Customers visiting the Geek Squad desk at Best Buy weren’t always the most polite, recalls Sarah Tremblay, who worked at two store locations in Long Island, New York, until recently. They were often freaking out because their laptop or their phone wasn’t working.
“No one is coming there because they’re having their best day, and they tend to take it out on you,” Tremblay told HuffPost recently. That was expected, but the sexual harassment, the assault, the stalking — that was not OK, she said.
In a lawsuit filed in New York state court Thursday, Tremblay says she was repeatedly harassed by customers. Male customers groped her, kissed her and even stalked her, according to the complaint. A male colleague also made lewd comments. Tremblay repeatedly complained to her store manager, but he did nothing about her complaints.
She reported the harassment to human resources at Best Buy headquarters in Richfield, Minnesota. They suggested she file a police report and even take a leave of absence to deal with the anxiety that Tremblay said she was experiencing. Yet, shortly after that, Tremblay was fired in 2018. The ostensible reason was that she had not sent all her customers online surveys about their shopping experience. She told her managers at the time that she only did this if a customer behaved poorly toward her.
Tremblay was promoted several times over the years at Best Buy, her pay rising from $12.75 an hour to a little more than $20 by the time she left. She was even included in a group of retail employees who were fast-tracked for corporate roles. In her lawsuit, she says that she was let go in retaliation for complaining about mistreatment.
“I was devastated,” she told HuffPost. Best Buy’s mistreatment was somehow worse than the harassment. “I felt hurt and betrayed. I never imagined I’d be retaliated against.”
Best Buy did not respond immediately to HuffPost’s request for comment after the suit was filed on Thursday.
Tremblay, age 34, had worked in retail for years by the time she got to the big-box consumer electronics store in 2014, but never experienced anything like the treatment she received working on the Geek Squad, she said.
At her first store, men would make comments about her appearance, but she was often able to hide out in a back room. But when Tremblay transferred to a different location, things took a turn. The only woman on a team of 10, she was often singled out.
On one occasion, in 2018, while helping a man with his laptop, the guy suddenly put his arm around her, grabbed her hip and forced his mouth onto her neck, “slobbering on it,” according to the filing.
When she told her supervisor, he suggested she take a minute to compose herself before heading back out on the store floor. He didn’t summon security or take any kind of action, according to the complaint. The man returned a few hours later, snuck up behind Tremblay and whispered, “I love you,” in her ear.
When Tremblay told her supervisor again what happened, he laughed, according to the complaint. “People are always trying to hug you, I didn’t think it bothered you so much,” he said, according to the complaint.
She raised the issue with the store’s general manager and was told the harassment was part of working with the public. Her manager also told her that Black workers at Best Buy were often harassed and they’d learned to live with it. Tremblay said she was shocked. She called a corporate hotline, put her complaint in writing and sent it to an HR executive.
Two years after she had been working at Best Buy, Tremblay was forced to sign an agreement waiving her rights to sue the company. Until recently, her lawyers believed this meant she would have to take her case to arbitration — essentially a private courtroom where the company has the upper hand. However, in 2018, at the height of the MeToo movement, New York state banned forced arbitration in sexual harassment or discrimination cases.
And earlier this month, New York state judge Louis Nock ruled in favor of a woman who was trying to sue luxury goods company LVMH Moet for sexual discrimination despite an arbitration agreement.
Heartened, Tremblay’s lawyers at Brooklyn, New York, firm Crumiller P.C. decided to push forward with a lawsuit.
“Our original plan was just to arbitrate, which we do regularly — it’s not optimal, but until last week, we understood that such agreements would be upheld, so we didn’t waste time going into court,” said Susan Crumiller, the firm’s founder. She expects that the issue of whether this case can go to court will be appealed.
This is not the first time former Geek Squad members have complained about mistreatment. The company was sued by a former female employee for race and sex discrimination in New York City in 2016.
Current and former Best Buy employees, do you have a story of harassment to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last month, after nationwide protests over police brutality, Best Buy CEO Corrie Barry wrote an open letter pledging to “do better” when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Tremblay is hoping she means it.
At the very least, even if her lawsuit doesn’t work out, Tremblay said she hoped the company would develop some kind of code of conduct for dealing with bad customer behavior.
“Even some comic book stores have something like that,” she said.
In an open letter to Barry that she wrote earlier this month ― when her lawsuit seemed destined for arbitration ― Tremblay asked to at least be able to argue her case in open court.
“As a victim, being silenced is hard, on a personal level; but to think that my efforts could have no benefit to future female Best Buy employees, who may suffer exactly as I have suffered, is unspeakably disheartening,” she wrote. “It is the ultimate disempowerment.”