(Un)Settled

I made two New Year’s resolutions this past year: 1) Not to buy any bread this year. I would make all of our bread from scratch and 2) To leave my job, one way or another, by the end of the year. I have a perfect score on number 1 so far. And sometime in the next few days I will sign a settlement agreement with Evil Corporation ending, not just my job with them, but my career as an aerospace engineer once and for all. After the settlement agreement is signed I will not be able to discuss Evil Corporation whatsoever. Before that happens I wanted to write down what happened to preserve for myself and anyone else who wants to know what really transpired. I want this to serve as a record of the discrimination that occurred. Discrimination and retaliation against women happens every day in this country; gender equality is not a fight for the past but of the present. It is never acceptable for anyone to discriminate against someone simply because they had a baby. I want my daughters to know that I fought the good fight against discrimination. I may have lost the battle but I will live to keep fighting the war.

********************************

I started working for Evil Corporation over eleven years ago. I was a model employee; working late, traveling frequently. I earned promotions, raises, bonuses, and a division achievement award. I have more than one letter from high ranking government officials who, unsolicited, sent letters of praise to my managers. Until Older was born I worked full-time and then some. After Older was born I took a long maternity leave (most of it unpaid) and returned to work part-time. I stayed working part-time through my pregnancy with Middle and after and through my pregnancy with Baby. My managers would have liked me to come back full-time, but Evil Corporation has a precedent of people working part-time for various reasons (about 3 percent of the company works part-time) and everyone was generally supportive. I was able to transfer to a different group and back again while part-time. I received raises, bonuses, and a promotion. When people outside of work expressed surprise at my part-time schedule, I told them what a fantastically supportive company I worked for. I had that coveted balance between work life and family life.

Before Baby was born I arranged to take another long (by U.S. standards) maternity leave. Six weeks of the leave would fall under paid “disability”, the next six weeks would be partially paid under California paid family leave, and the remainder of the leave would be unpaid. Management agreed easily to this plan; it wasn’t something I had to negotiate for. Baby was born and when she was nine months old I returned to work; again part-time. When I returned to work I began working on two projects. On one of the projects I was told that I was specifically requested due to my previous excellent work. The second project was something of a mess and I volunteered to take it over. It was acknowledged within our group that this was a poorly defined task, for a challenging customer. I led the study and, along with a team, completed it with positive feedback from our customer.

After being back at work for a month or so it was time for the annual performance review cycle. Given that I was on leave for much of fiscal year 2012 I asked if I should fill out a performance evaluation. I was told that all active employees had to complete a review and that of course everyone knew about my leave and it wouldn’t be an issue. I emailed my portion of the review off to my manager and didn’t think much of it. I expected an above average review, but nothing spectacular. I assumed that I would get the average raise when the time came around but that I hadn’t done enough work to justify a bonus or promotion. I did think that over the forthcoming year I would work hard and that it was getting close to the time when I might earn another promotion.

A few days later my immediate manager called me into his office to discuss my performance review. As I sat down he told me that he wanted to “explain what I would be seeing” before he gave me the actual document to review. I remember feeling a knot form in the pit of my stomach; something was about to go wrong. My manager told me that as a part-time employee I would automatically be ranked in the “bottom bin” of the company’s “value ranking process” (a process separate from the performance review, but done at the same time). I asked whether this was a company wide policy or only a policy in our division. He replied that he didn’t know if it was company wide but did know that it was the policy under everyone who reported to the Vice President in charge of our division. He elaborated that by being ranked in the bottom bin I would not be eligible for raises, bonuses, or promotions. He went on to tell me that we were in a stressful fiscal environment and that “they” were looking for even small imperfections. He then handed me my completed performance review. On it were two areas where my performance was identified as “Falling Short”. I expressed my surprise at the poor evaluation as I had never received poor marks on a review during my ten previous years at the company and especially given that I had only been working for a few weeks of FY12. How could I have possibly done that poorly when I wasn’t even there? I asked for clarification and got a couple of inconsistent explanations. I told my manager that I felt the review was not at all accurate. At the conclusion of the meeting he offered that we could go talk to the next level of management about the review if I wanted to. I said that I would definitely like to do so and I made an appointment with my manager and his manager, a director, for the following week.

