Former Comcast Employees Describe Sexual Harassment Allowed to Run Amok at Call Centers for YearsLatest
From the first interview Rylinda Rhodes had for a dispatch position at a Comcast center in Washington, D.C., something seemed off to her. The manager “in so many words made it clear it wasn’t the most professional environment,” she said, recalling that they had just fired some managers. But Rhodes took it as a challenge, a way to prove herself at the company. Once she started the job, though, she quickly sensed that it was going to be a nightmare. “It was shell shock,” she recalled. “Profanity used on a regular basis.”
It wasn’t just words. Rhodes had one male coworker in particular who would walk around the center hugging women. Rhodes didn’t want to be hugged; she says that as a survivor of childhood sexual assault, “I like boundaries.” So she made a concerted effort to avoid him. But one evening she was on the phone with a customer when she saw him coming her way. When he gestured to get her to stand up she shook her head no. “So he grabbed my wrist and tried to pull me out of my seat,” she said. She pulled her wrist away.
When Rhodes told a manager what had happened, she told Jezebel that the manager asked her not to go to HR with the complaint, but to instead let her handle it. Rhodes doesn’t know what the end result was.
When the company was looking for volunteers to move to its offices in Silver Spring, Maryland, Rhodes said she would go. She claims that the harassment only intensified there. The new office was mostly full of men, and she could hear her coworkers talking. It wasn’t professional chitchat. “These guys [were] constantly talking to women walking by,” she said. “This one lady who had just come back from maternity leave, [they were] constantly asking her ‘got milk?’ and making squeezing gestures with their hands.” According to Rhodes, they made comments about women’s bodies—big asses, fat calves—and even grabbed their women coworkers.
It was so distracting and made it so difficult for her to do her job that Rhodes complained to her supervisors, whose solution was to move her to the other side of the center. “To my knowledge [there was] nothing ever directed to the men,” she said.
[They were] constantly asking her ‘got milk?’ and making squeezing gestures with their hands
The move didn’t fix anything. Rhodes began sharing a cubicle with a woman who was a lesbian, and men in the cubicle would “quiz her on how she did the do,” Rhodes recalled. Rhodes could see it made her cubicle-mate uncomfortable, so she mentioned the situation to her supervisor, but she doesn’t know if anything was done, and the men’s behavior didn’t stop. “If you tried to ask them…was there a resolution,” she said, her supervisors would respond, “It’s not our business to tell you what we did.” (There’s no legal right for victims of harassment to know the outcome of their complaints.)
Shortly thereafter, her center was combined with other dispatch offices in the same region, and Rhodes felt things got even worse. “It was rampant,” she said. “You really felt like you were in a locker room.” She told Jezebel that coworkers openly dated each other and discussed their sex lives at work. “You were snoring because I screwed you so hard last night. You broke the bed,” she recalled them saying to each other. Her supervisor sat in the same area where all of this was happening, but her solution was to “put her fingers in her ear and be like, ‘Lalala I’m not hearing this,’” Rhodes said, “as opposed to standing up and taking action.”
Rhodes still wanted to complain to her supervisors before going to human resources “because I am a team player,” she said. But it didn’t work. In response, she was told to give it some time, allow the new employees to “get used to each other” and “mesh.” Her manager would tell her that she was being too sensitive and if it got to be too much she should take a break and go outside. She says another supervisor told her, “Look Rylinda, people have worked here for many years and they’re set in their ways.”
The only time she can recall that a complaint resulted in action was when she told a supervisor that a male colleague had told her to “shut the fuck up” and he got “written up,” although it was never clear to Rhodes what exactly that meant. But then she saw him at an overtime shift despite not being scheduled for it, and he told her the supervisor had said she felt bad for writing him up, so he could get whatever overtime shifts he wanted. That “really took a whole lot of wind out of me,” she recalled, her voice choked with tears. “It kind of let me know how the managers, how they feel.”
