Harsh reminder from Trump's 'locker room' banter? Workplace sexual harassment is still common

Published October 13 2016
Updated October 14 2016

"When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything."

Donald Trump's now infamous and crude remarks about women, caught on video in 2005 and aired frequently in the past week, are a sorry, but necessary, reminder:

Sexual harassment remains a disturbing cancer in the U.S. workplace, on university campuses and beyond.

Trump has apologized, sort of, blaming his graphic comment about his ability to grab women's genitals without repercussions on typical "locker room" banter.

Except Trump was not in a locker room at the time. Backlash from many public figures has condemned his excuse, with many stating they do not hear such talk in the locker rooms they use.

What the Trump video has unleashed is a broader catharsis.

"Women: tweet me your first assaults," writer and social media star Kelly Oxford posted after the Trump video surfaced. An astonishing number — a million and counting — of women responded online with their own experiences, uniting under the hashtag #NotOkay after Oxford shared her own tale of sexual assault.

Why address this in a business column?

Because Trump's own loutish display 11 years ago occurred in a workplace setting. The Apprentice reality TV show star's lewd banter took place as he prepared to meet a young actor for a cameo appearance on a soap opera. Since the video's release, several other women who encountered him in workplace settings have described disturbing instances of inappropriate behavior.

Not that Trump has a monopoly on harassment. Tampa Bay, like most major metros, has plenty of legal claims made by female employees who have been badgered, belittled, touched and threatened in their jobs at businesses big and small.

One recent encounter is described in a complaint filed in August with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by Kathryn Wyant, a young employee at Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg.

Wyant accused her employer of sustaining a hostile, alcohol-fueled work environment and retaliating against her when she tried to address the situation by going through the proper corporate channels. In addition to being urged to participate in college drinking games by her boss during office hours at Raymond James, Wyant said her boss was prone to foul language and talking about explicit sexual escapades.

Here's one example described by Wyant: On June 16, she returned to her desk to find a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, a malt beverage. It was a known signal to anyone working in her "alternative investments" group "to chug it immediately." She declined, but was called into her boss' office later that afternoon. Four male co-workers watched, with some preparing to take video with their phones, as Wyant was told by her boss "to get on her knees and chug the Smirnoff." She refused, but later stood and drank — to avoid retaliation, she said — while insisting she not be filmed. Video was taken anyway.

In her claim to the EEOC, Wyant complained to the investment firm's human resources department about being humiliated, but received little support. Later, her boss was demoted, but would remain a co-worker of Wyant's. The HR department, according to the EEOC claim, suggested Wyant avoid him by switching to her previous job in the company, one that would constitute a demotion.

Because of what Wyant considered institutional retaliation, she sought an attorney. Soon after, the claim states, Wyant's boss — a 2011 graduate of Columbia University — was fired by Raymond James.

According to her August EEOC claim, she found herself in the aftermath to be shunned at work and sidelined for future opportunities.

Wyant's earlier Facebook posts include young enthusiasm at getting her first job at Raymond James after graduating from the University of Arkansas. "So excited for this amazing opportunity," she wrote in June 2014.

And now? A little more than two years later, Wyant no longer works at Raymond James. A confidential settlement was likely reached in this matter, as no sides are commenting on what happened.

Raymond James did not respond to my request for comment this past week. In August, the company, one of Tampa Bay's largest, stated it is committed to providing a work environment free of discrimination and one in which people are treated with courtesy, consideration and respect.

Raymond James said then that its policies specifically prohibit harassment in any form. "We are committed to taking appropriate action where individuals have violated our policies and, more importantly, our values."

This case stands out because it involves a well-known area company. But local courts are awash in lawsuits brought mostly (but not always) by women claiming workplace harassment.

Among allegations contained in some recent suits:

• A female manager of a check-cashing business in Ruskin saying she was groped by the owner.

• A server at an Ybor craft beer restaurant saying the harassment by the general manager escalated to the point of his grabbing her throat and putting his hands down the front of her shirt. The manager's boss did nothing because he is receiving sexual favors from two female employees, according to the suit.

• In Hillsborough County, a young woman working in the service department of an auto dealership says she was sexually harassed by a co-worker related to one of the managers. The suit states he would grab her rear end, discuss sexual fantasies about her and ask her to have sex. When she complained, he threatened to have her paycheck withheld.

• In Safety Harbor, a young woman just starting work at a medical clinic encountered one of the doctors, 59 and married. He began texting her, asked her to stay late after work, caressed her shoulders, pulled her tightly against him, and even ground his genitals against her hip, the suit states. When the firm failed to restrain the doctor's advances, the woman felt she had no choice but to quit.

There are other harassment suits. Lots of them. But the truth is that for every suit filed, dozens of bad workplace situations go unreported, especially those involving women with modest means who are in need of work.

Rogge Dunn, a veteran Dallas employment lawyer, represented Wyant in her case against Raymond James. He says incidents of workplace harassment are more diverse and on the rise.

"It is a courageous thing to speak out against an employer," Dunn says.

And maybe an even braver thing to speak out against a locker room star who believes he can act with impunity.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.