Sometimes action against the boss is worth upset

WORKING LIFE

July 23, 1995|By DEBORAH JACOBS | DEBORAH JACOBS,Chronicle Features

On the whole, I discourage readers from taking legal action against the boss. There's too much of an "upset" factor: upset to your career, upset to your finances, and upset that keeps you awake at night.

But sometimes I hear about cases where the upset is relatively short-term, and workers come out ahead.

The most recent involved Monica Kennedy, who worked for River Oaks Imaging and Diagnostic -- a medical testing facility in Houston. Ms. Kennedy was a star performer selling the company's services to local doctors. Then the owner of this 150-employee company hired one of his buddies as a supervisor.

Ms. Kennedy's new boss made lewd comments about her appearance, and once suggested she use a hefty bonus to pay for a breast implant.

Initially, she thought she was the only target of this sexual harassment -- until one day, at a staff meeting, the supervisor strongly hinted that saleswomen could boost results by offering clients sexual favors.

Afterward, Ms. Kennedy compared notes with several of her co-workers. Some had even worse stories to tell. They decided to team up to correct the problem.

First, the workers tried company channels. They asked for an appointment with the owner.

Unfortunately, he had his secretary refer them to, you guessed it, his lascivious right-hand man.

Next stop: the local office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Staffers there encouraged each worker to file a claim. After mulling it over for a few days and hiring a lawyer, Ms. Kennedy and her three colleagues took the plunge last summer.

Ideally, the company owner would have immediately looked into the problem and disciplined the offender.

Instead, he punished the victims. Six months after filing her EEOC claim, Ms. Kennedy lost her job, supposedly for falsifying expense records. Two others who had complained with her got the ax after refusing to sign a new company policy; the company wanted them to promise to arbitrate disputes, rather than going to court.

When the employees reported this news, the EEOC quickly got a court order for the company to do away with the policy. The court also said the company could not penalize employees who exercise their civil rights.

Meanwhile, the EEOC investigated the sexual harassment claims and found that these employees had been treated illegally.

One week later, on June 7, the workers settled their claim against the company. The settlement agreement says they can't bad-mouth their former company and must keep mum about how much money they got.

Perhaps their biggest gain was intangible, though.

These workers lost their jobs. Yet they came away feeling that they could use the legal system to fight back against the boss' crude behavior.

"If you know that you're right and you know that what they're doing is wrong, there's no reason why you shouldn't stand up for yourself," Ms. Kennedy told me.

Career-wise, she lucked out. Four months after being fired, she became a territory manager for a dental sales company.

During an interview for that job, Ms. Kennedy had to explain why she left River Oaks. Although she knew she might lose her shot at the job, Ms. Kennedy said that she had "a legal action" against her previous employer. Fortunately, the interviewer didn't pursue it.

If you're wondering whether to stand up for your rights, remember the risks. Also, consider all the things that worked in Ms. Kennedy's favor: plenty of evidence, strength in numbers and a government agency that promptly responded.

Plus, behind the scenes was a shrewd lawyer. Soon after the EEOC finished investigating, he wisely encouraged his clients to settle. That saved everybody from a knock-down, drag-out fight in court.

Deborah Jacobs welcomes letters from readers and will address topics of general interest in this column. Write to her in care of Chronicle Features, 870 Market St., Suite 1011, San Francisco, Calif. 94102. Please include your name, address and telephone number.

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