“It was rampant. You really felt like you were in a locker room.”
She decided to try to be proactive, tuning everything out except her name and work-related requests. “I was so emotionally drained all of the time, because you’re constantly thinking and trying to be proactive,” she said. Her plan also included applying for positions in other Comcast centers in the hopes of escaping the environment. But while she was told that she had a great interview for a new position, it sat open for months without her getting hired. Another time, she interviewed for a lateral transfer, only to be asked to withdraw her application a week later because the company didn’t have the budget for it—though they hired other people for similar positions. “I started feeling like I was being retaliated against because I was complaining,” she said.
She also realized that her HR complaints weren’t staying anonymous after a coworker said in front of her, “Better watch what you say or Rylinda is gonna report you to HR.”
She started to think that perhaps she was the problem. “I was like ‘Maybe I am too sensitive,’” she said. “Looking back on it now it’s insane. But I…started thinking maybe it is me. Everybody doesn’t have the same standard.”
“But,” she added, “it felt like spiders crawling on my skin because that’s not who I am naturally.”
She tried to relax at work. She would arrive early and do breathing exercises in her car. She told herself not to take things personally. She started allowing her coworkers to come into her cubicle. “I would have to lower my standards,” she explained. “I had to not care.”
But as soon as she changed her stance, she was immediately made to regret it. A male coworker walked toward her cubicle one day as she sat at her desk, and she didn’t block him from entering. Then he “bends over to hug me, wraps his arms around my arms, his chin is kind of like on the top of my head,” she said. “As he releases, he grabs both of my breasts.”
She can’t remember how she got away from him and fled outside. “I just remember…my body felt like it was on fire, hair standing up on my arms,” she said. “It wasn’t a physical pain like a punch, but it just hurt, hurt inside my soul, it hurt my skin, it hurt.”
The trauma made her go on short-term disability leave, during which she sought therapy. The therapy inspired her to stand up to her abuser the very week she came back to work. “I said, ‘When you did that I did not like that, I did not want you to do that, and don’t do that again.’ And he said, ‘Okay I won’t do it,’” she said. “I felt very empowered, I felt like I was going to be able to really stand up for myself.”
“I started feeling like I was being retaliated against because I was complaining”
But then a few weeks later, as she walked past his desk, he said to her, “I miss the girls,” referring to her breasts.
“And that one statement kind of broke me,” she said, her voice trembling. “In that little statement—‘I miss the girls’—every ounce of any kind of power that I had was gone.”
Rhodes went back on leave and told the company what happened, requesting to move to another location. “It was like I wasn’t an employee, I was the villain not the victim,” she said of their reaction. She was ultimately fired in 2012—according to a complaint she later filed with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the reason given was that she hadn’t been approved to take time off.
“I should be able to work and not have people intimidate and bully me because I have a standard,” she asserted. “I have a right to be at my job and not hear you talk about dicks and balls and how much cooch you got… I have a right to work in my workplace and be safe.”
What Rhodes experienced was not an isolated incident at a single Comcast call center. In interviews with six women who worked at the company in different locations and at different times, they paint a clear picture: Comcast call centers are workplaces where sexual harassment, both verbal and physical, is still frequently allowed to run amok. The approach to preventing sexual harassment, which the women interviewed say amounted to watching training videos, sometimes alone, didn’t stop a culture from developing in which employees openly dated, talked about sex, and felt free to get overly intimate with each other. (Research has similarly concluded that such trainings are usually cosmetic and ineffective.) When women tried to speak up in the hopes of having the company protect them, it failed to act appropriately, either telling them to handle it themselves or dragging its feet. Some even feel that they suffered professional consequences for complaining.
