Building Services Company: Sexual Harassment

MITIGATING DAMAGE TO A COMPANY'S REPUTATION AMIDST CHARGES OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Preparing for Public Disclosure of a Conciliation Agreement With the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)


Nicolazzo & Associates' client, one of North America's leading companies in the business of integrated facilities outsourcing, faced a major enterprise issue as it needed to negotiate the resolution of a series of sexual harassment cases pending before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). With serious allegations being brought forward on many fronts, the Company's hard-earned reputation was at stake.

Background and Situation Analysis

When N&A began this engagement, its client had begun negotiations to settle sexual harassment and related retaliation and constructive discharges made against the company by various female cleaners working in facilities in the Northeast United States. The Company had been under investigation by the EEOC, a state commission against discrimination and a state's attorney general's office.  All of the cases involved minority women who alleged that their male supervisors sexually harassed them at various work sites.  The most serious allegations involved rape.

After a lengthy investigation, the EEOC had found probable cause to move forward with legal action unless the Company joined in the conciliation effort.  The government also sought compensatory and punitive damages for each victim under the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the establishment of a claimants fund of $1 million that would be available for distribution to the aggrieved parties. The government also demanded that the Company engage in a process to identify any and all additional female victims going back to 1993.  Despite denials by the Company, the government refused to back off and diligently pursued its case.

In addition to the EEOC matter, the Company had to contend with other issues that could impact anticipated news coverage.  Among the issues: an out-of-court lawsuit brought by a former executive assistant against a top executive of the company; the dismissal of a former vice president of human resources, in part as a result of an investigation into retaliation against an employee who claimed sexual harassment; an extra marital affair between a regional vice president and a headquarters employee that resulted in the birth of a child; other open sexual harassment investigations that were in their early stages; the death of an employee in an industrial accident; and a national "Justice for Janitors" campaign that was impacting pending labor negotiations.

Despite the allegations, N&A's client felt the Company had a strong track record with well-defined employment policies and training in place.  In recent years, in fact, the Company had spent considerable time and money to educate employees about sexual harassment issues.  Similarly, supervisors received special training to help identify sexual harassment, and the Company had hired a new director-level person who spent full time dealing with harassment issues.

The Plan

Within days of beginning its assignment, N&A developed a comprehensive contingency communications plan. From the outset, N&A was straightforward with its client, informing management that it was likely a story about the settlement would appear in local news media.  In fact, to better sensitize management, the agency actually drafted a "mock" news story as it might be printed in a large metro daily.

One of the keys to the plan was a number of different communications tactics that were developed from incident scenarios.  These included a possible early conciliation settlement; a breakdown in talks followed by a federal lawsuit; and the filing of an EEOC class action lawsuit. In each case, a holding statement was drafted for possible immediate response to the news media.  Key Company managers were also provided with a Q&A document and media protocol guidelines.

As a settlement date drew near, an extensive internal communications action plan was developed. It called for one-on-one contact between Company representatives and key clients, an internal memo to all employees in the affected state, and formal letters to client contacts.  The plan was to ensure that all the Company's key audiences knew about the decision before it appeared in the press.

Another important N&A strategy was the decision to work with the EEOC, state attorney general's office and state commission against discrimination in the actual drafting of a settlement press release. During conversations between the regulatory agencies, N&A, the client, and client lawyers, fact sets and quotations were carefully written into the release. By reviewing the press statement before its release, our client enjoyed a major strategic advantage and was much better prepared to deal with inquiring media.

N&A also negotiated with regulatory agencies to have two days advance warning prior to the formal issuance of the settlement news release. Meanwhile, it was decided that a member of the N&A team would serve as the official spokesperson for the client. To prepare for incoming calls, mock interview sessions were held with top company managers. On the day of the announcement, the N&A-trained spokesperson went on site to conduct interviews with print and broadcast media.

The Results

  • News of the settlement played out as a one-day story in print and broadcast media.
  • There were no disruptions in the Company's day-to-day business operations and, even more importantly, there were no customer defections.
  • Customers (most notified in advance of press reports) actually praised the Company for its handling of a delicate situation.
  • Only one media outlet mentioned any of the matters that were unrelated to the actual sexual harassment charges.
  • Acting through a single spokesperson, the Company's message was succinct, controlled and effective in the face of what could have been a highly emotional issue.

With this matter behind it, the Company was able to begin a series of aggressive programs aimed at making it a best practices employer.