In the Trenches: A lack of core values leads to trouble for one good samaritan

In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme demonstrates its animosity for someone who was only trying to help.

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In the early 1960s, Acme began manufacturing high-tech gizmos for the U.S. military. But, it was 14 years ago that Anne Goragote found employment at the plant and began her career in a variety of hourly wage positions in different departments. Her proven competence earned her a spot as a technician on a special team that was upgrading the plant’s automation and wireless communication system.

In formal performance appraisals, her current supervisor, Pete Terbilt, wrote that Anne was an important part of the team and helped them successfully get through certain critical stages in the implementation process. In an apparent effort to motivate, Pete suggested to Anne that being in on the project’s ground floor could open up some career advancement at Acme. Specifically, Pete dangled the carrot of a salaried position or a pay raise if Anne could maintain her current productivity for the duration of the project.

In a completely unrelated situation, Nola Contendrie, an employee in another department, was campaigning for a position on the executive board of the union representing Acme’s hourly workers. During the campaign, sexually disparaging flyers about Nola started appearing in the plant and locker rooms. Nola complained to the management chain of command until the company initiated an investigation.

The investigators spread out through the plant and in a conversation with Anne learned that she had seen a female employee leave a stack of the flyers in the company lunchroom and another stack in one of the restrooms. Anne also said that she’d be glad to testify to this fact, if things went that far. Just to be safe, Anne reserved a few of her remaining vacation days for this purpose.

Ultimately, Nola sued Acme, the union and its president claiming she’d been subjected to a hostile work environment. During her deposition, Nola stated that the only witness she could name who saw someone distributing the flyers was Anne, someone unknown to her and who had no vested interest in the suit. This tidbit flew through the management grapevine.

Early in the shift the next day, an enraged Pete stormed down a factory aisle to Anne’s workstation, summarily removed her from the project team and sent her back to the assembly line. A few months later, Anne received a memo from Acme’s HR department telling her that she was no longer needed to teach the evening skills training courses for other Acme employees, a part-time job that she relied on for a bit of extra income.

Then, in direct contradiction to Pete’s promises, Acme formally declined to promote Anne to the next higher pay grade although the increase was long overdue. To top it off, Anne was informed that she and employees with less seniority were eligible for promotion only if they received more training and worked the night shift.

Anne needed a break from this madness for a while. A vacation was in order, but months had passed and she heard nothing about being called to testify. Anne tracked down Nola to determine when and if she’d be deposed. Anne was surprised to learn that she was Nola’s only witness and that the suit had settled shortly after it began.

Suddenly seeing a connection between a willingness to testify and the treatment she’d been receiving, Anne went to Cal Varey, Acme’s HR director, about her suspicions. Cal told her there’s nothing that could be done and she might as well look for another job. The hazing probably wasn’t going to stop.

Ever the optimist, Anne completed the required training but was still denied the promotion. Then, Acme denied a specific request from the leader of the automation upgrade to have Anne join the team on a business trip to visit a key supplier. Acme also denied Anne a salaried position that could insulate her from the rampant layoffs that were derived from the improved automation project.

The termination steamroller caught Anne. Unlike other laid-off employees, Acme didn’t refer Anne to a nearby Acme subsidiary for future employment even though it was known that the subsidiary was interviewing and hiring employees with less experience. An angry Anne filed a charge of discrimination with the state’s human rights commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Then she took charge of her own life and, on her own, secured an interview with the subsidiary and was offered a job. But the offer was withdrawn. When Anne asked why, she learned that the subsidiary had called Pete for a reference check. That was the last straw, and Anne filed suit against Acme, alleging discrimination.

How could this situation have been avoided? Should hourly employees really expect to achieve exempt status? Does it ever make sense to try to help out with another employee’s problems? Should one expect to be able to take a supervisor at his word? Can the HR department and Acme be held liable for not doing more to stop the harassment and unfair treatment? Should Anne have gotten the promise of a promotion in writing?

A corporate consultant says:

The way for this situation to have been avoided would have been for Acme to have core values that mean something. As I read through the scenario I kept thinking, what kind of an organization – in this day and age – would drag its feet in investigating an event as serious as distribution of derogatory sexually explicit materials? The culture of an organization is defined by what’s allowed to happen and what isn’t.

Acme is allowing inappropriate conduct and isn’t allowing an atmosphere of integrity and trust. Nola appears justified in bringing a suit for a hostile work environment. Further evidence of an ailing corporate culture is the weak, inappropriate response from HR about what Anne should do (look for another job because the hazing would continue). It’s highly likely that the state and federal EEOC findings will result in significant costs being incurred by Acme.

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