Their experiences were verified by friends and former coworkers who either witnessed the abuse or were told about it at the time, some who even experienced it themselves. When asked for comment on the allegations in this piece, the company declined to speak to the specifics. Jenni Moyer, senior director of corporate communications at Comcast, sent the following statement:
Sexual harassment, or harassment of any kind, is not tolerated at Comcast. The company was founded on a foundation of respect, integrity and trust. We have strong policies against sexual and other forms of harassment and encourage employees to report any harassing behavior. Any allegation of harassment is taken very seriously.
(The company has an anti-harassment policy that encompasses both sexual and other forms of harassment perpetrated by coworkers, vendors, contractors, customers, and other third parties. It has an open-door policy that is meant to encourage employees to report questions or concerns about the workplace, as well as a 24/7 hotline managed by a third party where employees can make reports or seek assistance. Comcast has a mandatory sexual harassment training that previously had to be completed by all employees within 90 days after they started, although last year was changed so that it’s required for all employees at the end of every year.)
The #MeToo movement has—so far—mostly toppled abusers in white-collar workplaces like Hollywood, media, and the halls of Congress. But there were just under 1,200 sexual harassment complaints made at the EEOC in the information industry—which includes telecom companies like Comcast—between 2005 and 2015. And now these women at Comcast, who worked in a blue-collar workplace, many of them women of color, have come together to try to do something about what was inflicted on them. Rhodes began a campaign on the workplace petition site Coworker.org in November, and so far more than 4,000 people have signed it, both current and former employees and sympathetic customers. “I feel like if we want the world to be better we have to be active participants,” Rhodes said. “Even if it’s just one person who reaps the benefits…then it doesn’t go in vain.”
The campaign has illuminated for these women that they aren’t alone in their experiences—and that the problem goes beyond their harassers. “It’s happened more than people think,” Rhodes said. “It’s a behavior that needs to be stopped.”
“I have a right to be at my job and not hear you talk about dicks and balls and how much cooch you got.”
Laterrica Perry is still employed at Comcast, but she doesn’t think she can keep working there after what she went through, she told Jezebel. She started as a sales rep in May of 2016 in Memphis, Tennessee, and a few months in, she claims that her supervisor started making comments “about my attire and how my pants fit and my body,” she said. “When I would go out on vacation with my husband he would ask me did we make a baby.” One day at a lunch meeting she asked where the condiments were and he replied, “I thought you were looking for condoms.” He “was making inappropriate jokes throughout the time when I started initially working there,” she said.
Then in May of last year she wanted to get another job at Comcast and asked him to give her a letter of recommendation. “He told me he would help me…he would write the recommendation letter, but there would be strings attached,” she said. “I thought he was joking.”
But he made it clear that he was serious, calling her to tell her that he would write the letter if she would agree to date him. “He was telling me that he couldn’t stop thinking about me and he was having dreams about me and he thought I put a spell on him,” she recalled. He said he wanted to buy her lingerie, asking what size she was. “I told him I didn’t feel comfortable giving him my lingerie size but he was [so insistent] so I gave him my shoe size.”
When she finally made it clear she wouldn’t give into his advances, she said he retaliated against her: “Anytime when I put in for sick time he denied my sick time,” she said.
She sent an anonymous report about his behavior to human resources in July of 2017 because she was afraid that he would retaliate further. HR then told him there was an accusation against him. “I was hoping they would keep some type of confidentiality,” she said. Instead, she told Jezebel, he was able to figure out it was her with ease, and then “He basically went around the center telling people that I was lying…that I was trying to get him fired.”
“When I would go out on vacation with my husband [my supervisor] would ask me did we make a baby.”
Perry says that he was eventually fired. But it took HR until October—three months later—to fire him, and during all that time, she said, “He was allowed to go around and tell people those lies and slander my name.” She added, “I don’t think they acted urgent enough.” She sent HR records of his text messages and phone calls. “I think at least immediately he should have been suspended. But he was allowed to stay there and…really ruin my reputation.”
