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Hairstylist's sexual harassment suit challenges SAS's reputation as a great place to work

Chante Morris, a woman who worked 14 years as a hairstylist at SAS Institute, says the Cary company’s national reputation as a great place to work belies its true culture, in which some male managers feel safe to harass and intimidate women subordinates, and where as a contract worker she had few protections.
Chante Morris, a woman who worked 14 years as a hairstylist at SAS Institute, says the Cary company’s national reputation as a great place to work belies its true culture, in which some male managers feel safe to harass and intimidate women subordinates, and where as a contract worker she had few protections. Special to the N&O

A woman who worked 14 years as a hairstylist at SAS Institute says the Cary company’s national reputation as a great place to work belies its true culture, in which some male managers feel safe to harass and intimidate women subordinates, and where as a contract worker she had few protections.

The company says the woman’s claims are baseless and that it listens to employee complaints.

The allegations are laid out in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in Raleigh by Chante Morris, who says she was recruited to work in the hair salon as a contractor on the SAS campus in 2000.

At first, she said, “Things were wonderful.” She built up a steady clientele of SAS employees at nearly every level of the company, including SAS co-founder and CEO Jim Goodnight, she said.

But after five or six years, she said, she began to have problems. Though she was classified as a contractor, she said, nearly every aspect of her work was controlled by the man who managed the salon and the recreation center at SAS.

“He controlled everything,” she said. She wasn’t allowed to schedule her clients’ appointments, select and order her supplies or set the prices for haircuts. She was not allowed to collect payments from customers, she said. Employees paid for haircuts through payroll deductions, and SAS issued her a check once a month.

While SAS employees enjoyed regular raises during the years she worked there, Morris said, she was not allowed to increase prices for her services for years at a time. When she asked to be able to charge a fee for missed appointments, Morris said, the manager required her to charge twice the fee for women as for men.

Nearly 6,000 employees work on the 900-acre Cary campus, whose amenities have been lauded in business journals around the country. The property includes a fitness center offering workout classes; volleyball, tennis, racquetball and basketball courts; a softball diamond and soccer field; a track; a nine-hole disc golf course; and a pool.

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SAS Campus in Cary

Employees have access to on-campus day care, and to services such as manicures and massage therapy. The company has an array of more than 4,500 works of art and displays Goodnight’s exotic mineral collection from around the world. Workers have a selection of several restaurants and coffee shops on campus, including a cafeteria where the cost of food is company subsidized.

Company spokeswoman Shannon Heath issued a statement about the lawsuit, saying, “Ms. Morris was a hair stylist vendor with SAS and left in early 2014. The first we heard of any allegations outlined in this complaint was shortly before Ms. Morris filed an EEOC charge in late 2017. We investigated what she alleged and found no legitimacy to her claims. The EEOC concluded that it was unable to find violation of a statute and dismissed the claims. We respect anyone who comes forward with concerns. We investigate any allegations of this nature and take appropriate actions based on what we find. This is now a legal matter and we can’t discuss this any further.”

Just like many movements for equal rights in America, the path for women to seek recourse from sexual harassment has been through the courts. But grassroots activism in the 1970s opened the space for a nationwide conversation, and the Civil Right

In 2017, SAS marked its 20th year on Fortune Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in the U.S. Announcing the accolade in a press release, the company said, “Recognized consistently as a best workplace in countries around the world, SAS also tops the lists of great places to work for millennials, recent graduates, women, technology workers, working parents and single fathers.”

In his bio on the company’s web site, Goodnight says, “Ninety-five percent of my assets drive out the gate every evening. It's my job to maintain a work environment that keeps those people coming back every morning.”

The salon where Morris worked is another perk; SAS provided the salon space to Morris free of charge, she said.

Comments from manager

Morris said her relationship with her manager there became difficult when he began to make comments about her body and in particular, about her breasts. Some of her male clients — all of them SAS employees — also made comments about them, she said. She said she had always been self-conscious about her breasts, which she said were oversized, and that the comments about them were degrading and upsetting.

Eventually, she elected to have breast-reduction surgery, in part, she said, because of the unwelcome attention from her manager and others at SAS. Because the surgery would require her to be out of work for several weeks, she said, she told her manager her plans. His response, she said, was to advise against the surgery, telling her that she would lose half of her male clients.

“The supervisor stated that her clients did not come to see her for her haircuts,” her lawsuit says. It says that he pointed at her breasts and told Morris, “They came to see her for ‘those.’ ”

Morris said that while she was cutting his hair, she told Goodnight about some of her concerns in 2013 and that he said he would have someone in human resources contact her. Morris said she told human resources her complaints, including not being able to schedule her own appointments or set her own prices, and having to endure sexist comments. Morris said she didn’t describe the comments as sexual harassment at the time because she didn’t know the legal definition of harassment included such remarks.

While sexual assault is prosecuted under criminal law, sexual harassment can be prosecuted as a civil rights violation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which treats it as a form of sex discrimination.

The law applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It’s defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ... when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

'Cruel sexual statement'

In her suit, Morris says that complaining to human resources made things worse. When she returned to the salon, she said, her manager assigned her janitorial duties she had never had before, including scrubbing the inside and outside of the trash can and mopping and vacuuming and cleaning the ceiling vents. Morris said she performed the extra work but later told the manager it was hurting her back. She said in the suit that he told her “he thought she would be used to being on her knees — a clear, intentional and cruel sexual statement.”

Morris said she told human resources about the new work requirements, which she considered retaliation for her earlier complaint, and that the company did nothing to help her. In early 2014, she said, several months before her contract was due to expire, she was called to human resources and told that her manager felt uncomfortable working with her and that her contract would not be renewed. The human resources representative told her, she said, that it would be best if she left her job before the contract expired, and she did so in mid-February.

Afterward, she said, she went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Raleigh to file a complaint, as required by law prior to filing a sexual harassment suit. That was in the spring of 2014, she said, more than three years before SAS says it became aware of her complaint.

Morris continues to work as a hairstylist, but says she lost nearly all of her SAS clients when she left the company and has been unable to build enough of a new clientele to make a living.

Last year, as women across the nation began to publicly accuse celebrities, politicians, business and religious leaders of sexual harassment, Morris began talking more about her experience at SAS, including on social media. Late in the year, she said, she was asked to meet with company officials to talk about a cash settlement over the treatment by her manager and the benefits she had been denied by being misclassified as a contractor.

Morris said SAS offered her a settlement which she was told would be taxed and paid in increments, if she would sign paperwork on the spot. Morris said she asked if she could first take the offer to an attorney to review, and was told no. She and SAS did not come to an agreement.

Earlier this year, the EEOC told Morris it had not substantiated her claims and issued a right-to-sue notice.

Since then, she said, a SAS employee who was a former client came into the salon where she now works to warn her that the company might try to discredit or embarrass her if she pursued legal claims against it. When she asked how, she said, the employee asked if she had ever sent provocative photos to any company executive. When she said no, she said, he told her photos could be edited and that “It would be a shame” if such pictures ended up on social media, where they could embarrass her children. Morris said the man told her that, “When SAS looks bad, Jim (Goodnight) gets mad, and when Jim gets mad, we all suffer.”

In the suit, Morris says she was the victim of sexual harassment and discrimination while working at SAS, and that it was illegal for her manager to control her as if she were an employee when she was classified as a contractor.

Morris claims she continues to suffer physical, mental and psychological damages from her treatment by the company. She asks for lost earnings, compensatory damages and other financial relief. She asks for a jury trial.

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