BUSINESS

SunTrust Banks Hit With Sexual Harassment Lawsuit By EEOC

06/21/2012 05:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2012

SunTrust Banks, one of the nation's largest financial services providers, plans to "vigorously defend" itself against a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a federal agency in a Florida court last week. The suit alleges that a branch manager in Sarasota subjected female employees to "unwelcome, sexually graphic and vulgar sexual harassment" over three years.

Court filings from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describe an escalating pattern of "sexually offensive comments and conduct" that continued for years despite multiple complaints by employees, who were later fired or left their jobs. The alleged perpetrator, however, still works for SunTrust. He was recently transferred to a branch on the other side of Sarasota, where HuffPost reached him by phone Wednesday.

Between the lines of dry legalese, the EEOC documents portray a workplace that sounds more like "Mad Men" than a 21st century corporation, where an all-powerful supervisor could degrade and grope the "office girls" with impunity. The allegations paint a vivid picture of the kind of corporate culture that was deemed acceptable just 40 years ago. They also underscore the gulf that still exists between carefully worded corporate sexual harassment policies and what can actually happen in the real world.

As Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney in the EEOC’s Miami district office, put it in a statement, "When these employees attempted to complain to the proper corporate managers about the ongoing unlawful behavior of their branch manager, their complaints were ignored. This is wrong and illegal."

Atlanta-based SunTrust, which operates more than 1,665 branch locations and employs approximately 28,000 employees nationwide, makes its "Employee Code of Conduct" manual available online. "If you believe you are being discriminated against or have witnessed such discrimination against another Teammate, you should contact Human Resources," it states. "No Teammate shall suffer retaliation because they make a complaint of discrimination." A spokesman denied HuffPost's request for a copy of SunTrust's internal complaint handling procedures.

Whatever the formal procedures are, the EEOC alleges they proved inadequate in practice during the time that branch manager Kenneth Sisson is accused of subjecting three female employees to "sexual conversation" at work "on an almost daily basis" from 2008 to 2010. Former SunTrust employees Delia Timaru-Paradis, Marcia Vescio and Jena Lynch contend the conversations soon escalated into "unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature."

The court filings allege that Sisson talked to Vescio "about the 'tits and asses' of Hooter's waitresses,” asked Lynch if she "thought a couple was having sex in her truck," and repeatedly requested that Timaru-Paradis "wear a bathing suit to attract new business." Timaru-Paradis was allegedly subjected to "unwanted caresses of her neck and back, and the touching/grabbing of her legs and buttocks." And the "nonconsensual physical touching" of Lynch allegedly included Sisson repeatedly "approaching her from behind in a sexual manner."

Lynch contends she complained to the SunTrust human resources department but the company did nothing. Timaru-Paradis also claims that she complained, this time to Sisson's boss, but that he never responded to her.

According to the EEOC, Vescio was fired in late 2009, while Timaru-Paradis and Lynch stayed through early July 2010, when their jobs ended three days apart and just two weeks after Timaru-Paradis' complaint to Sisson's boss. It's unclear from the complaint whether the latter two quit or were fired; attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.

Contacted by HuffPost, Sisson declined to discuss the case and referred questions to the SunTrust media relations office, which emailed the following statement: "SunTrust has a long history of, and strong commitment to, supporting a work environment free of harassment and discrimination. We intend to vigorously defend ourselves in this matter, however we will decline to comment further on the pending litigation."

The SunTrust representative also declined to comment on Sisson's recent transfer to a bank branch 12 miles from the branch where the alleged incidents occurred.

The EEOC's decision to file suit against SunTrust is significant "because less than five percent of the tens of thousands of complaints the commission investigates every year reach a point where the EEOC determines that the employer is responsible for discriminating," said Amanda Farahany, a partner in the Atlanta law firm Barrett & Farahany who focuses on workplace law and has no role in this case.

Dr. Freada Kapor Klein, a pioneering workplace discrimination expert with her own San Francisco-based consulting practice, sees the SunTrust case as an exemplar of what can still go wrong in the modern workplace. "After decades of progress in getting sexual harassment out of the workplace, what's changed the least are complaint channels," she said.

"Typically, sexual harassment starts with unwelcome comments, remarks, jokes and questions," Klein explained, "and what [employees] need is the opportunity to speak up the first time a co-worker's behavior crosses the line."

"There ought to have been a way for someone [at SunTrust] to have alerted higher-ups about the branch manager's behavior early on without it becoming a case of 'Suzy's complaint against the boss,'" said Klein. "Unfortunately, our current legal system forces women to wait until a crime is committed to report it."

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