Fired Comcast worker pushing company to review policies on sexual harassment

Protesters rally in support of women who say they were sexually harassed at Comcast call centers.

Protesters rally in support of women who say they were sexually harassed at Comcast call centers. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rylinda Rhodes showed up at Comcast headquarters in Center City Philadelphia Wednesday morning determined to get her petition in the hands of someone who would do something about it.

She arrived with backup. Her three kids, her grandson and her mother were all by her side, wearing matching shirts on that read, “My mom [Nana, daughter, respectively] is fighting sexual harassment at Comcast #MeToo.”

Rhodes and two other former Comcast employees from different parts of the country addressed a small crowd. They wielded a petition signed by more than 4,000 people — including,  Rhodes estimated, 120 former Comcast employees — demanding that the company revise its harassment reporting process and investigate what they say is an overall culture of harassment.

Rhodes, who worked at Comcast for five years in and around Washington, D.C., said offensive language was persistent and condoned.

“I constantly had to listen to my co-workers talk about what they did the night before, had co-workers say they were going ‘make other co-workers choke on them tonight’, and literally watched my supervisor putting her fingers in her ears singing, ‘La la la la. I’m not hearing this,’ ” Rhodes said.

She described one instance where a co-worker snapped a photo of her breasts without her permission. But she didn’t report it, she said, because on other occasions she was told by her supervisors simply to get over it.

“When I complained about it, I was told, ‘Rylinda, you just need to give it some time, people are set in their ways.’ I was told that I was too sensitive,” she said.

Then a co-worker came into her office and groped her breasts, she said, leaving her traumatized. She took some time off work, and received short-term disability. When her time off was coming to a close, she worked up the courage to file a formal complaint with Comcast’s human resources department.

Officials conducted an investigation, but found no evidence supporting Rhodes’ claim.

At the time, she was working at a call center in Millersville, Maryland, and was offered a transfer to Richmond, Virginia. As a single mom with three kids, Rhodes said, the move would have been too costly.

Rhodes said she asked for financial assistance to make the move. Comcast turned down that request, instead encouraging her to apply for other, closer jobs within the company.

“I applied to numerous jobs within Comcast, and I was denied for all of them,” Rhodes remembered. “Ultimately, they told me either come back to Millersville with the perpetrator who grabbed my breasts, or I wouldn’t have a job.”

She said she was fired Aug. 1, 2012.

Rhodes has filed a lawsuit against Comcast, suing for personal damages. Her lawyer, A.J. Dhali, said that they are waiting for a court date, but they have a settlement conference scheduled with Comcast in June.

A Comcast representative said the company will not comment while litigation is pending. Spokeswoman Jenni Moyer did issue a statement that “sexual harassment, or harassment of any kind, is not tolerated at Comcast.”

The company encourages “employees to report any harassing behavior without fear of retaliation. Any allegation of harassment is taken very seriously and investigated thoroughly,” she said.

Rylinda Rhodes (right) is stopped by security as she attempts to deliver a petition to the Comcast human resourses department. Rhodes has filed a claim that she was sexually harrassed during the three years she worked as a call center in Maryland.
Rylinda Rhodes (right) is stopped by security as she attempts to deliver a petition to the Comcast human resourses department. Rhodes has filed a claim that she was sexually harassed during the three years she worked at a Comcast call center in Maryland. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rhodes is skeptical.

“You can’t keep saying there’s zero tolerance,” she said. “We’re the proof that there’s a problem.”

While the #MeToo movement has taken down many high-profile men in the past months, Rhodes and fellow former employees Laterrica Perry and Jennifer McHenry weren’t demanding anyone in particular step down or be fired.

Instead, they want the company to take a hard look at its training and reporting procedures that, they said, have led to a culture of harassment.

Rhodes said basic anti-harassment training videos are not enough.

“You just watch it over and over, and you press the button. And if you don’t pass, then you take it again,” she said of the videos. “That is not effective sexual harassment training.”

Rhodes also blamed the company for creating what she called an unwelcoming and hostile reporting process.

“Human resources needs to stop treating their employees as if they are the enemy,” she said.

Rhodes said she has been inspired to start the petition by the success of the #MeToo movement. She figured if she had experienced harrassment, others probably had too.

Addressing the crowd Wednesday morning, Perry said that while their effort builds on the #MeToo movement, they don’t have the platform of celebrities to call out their harassers.

“We often hear about the sexual harassment epidemic in Hollywood and the media, but everyday working women like myself are victimized and go unheard,” she said.

Other corporate giants are reckoning with their overall culture of harassment and gender-based discrimination. Women at Nike conducted an internal survey among female employees and presented it to their bosses, causing a handful of high-powered male executives to resign in recent weeks. And Verizon launched an investigation in response to many EEOC claims coming from mostly low-wage women of color. NBC, which is owned by Comcast, is dealing with allegations against Tom Brokaw.

Petition delivered

After they had addressed the crowd outside, the three women made their way toward the revolving doors of Comcast Center to deliver the petition. While they were speaking, a few suited security guards had been lingering in the background, keeping an eye on the crowd. As the three headed toward the door, they were intercepted by an employee of the building’s property management company, Liberty Property Trust, who encouraged them to leave the petition with him.

The women declined, saying they would rather speak with a Comcast employee, and entered the building. The front desk clerk, also a Liberty Property Trust employee, called upstairs to Human Resources at Rhodes’ request, but after the person on the other end of the line would not give his name or position title to the women, they left the petition with the original security employee.

Moyer confirmed that Comcast did receive the petition and officials are reviewing it.

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