For the next meeting I brought every piece of email correspondence I had to show that the accusations against me were false. Little did they know, but I had saved every email I have received or sent at the company – ever. I was worried but I still thought that this might be some sort of misunderstanding that I could clear up. Sitting in a closed door meeting in front of my manager and our directer I began to make my case. Without even looking at the documentation I had brought, the director agreed to change one of the “Falls Short ” on my review to “Meets Expectations” if I “wanted” him to. Of course I wanted him to but I told him that wasn’t enough. I was unhappy with that assessment as I thought my performance was better than simply meeting expectations and that there was still a second area of performance that the review had rated me as “Falls Short”. I received a strange twisting explanation for this review, centered on my poor performance on the study report for the difficult project I talked about above. I presented the director with two emails, one from the customer and one from a colleague praising my work on the report. I asked my manager what he thought of the report and he replied “I thought it was good.” I then asked the director if he had read the report and he admitted that he hadn’t. I said point blank that I didn’t understand what was going on. And then the director leaned back in his chair, smiled at me and said “Well some people might say that it is your fault that you got pregnant, that you had a baby, that you went on leave.” I didn’t say in anything in response. I just sat there, speechless and horrified. There was a long [I might say pregnant – if I was in a joking mood] pause and then the director said that he would change the second “Falls Short” on my review to “Meets Expectations”. I don’t remember the meeting too clearly after that. The director started talking about a future project, I nodded along, my head spinning. When the meeting concluded I walked to the bathroom and I remember how pink and flushed my face was in the mirror. I felt nauseous. I finished the rest of the day; his statement echoing my head. What exactly did it mean for my future? What should I do about it? Why did it feel that everything good thing I had ever done in school and in my career was suddenly meaningless compared to the fact that I had decided to have another baby?

I drove home that night in a daze and after the kids went to bed I told Husband what had happened. I was sad and then I started to get angry. I’ve always been the perfect, compliant employee at work. They’ve had no reason to ever see me angry. But I am a force to be reckoned with when I see something wrong. When I worked at Boeing (before Evil Corporation) I found out that they didn’t cover birth control on company health plans and I fought (and won!) to get it covered. When our house was broken into a couple of years ago and it took the police 45 minutes to respond – despite the fact that I told the dispatcher that the burglars were still in the house – I raised hell and got a personal apology from the police chief. I was not to be trifled with. Husband reminded me that we had a union at work and that I should ask them for help. I asked and they were more than happy to guide me through the process of filing a grievance against my performance review. A few days later I asked my manager for a hard copy of my performance review and I saw that both of the “Falls Short” had been changed to “Meets Expectations”. But I also saw that my maternity leave was actually referenced negatively, in writing, in the manager’s comments section. I told my manager in person and via email that I would not be signing my performance review.

And that’s when the shit really hit the fan.

My manager started to hang out in my office daily; conversationally, but insistently “encouraging” me to sign my performance review. I refused. Over the next month there was a cycle of harassment and refusal. I would set up meetings between myself, management, and the union, as per the company policy, to resolve my grievance. Management would then cancel every meeting at the last minute. Meanwhile, my work dried up. The project I was supposed to be spending most of my time on failed to get off to any sort of real start. When my manager asked me point blank if I had enough to do, I told him no, that I needed more work. He smiled and said he would see what he could do. I don’t think it was his idea to withhold work from me; I think it came from above him, but the end result was that I sat around and worried about how I would possibly be able to get a good performance review for FY13 without any work to do. And then one day in early December it seemed that management had had enough of me and my complaints. I was told that I was to attend a closed door meeting with my manager and the director that afternoon so that they could “explain” any “misunderstandings” to me. At that point I had had enough of being harassed and called the company’s internal EEO office to file a complaint. Management then backed down on the private meeting. I formally filed the complaint in a two hour meeting with the director of EEO and my union representative. I brought all of my email correspondence and notes with me and turned it over to the director (I kept copies, of course). I gave a list of possible witnesses. The EEO director asked me what I wanted from all of this and I said 1) an apology, 2) an accurate performance review, 3) a company policy on the status of part-time workers and workers returning from leave, and 4) If I continued to experience harassment or issues with getting work in my department, I wanted assistance with transfer to another department. The EEO director promised a full and prompt investigation and I naively hoped that is what I would get. In January I started to email the EEO director about the status of the investigation. I got emails back about the holidays slowing them down and people being unavailable to interview due to illness and travel. My hope began to deflate. I sent more emails at the end of January, in February, in March and now the responses changed to “I am out of the office and can’t discuss it next week. Let’s discuss it at [future date].” Future date would come and go and be pushed off farther into the future. April came around. I was still doing virtually nothing at work. I had applied for three transfers to other groups (I would later apply for a fourth) and had been denied all of them. I stopped getting any response from the EEO office at all. They ignored me completely. The union sent a certified letter to the EEO office on my behalf. Nothing. I went rather crazy and went out on disability. The union sent another letter. Nothing. The union’s attorneys filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on my behalf, on the grounds that the company was violating the bargaining agreement with the union by not addressing my grievance. On the day the before the union rep was to testify to the NLRB investigator the company attorneys called the union attorneys and told us that they were ready to give me a verbal report of their investigation. The union rep made her testimony and later that week we agreed to a meeting and met with the EEO director. The meeting was long and strange but the end result was that the company had no explanation for why the investigation had taken so song, we found that the EEO office had never even interviewed everyone involved, they they found no evidence of wrongdoing, and that Evil Corporation would not be making any changes to policies nor would they help me transfer to another group. Through the union attorneys I then filed more grievances and requests for information that were all denied.