Perry says she has been diagnosed with PTSD because of what she went through and is currently on disability leave, which has meant a huge drop in her income. She’s had to take a hardship withdrawal out on her 401(k) account to get by. “I’ve been having nightmares about it,” she said. “I’ve been on so many medications to help me sleep, for anxiety, for depression… It’s been very traumatic and stressful.”
She also went to the EEOC and is currently in mediation, but she doesn’t think she can work at the same center again. “I feel like everyone has an opinion about me,” she said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable going back there.”
“It’s been a nightmare,” she added. “I really just can’t wait to put this behind me and just move on.” She said, “I wanted to speak out so that my truth could be heard and I wouldn’t just be a victim and not do anything about it.”
Suzanne Mitchell started at a Comcast center in South Carolina in late 2004, and within a year and a half she was promoted to a customer account executive. But she claims that her promotions coincided with sexual harassment, which started toward the end of 2006. The first person who harassed her, she told Jezebel, was a supervisor. “His type of harassment became an everyday thing,” she said, tears in her voice as she recalled the experience. He would get so close to her while she was working that she could feel his breath. While she was on the phone, coworkers would send her messages telling her he was looking down her shirt. He would stare at her breasts when they talked. “You feel violated,” she said.
It wasn’t just men. A woman she worked with came over one day after Mitchell had changed her hairstyle. “She came over and sat on the end of the cubicle and she was like, ‘I like your hair,’” Mitchell recalled. “She was like, ‘You know I like redheads, you know my wife is a redhead.’” Then the coworker “puts her fingers through my hair,” she said. She would frequently “smack me on the butt,” smell her hair, touch her arm.
“Someone in your space where you can feel their body heat up against you, that’s too close,” Mitchell said. “If they’re in your hair or touching any body part uninvited, that’s sexual harassment.”
This behavior lasted for six years, until she left the company, in 2012, for unrelated health reasons. “It was just an ongoing thing,” she said. But not for a lack of trying to make it stop. She reported it to HR three times, but “I was told three times to pick my own battles,” she recalled. “That was the exact words.”
“I knew it was sexual harassment, and being told that you need to pick your own battles was them pushing me off,” she added. “When I bring something to you and you don’t do anything about it, it belies a problem, a deep-rooted problem that y’all allowed to happen,” she said, of Comcast.
“If they’re in your hair or touching any body part uninvited, that’s sexual harassment.”
The experience took a deep toll on her. “I felt worthless,” she said. “It was messing with my mental state, which led to depression and anxiety, my anxiety was going through the roof.” She was put on Prozac and Valium to deal with the mental anguish. She had dreams about her male supervisor touching her. “It was in my psyche,” she said. “I felt drained all the time, like I was always fighting.”
She continued to excel at her job, which she loved, in spite of these experiences. “Throughout it all I continued to overcome, I never didn’t meet a quota, all my evaluations were top notch,” she said. But, Mitchell said, the harassment “made it hard.”
Mitchell, Perry, and Rhodes were not alone. Rebecca—a pseudonym, because she requested anonymity—took a customer service job at Comcast, in Virginia, in December of 2016, attracted by the promised benefits and pay. When she started, a male engineer seemed friendly at first, offering to show her around. But then it changed, as it did for Rhodes, Perry, and Mitchell—conversation with coworkers all too quickly became sexual, and small comments added up to create a hostile atmosphere, she felt. He started cornering her when she was alone and “saying very inappropriate things, acting in a way that I felt was predatory,” she said. Conversation turned graphically sexual. “He would ask if I was into lesbianism, say, ‘Have you ever slept with a woman, I have,’” she said. One day he walked by her and said, “Ew, it smells like sex in here, who have you been fucking?”
“I felt it was him using his power directly over me because he could.” She was 19 at the time. “When you’re young and vulnerable people don’t think you’re going to report something,” she noted. “You’re an easy target.”
