story only got worse when she reported the incident to the company’s head of diversity. Despite assuring Casucci that the situation would be handled, nothing was done apart from move Casucci away from important projects. The incident was not reported to the company’s general counsel. Eventually, the senior partner was put on leave, but only after Casucci filed her complaint with the EEOC.
Casucci later reached a settlement with E&Y that involved her leaving the firm.
The incidents involving E&Y reveal the unfortunate truth that victims of sexual harassment can’t always trust human resources to be on their side, even at companies that supposedly are champions of diversity and inclusion. E&Y may have been so focused on maintaining its reputation that it refused to confront these issues, preferring to sweep them under the rug. Rather than protect employees, the first instinct of HR in these cases appeared to be to protect the company.
What then can an employee do to protect him or herself when the worst happens? How can employees guard themselves against retaliation? Here are some facts from the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission about workplace retaliation and what employees should look out for:
- Don’t feel alone. Retaliation is unfortunately common. It is among the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in federal employment cases.
- It is probably illegal. It is unlawful for employers to punish job applications or employees for asserting their right to be free from discrimination and a hostile work environment. Asserting those rights is known as “protected activity” under employment law.
- Retaliation is not permitted in a wide variety of situations. It is unlawful to retaliate against employees or applications for filing or being a witness in an EEOC case, reporting discrimination and harassment to a supervisor, answering questions during an employer investigation of harassment or discrimination, asking managers for salary information if curious about discrimination on pay, resisting sexual advances, or requesting accommodation for a disability or a religious practice.
- Retaliation can take a wide number of forms. It can include: reprimanding an employee or giving a lower performance review than he or she would otherwise be entitled do; transferring an employee to a less desirable position; engaging in physical or verbal abuse; threaten to make reports to authorities; increasing scrutiny; spreading false rumors about the person; making the person’s work more difficult.
- Illegal harassment and discrimination can also take a wide variety of forms. Those include harassment or discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race, color, religion, sexual orientation, whether the person is pregnant, national origin, or disability. Retaliation for reporting these issues is also illegal.
- Isolated or off-hand comments may not be illegal. However, if they are pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, or results in the victim being fired or demoted, that runs afoul of the law. Harassment can also take the form of slurs, graffiti, offensive jokes, derogatory remarks, or other verbal or physical conduct.
- Employers also may not discriminate in pay and benefits, or hiring and firing decisions, based on age, sex, race, color, religion, pregnancy status, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability. In layoffs, employers must also guard against using those factors in their decisions. For instance, they may not only fire employees of a certain age, or employees that are pregnant.
- Employers may not base their hiring and firing or job assignment decisions based on stereotypes of people’s race, sex, color, religion, sexual orientation, age or other protected factors. In certain situations, employers can reduce some benefits for older workers, but only if the cost of the benefits remains the same as that for younger workers.
Do you think were harassed at work or by a co-worker? Visit our workplace harassment FAQ page for more information. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are protected by the attorney-client privilege and kept CONFIDENTIAL. (There is never a fee for a consultation.)