At the conclusion of that process I was left with three options: 1) Go back to work and pretend as if none of this ever happened, 2) File a lawsuit on the basis of pregnancy based discrimination and harassment, or 3) Try to negotiate a settlement out of court and leave the company. It was suprisingly hard to rule out Option 1. Even though it would have been incredibly painful to go back to work, keeping my head down, expecting more abuse; it was very difficult to decide to walk away from my well-paying, well-respected job. It is not an exaggeration to say that the financial implications of leaving my job are severe and long-lasting. We will still be able to put food on the table and have a roof over our heads, but this will affect the house we are able to live in, our childrens’ eduction, our health insurance, and our retirement (or lack thereof). Option 2 was tempting; I wanted to fight but it would have been a risky and ugly flght. My attorneys were very clear that despite the protections offered by the law and good evidence of wrongdoing by Evil Corporation, my case simply wasn’t severe enough to warrant litigation. On top of that, litigation would likely take years and for my case to be strong I would need to continue working at Evil Corporation while we went through the legal process. So I was left with Option 3. We’ve been negotiating back and forth for a month now and are close to an agreement. The settlement will be very small but it will include my being laid off rather than quitting which is important to me mentally (I refuse to quit) and will also also me to file for unemployment.

This is the end of my career as an aerospace engineer. I have no passion for the work, questions about the morality of the work I was doing, and little prospect of finding another job. As part of the settlement, Evil Corporation will not give me a bad reference but I won’t have a good one either. I had thought that I might be able to ask some senior colleagues for references but they have all turned their backs on me. It’s over. I won’t miss the work, but I am sad. I can’t help but feel that my professional life has been a spectacular failure. I am angry that nothing has changed at Evil Corporation. I believe that other women will be subjected to the same treatment that I was. I don’t think that my complaints helped to fight discrimination; on the contrary; I fear that I serve as a shining example of what will happen if you complain and Evil Corporation now knows that they can get away with discrimination for a very small price. I found out awhile back that the director who made the discriminatory comments was given then company’s highest award for fiscal year 2013, along with a check for $25,000 (that’s more than I’ll be getting in my settlement, in case you were wondering). My lawyer tells me that this is pretty standard practice, companies try to make those that do wrong look good by giving them awards just in case the complaints should lead to a lawsuit, I am utterly disgusted with the leadership at Evil Corporation and I wonder if all companies are the same way.

Despite everything I wouldn’t change having filed that complaint. As hard as it is to live with this result, it would have been harder still to have lived silently with being discriminated against.

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4 thoughts on “(Un)Settled

  1. OH MY GOD!

    What would it take to have a strong case? Seriously, we want to know (maybe over lunch if it is too much to write).

    Both of us were thinking if we were on a jury and heard this Evil Corp would lose.

    If you ever need a work or any other kind of reference please feel free to contact us.

    L&J

  2. Good question. The short answer is two things would make the case much stronger: 1) A repeated, documented pattern of abuse by this particular individual or corporation. As egregious as their actions were, they are, unfortunately, relatively “common” in corporate America and therefore the Fair Employment and Housing Commission will not prosecute such cases – I would have to find a lawyer to litigate (which I could do) but most lawyers would be reluctant to litigate because 2) I don’t have many measurable economic damages. Although I was denied a transfer, I wasn’t (yet) denied a promotion, raise, or bonus. Evil Corporation doesn’t even have a regular promotion or bonus cycle (they do give regular raises) so it would take a VERY long time of me working there and being discriminated against (years) before I could prove economic damages. I do have emotional damages but those can go either way with litigation and also when you claim emotional damages you lose the confidentiality privilege between yourself and your psychologist/psychiatrist and your records become subject to scrutiny by both sides. Very unpleasant to say the least. Basically corporations can completely get away with a “limited” amount of discrimination and discriminatory comments so long as they don’t inflict significant economic damage on the individual.

    • OK. I understand however; it is still not right and honestly at this moment I’m at a loss for words as no doubt you have been.

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