But she did report it. HR’s response, she says, was to ask the male coworker if he had done what she said. When he apparently denied it, they told her she had to work at the center with him. At the time she was still in training, so a sympathetic manager moved her to another location to complete it. But as her training came to an end, she started to feel sick about the idea of going back to work alongside him. “I was barely able to have conversations, sleep, I didn’t eat much at that time at all.” The night before her first real shift, she quit.
“I’d say the culture at Comcast is like, you fit in…and if you don’t for some reason, then get out,” she said. Others echoed the same experience of an insular, sexualized culture that refused to change.
It was hard for Rebecca to get a job after that—potential employers would ask why she was only at Comcast for a short time, but she felt she couldn’t tell them the real reason, for fear she’d be judged. It took her months to get work again.
Jennifer McHenry worked at Comcast in Denver, Colorado for about three years, starting in 2008. She enjoyed the work, which she could do while going to school. “I liked being able to help people,” she said. But the environment didn’t feel right. Employees openly dated each other, including supervisors and subordinates, and some of them got promoted over more qualified people. “The only people who got promoted were the girls who seemed to be dating male supervisors,” she said. “It was sort of a bro culture… We just had to kind of look the other way if people were making inappropriate jokes.”
Then, she told Jezebel, her supervisor started to get a little too friendly. She claims that one evening, when she was working an overtime shift after everyone else had left, he came up to her cubicle. “He starts talking about his wife, how they don’t sleep in the same bed,” she recalled. “It was really weird, and I removed myself from the situation.” She told him she had to go to the bathroom.
After that rebuff, she said he started writing her up or talking to her in his office every week for minor issues. She thinks he was targeting her because she didn’t give in to his advances, and eventually she was fired.
She didn’t report it. “I was…24, 25,” she said. “I thought that was part of how the corporate world worked.”
“I’d say the culture at Comcast is like, you fit in…and if you don’t for some reason, then get out.”
Catherine Hodgson worked at a Comcast center in Sarasota, Florida from 2004 to 2013. The whole environment was sexualized. “There’s a lot of flirting going on,” she said. “This kind of stuff happens all the time… It was part of every day. Every day.”
One particular married male coworker was known for it. “He was a huge flirt with most of the women,” she recalled. “A real Casanova kind of guy.” He was “huggy.” He told her he visualized her naked. Once he said as she bent down to get something out of a vending machine, “I was trying to see if you were giving me a little cleavage back there.” He even showed her pictures of his penis on his phone. “I would shake my head and walk out,” she said.
Once he contacted her outside of work, saying he was near her apartment and asking to come up. She agreed, but “then he got handsy and kissed on me,” she said. She made him leave.
She didn’t say anything about his behavior. “I really loved my job,” she explained. “I just went along with most of the stuff without ever complaining.”
But one incident pushed her over the edge. Hodgson has intense food allergies that can send her into anaphylactic shock. So when a manager offered her candy, she told him she couldn’t eat the sugar. “And he looked at me and he goes, ‘Well good god girl, I hope you’re not allergic to dick.’”
“It really, really offended me,” Hodgson recalled. “I was disgusted by him, I was repulsed by him.” Her supervisor told her to go to HR, but the HR rep asked her whether she could handle it herself by talking to him. “And I looked at her and I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” she said. “It’s like the police saying, ‘I know you were raped by this guy, can you just go in and talk to him.’ I felt like I was being dismissed.”
Eventually the company had the manager apologize, she told Jezebel. She thinks he was perhaps given a written or verbal reprimand for the incident, but she can’t say for sure. “I don’t know what repercussions happened, I don’t know what disciplinary action happened at all.” She didn’t feel like the company took her seriously. “Leaving it like that, it did not feel very satisfactory. If it was me, I would have been fired,” she said.
“If [my supervisor] had not told me to go to HR, I would not have,” she added. “It would have been another one of those [things] that leaves you feeling less than, less cared about, less respected, and you just move on because you know what, Comcast is big.”
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation.