Top photo by Peyton Fulford for HuffPost
Three former female executives at United Way Worldwide, one of the largest nonprofits in the country, say that they were retaliated against by the organization after speaking up about sexual harassment, HuffPost has learned.
After reporting the misconduct, these women were abruptly sidelined by leadership, according to three separate claims filed in the past 18 months with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that handles civil rights claims. Two were fired. The CEO unsuccessfully pushed for the other woman’s termination. The man whom she complained about has received a promotion.
A beloved institution, recently named America’s Favorite Charity by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, United Way had an opportunity to lead the way on how to handle sexual harassment in the nonprofit sector, the women said. Instead, the organization did everything it could to bully them into silence.
One of the women, former marketing chief Lisa Bowman, filed charges in March alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. Bowman was fired in January by United Way Worldwide’s CEO Brian Gallagher, months after she made a formal complaint about the behavior of a male colleague to human resources, according to the EEOC charge.
Bowman told HR not only how this man treated her — a pattern of ogling and inappropriate comments about her body — but how he had also flirted and “stalked” a female administrative staff member at a public event, even as she was gunning for a promotion onto his team, according to the complaint.
After filing the formal complaint, Bowman’s standing at United Way began to sink. Some of the employees on her team were moved over to the alleged harasser’s team. She was still required to do the same amount of work, with fewer resources, she said. Those left on her team were burning out, she told HuffPost. In hindsight, she views this as a “deliberate” effort to get her to quit. She didn’t.
In Gallagher’s office at the beginning of 2020, the longtime CEO bluntly told her he “no longer needed her,” according to Bowman’s complaint. She burst into tears. “It was a shock. So much a piece of my identity,” she told HuffPost. “I’ve lost my job when I shouldn’t have, through no fault of my own.”
When Gallagher recruited her to United Way Worldwide in 2015 from an executive position at the shipping company UPS, Bowman, now 53, told him she wanted to spend the rest of her career at the nonprofit. “I wanted to work for an organization to make people’s lives better,” she said. “To use what I do to make a difference.”
The firing crushed her expectations and instantly changed her career plans. Now Bowman is nervous about her job prospects and still looking for work. “I feel like I had 10 years of my career stolen from me,” she said.
Another female executive went to HR about the same man Bowman had complained about. A woman who worked for her had said that this man was flirting with her at a work event in an uncomfortable way.
After reporting the incident, the executive also started experiencing backlash, according to her EEOC filing and an interview with HuffPost. The woman asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
“My whole lot changed at United Way after I went on record with that,” she said. This woman filed her EEOC charge in March, and left United Way shortly after for another job.
In the case with perhaps the most egregious allegations, United Way’s former vice president for labor participation, Ana Avendaño, said she was fired after Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (the largest labor organization in the U.S.), complained to CEO Gallagher about Avendaño’s work on sexual harassment within the labor movement.
The AFL-CIO, a federation of 55 labor unions that covers nearly 13 million workers, is one of the United Way’s oldest fundraising partners, with union members donating hundreds of millions to the nonprofit every year.
Through her work, Avendaño had uncovered sexual harassment in this network, according to her complaint. Some local labor leaders were propositioning and groping female United Way workers who were hired to coordinate union fundraising. When these women spoke up about mistreatment to their local United Way leadership, their complaints were ignored or they faced retaliation, according to Avendaño’s filing.
Avendaño was trying to change this. She had addressed the issue publicly at several United Way events and at labor conferences. She reached out to these women to tell them they should not have to put up with this behavior, and advocated on their behalf. Avendaño also published articles about sexual harassment in the labor movement, and posted about it on her Facebook page.
She believed United Way would drive the unions to do better. Instead the AFL-CIO pushed United Way Worldwide to silence her, according to her EEOC complaint filed in June 2019, which HuffPost obtained.
“President Trumka oversees a nearly 13 million-member federation of unions that is dedicated to improving the lives of America’s workers. The task is enormous. And that’s his focus every single day, not personnel decisions at another organization,” Tim Schlittner, an AFL-CIO spokesman, said in response to questions about Trumka’s involvement in Avendaño’s situation. He did not respond to the specifics of her complaint.
Avendaño was not able to speak directly to HuffPost about her claims against United Way. To settle her legal case, she signed a restrictive nondisclosure agreement that forbids her from discussing how she was treated there, and prevents her from disparaging the nonprofit.
But throughout her fight to address harassment within the organization, and later in her legal negotiations with the nonprofit, she confided in a friend and a trusted colleague, Linda Seabrook, the general counsel at the social justice organization Futures Without Violence. Seabrook had also cohosted conferences on sexual harassment in the labor movement with Avendaño, and was able to share Avendaño’s story with HuffPost.
“Ana’s fearless. She’s always going to be an advocate,” Seabrook said, adding that Avendaño is driven to improve circumstances for women in the workplace. “She just wants to make change.”
United Way Worldwide did not respond to any of HuffPost’s specific questions, citing an ongoing investigation by the law firm Proskauer Rose into “allegations of misconduct.” The firm is also conducting an “independent” review of the nonprofit’s policies, according to a statement from Pamela Rucker Springs, United Way’s vice president of communications.
“United Way Worldwide (UWW) takes all workplace issues and reports of misconduct very seriously,” said Rucker Springs in an email. “Any type of misconduct is met with zero tolerance and UWW has strong policies and procedures in place to report and address this type of behavior; including protections for those who lodge complaints about misconduct.”
