Coming to a head but not getting ahead
August 28, 2012 10:31 AM   Subscribe

My employer seems to be pushing me toward filing an EEOC complaint or resigning my job. What do I do?

I work in a very male-heavy environment at a smallish company (currently 36 full-time regular employees, plus one former-employee-consultant, one outside sales rep, and 3 officers, 2 of whom co-own the company and are in a legal dispute regarding whether one is legally allowed to have fired the other).

I have worked here for 14 years and have not had an annual review since 2009. I am the only employee not to receive an annual review in that timeframe. There are no women in positions of power, and have not been since 2000. I am the highest ranking woman in the company, but have been effectively demoted several times through org chart shufflings that result in my reporting to someone lower down the chain, despite no history of disciplinary action.

Week before last, our head of accounting/designated human resources person caused a problem with me trying to resolve an applications clash. I asked him politely either to let me handle it or let me know to step out. He responded by declaring that he was forwarding all my emails to the GM, and that anything I had to discuss should go through either the GM or the purchasing manager from then on. He has not apologized or rescinded that directive since, but he did go to the logistics department and declare, "This is why I hate working with heifers!", meaning apparently me in particular and women in general (it was not a size-related comment, as I am not a plus-sized person).

Yesterday, the GM became involved when he inquired why I was sending certain information to him rather than the head of accounting, and I provided him with the email where I was instructed to do so. I was instructed to disregard the directive and forgive and forget. I told him that I did not like to put myself in a position where I am disobeying a direct order that has not been rescinded, as I feel that could put me in a position of insubordination. I further said that I have observed a pattern of problematic attitudes and behavior toward women, and I would appreciate an opportunity to address them with him, with an eye toward problem resolution.

The GM has responded that he is unwilling to discuss this with me or hear any incidents supporting that point without a lawyer present, and asked if I were making a formal complaint. I told him that I was informally notifying him of a problem and would prefer to discuss the situation and see if we could address it, that litigation was not my plan. So far, it appears that he is sticking to his guns, that we cannot discuss anything about this without the company attorney present.

Possibly relevant points:
I am in Georgia, which is a "Right to work" state.
There are no disciplinary actions on my record.
There is no one else here capable of performing all or a significant subset of my work functions.
I do not have substantial documentation, only a few email forwarded to my personal account, regarding issues contributing to a hostile work environment, but I do have one or two witnesses to back up some incidents.
None of the incidents I have reported to "human resources", such as it is, have been documented or investigated. In every case, I was told to get over it.
The GM is also the VP and the seat of power; the CEO is not involved in daily operations or employee relations and has not been for several years. The CFO was one of the people I reported incidents regarding, and he was dismissed in January (unrelated; a power struggle between himself and the CEO), over which there is an ongoing legal situation.
Given that a lot of the specific incidents occurred more than 180 days ago, I am under the impression that this means they cannot be considered by the EEOC if I were to consult with them.
I would prefer to resolve this amicably, but am afraid that may no longer be possible.
Next week, I am scheduled to go on my first-ever week-long vacation. I am concerned that actions or discussions may occur during this time to further jeopardize my position.
I have been considering starting a search for employment elsewhere, but have not yet begun that search and do not have a backup option at this time. I could survive off savings for a few months if I have to, and longer if I resort to my 401k, but am terrified of having no income.

What should I do? What should I say and not say and to whom?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Never resign; you lose a strategic advantage by doing so. Get an attorney. Make them fire you; if possible, bring your attorney to your exit interview. Document everything.

Clearly, these people aren't going to give you a positive reference, so you will gain nothing whatever by resigning. I mean, if you have to do it just to save your serenity, do it, but if you can stick it out you will be in a better position to fight them and get a decent settlement.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:35 AM on August 28, 2012 [10 favorites]

You should probably take advantage of the free consultation that just about any employment lawyer will offer up and get a professional legal take on what your options are. Also, ask the mods to anonymize this for you. If you do end up in a legal dispute having this posted during work hours and connected back to yo may not be to your advantage.
posted by COD at 10:38 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

You've been there 14 years and this is your first week-long vacation? This place is crazy! Get a lawyer, preferably one sensitive to women's issues. Agree that this should be anonymized.
posted by mareli at 10:39 AM on August 28, 2012

Start looking for a new job today, while you continue to do this job. IANAL, but it seems like, whether or not you have an actionable EEOC complaint, this company has multiple organizational problems and isn't likely to suddenly become a great place for you to work.
posted by 6550 at 10:41 AM on August 28, 2012 [11 favorites]

Employment law is complicated and you're asking us to opine, in part, on your legal rights, etc. This is not the appropriate forum for that. Find a competent employment attorney in your jurisdiction and retain his/her services.
posted by dfriedman at 10:45 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh yes, new job, now.

Also, find a nice attorney and pursue a case. You know that story of the frog in the pot? Where the water starts out warm, and slowly gets turned up? That's you.

From now, document everything. Keep a log, keep emails, print them out, and get your personal files off of the company computer.

Hang in there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:49 AM on August 28, 2012

You're asking for legal advice. You need a lawyer for this.
posted by MoonOrb at 10:53 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

As others have advised, you should speak with a lawyer.

If you do not know or can't get a lead to a suitable employment law attorney, contact your local bar association. Here's a link for Atlanta and environs. Here's a link to other Georgia bar associations.

When you speak to the legal referral staff, say that you have an employment-related issue that involves possible sex/gender discrimination.
posted by ferdydurke at 11:04 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The GM has responded that he is unwilling to discuss this with me or hear any incidents supporting that point without a lawyer present,

For what it's worth, this is not necessarily him saying "You're gonna have to sue me, you crazy person!" It could well be him saying "Oh, shit! That's serious! No way I'm going to say something that could get me in trouble here."

If it's the latter, this is an understandable and actually fairly smart move on his part. EEOC litigation is an enormous pain in the ass.

So basically, he's saying that he's willing to have a conversation about this, but not without counsel. That's not an unreasonable position to take, but it is a problematic one for you. The company can probably pay lawyers with pocket change. You can't. But the cardinal rule of negotiations is that if one side has a lawyer, both sides need a lawyer. Otherwise you will likely get yourself in trouble.

So what you need to do is get in touch with an employment law attorney--there are recommendations upthread--and say "Look, here's the deal. I may have a case here, but I don't really want to have one. I want this to just go away. But my employer seems a bit gun-shy and won't talk to me without his counsel present, so I feel like I need counsel too. Can you come with me to have this conversation? Hopefully, that will be the end of it, but if it matures into an actual complaint, you'll be my guy."

It sounds to me like this isn't an ideal place to be anyway, but it may be possible to work this out. Give it a shot. But be prepared to give it a few more of a more strident sort if amicability isn't possible.
posted by valkyryn at 11:12 AM on August 28, 2012 [12 favorites]

Definitely get a lawyer.

Good luck.
posted by commitment at 11:23 AM on August 28, 2012

Either before or immediately after talking to a lawyer, make a backup/copy of all of your email and any other records you might need if you suddenly don't have access to work resources anymore. Go to OfficeMax at lunch and pick up a 16GB thumb drive.
posted by rhizome at 11:37 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

... Copy of all of your email

Bad advice.

She might be in serious breach of the employer's policy, and inadvertently hasten her own demise there.

Forward your email to your personal account, or print hard copies.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:58 AM on August 28, 2012

Forward your email to your personal account, or print hard copies.

Umm... this isn't any less likely to be in violation of company policy. This is something you're going to want to ask your lawyer about.

But understand that either way, getting a copy of that email is something that's doable. Your lawyer can basically demand copies of the entire file, and they have to be turned over. If they get deleted, and there's no company policy which would explain why (e.g., everything old than 90 days, etc.), the company gets in big trouble for spoliation of evidence.
posted by valkyryn at 12:01 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Get your own lawyer, ASAP. It will be worth it.
posted by batmonkey at 12:07 PM on August 28, 2012

There is so much better than a place you don't get proper vacation and you get treated like this. My advice would be to lawyer up and to start looking for other employment.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 12:54 PM on August 28, 2012

I don't think he's trying to force you to file a complaint or leave your job; I think he's trying to protect himself and the company by avoiding informal, unofficial discussion of a potentially future-litigious issue -- which, arguably, is his job -- and is leaving it to you to decide whether the issue is significant enough to initiate a formal complaint, or whether you would rather drop it and move on. That's not entirely unreasonable, so you should make the decision to open a formal complaint or drop it. Only you can decide which to do.

However, there are other issues also worth addressing, and for one of them he's given you the necessary tools: he's told you (on paper I hope!) that you can ignore that other person's directive. You are fully in a position to send a mail to them both like so:

"[first name] and [first name]: I'm sending this email to both of you in order to ensure there is no miscommunication or misunderstanding going forward. On [date], [accounting/hr person] instructed me that [s/he] would be forwarding all my emails to [GM], and accordingly I have been including [GM] on mails since that date. On [date], [GM] inquired as to why I was doing this, and has instructed me to stop including [GM] on these mails. On [date], I stopped as requested. However, this apparent disconnect between you both is something that should probably be cleared up, hence this email. I trust that once you both come to a decision, that you will inform me of the results so that I can proceed accordingly. Thanks!"

As for your lack of formal review, you can follow up with the GM: "[GM], since we've been talking about [accounting/hr person], I realize I haven't received a formal review from the company since 2009, which I believe is out of line with company policy. Would you prefer that I follow up with [accounting/hr person] on this directly, or should I defer to you to reach out to [her/him] to schedule that review?" Based on the response you get from the GM, you should have a good sense whether you've turned the GM into an ally, or whether you need to get out.
posted by davejay at 1:01 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Contact an employment lawyer in your state immediately:
posted by Ironmouth at 1:41 PM on August 28, 2012

I agree with valkyryn: all (it sounds like to me) is that he is saying is that his job requires him to take discussions like this seriously. He does not have the liberty to have informal discussions about things that he has a fiduciary duty about. He is telling you (at least as far as it sounds) that you and he only have two options regarding your concerns: you and he can discuss it "on the record", or can't discuss it at all.

But I would think twice about making an issue of something that you heard second hand.

Finally, it is time to find a new job.
posted by gjc at 4:17 PM on August 28, 2012

One other point: I'm an employment attorney. Best to listen to the advice of an employment attorney in your jurisdiction before taking any actions at all.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:28 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Aside from getting a lawyer and looking for a new job: Document, document, document. For those instances that happened with a witness, get the witness to write up a statement.

Often, the best way to avoid a fight is to be certain you can win an ugly one.
posted by klangklangston at 5:15 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anon contacted me by MeMail and said she'll ask the mods to update later when there are more developments and asked me to let you all know she's meeting with an attorney.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:57 PM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

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