The charges against United Way demonstrate that three years after #MeToo got the world to listen to women about sexual misconduct, there is still a difficult road ahead for those who speak up. Seven in 10 women who report sexual harassment are retaliated against, according to a recent study from the Time’s Up Foundation.
Retaliation included being sued for defamation, losing out on promotions, and even physical harm, but its most common form was firing. This kind of blowback occurs regardless of where women are in their careers or on the socio-economic ladder — whether you’re someone like Bowman (an executive earning a high six-figure salary) or a union worker in a manufacturing plant, as Avendaño uncovered.
“No matter how high up you can go, this can happen,” said Sharyn Tejani, the director of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
A Boys’ Club
The United Way is a sprawling organization. The Worldwide office, which Gallagher runs, functions like a franchise owner, taking a cut of the money raised by the more than 1,200 local United Way branches around the world that fundraise for their communities’ specific needs.
Though the Worldwide office describes itself as a $5 billion operation, that includes money raised by all of its affiliates. Practically, the Worldwide arm had $218 million in revenue in 2018, the last year for which public information is available. That includes the locals’ fees and grants from big companies and their nonprofits. In 2018, the Pepsi Foundation gave $7 million, the Citi Foundation donated $20 million, and AT&T gave $4.6 million, according to data provided to HuffPost by Candid.org, a nonprofit that tracks philanthropic giving.
Since COVID-19 hit earlier this year, United Way has raised enormous sums to help communities around the world deal with the fallout by stocking food banks, distributing personal protective equipment, and helping parents who have children doing distance learning.
In addition to the three women who filed official complaints, HuffPost spoke to six other women who used to work at United Way Worldwide about how the nonprofit treats women. All asked for anonymity, fearing career fallout and citing United Way’s outsized influence in the nonprofit community. All of them also emphasized the importance of the nonprofit’s work and mission.
They were hesitant to publicly criticize an organization that does so much good, but added that this reticence allows harassment and misconduct to flourish unchecked.
“Within the United Way [network], we’re all cautious because we don’t want to harm the brand that helps people,” said one former employee. “So people have kept their mouths shut. We don’t want to cause problems for the mission.”
““A lot of the old white guys, that’s been their entire career. I don’t think they ever had a moment where it’s like, the world has moved on.””
Under Gallagher, the 133-year-old nonprofit is run like a boys club, where women have to work harder to get ahead, those who spoke with HuffPost said. That means going along with the men, including tolerating problematic conduct, to succeed.
Bowman, the former chief marketing officer, described the culture as “sexist.”
“You couldn’t get opportunities. You couldn’t compete. There was favoritism,” said one woman who left United Way after working there for a decade. She recalled being told she wasn’t seasoned enough to get a promotion, only to watch a man the same age as her — with less experience — get it instead. “That’s the kind of environment it was.”
Gallagher, who launched his career at United Way in 1981, has long presided over an old-fashioned culture, she said, echoing the comments of the other women who spoke with HuffPost.
“A lot of the old white guys, that’s been their entire career,” she said. “I don’t think they ever had a moment where it’s like, the world has moved on.”
Gallagher was working at a local United Way branch back in 1992 when the nonprofit’s then CEO William Aramony was forced to resign amid a sex and financial scandal that reads like an episode of a 1980s primetime soap opera.
“The case was a humiliation for the United Way,” the New York Times reported in 2011 in Aramony’s obituary. The disgraced CEO had stolen $600,000 from the nonprofit, and spent some of its money on an extramarital affair with a woman 42 years younger than him that included flights on the Concorde, vacations around the world, and “even a fax machine to send love notes.”
He was indicted and jailed for fraud.
Even those who criticized the culture said the United Way has moved on from Aramony’s era, and that working there taught them a lot about the nonprofit sector. One former employee told HuffPost that United Way isn’t much different than any other large organization mainly run by men.
“I wish there were more women in leadership at the United Way Worldwide just like I wish there were more women in leadership at every other organization that I see,” said Nicole McNamara, who left United Way Worldwide in 2015 and said she had a great experience there. She still works with the nonprofit in a pro-bono capacity. “I don’t think this is endemic to them.”
Still, there’s a sense that it’s past time for donors to hear the truth.
Bowman said as much in a letter to several members of the United Way Worldwide board of directors in October, informing them of her charges.
“Like me, I truly believe that all of you became involved in United Way for good reasons, based in a desire to improve your communities by serving others in need,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, Mr. Gallagher’s leadership at United Way is jeopardizing those noble goals and putting your reputations — and the reputations of the companies you represent — at risk.”
As of press time, the board had not responded to her email beyond confirming its receipt.
Board members did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
‘Don’t Mess With The Unions’
Since World War II, the United Way and the AFL-CIO have run a program through which union members donate money to their local United Way directly through their paychecks. Avendaño’s job was managing the relationships between United Way and the unions, which bring in an estimated $250 million a year to local United Way branches.
The local branches run the program by hiring “labor liaisons,” men and women who are typically union members (and part of the AFL-CIO) who help raise awareness and drum up money for the local United Way.
A couple years into her job, Avendaño learned that female labor liaisons were getting sexually harassed by union leaders. She received a report in the fall of 2016 that a liaison from Florida resigned after being sexually harassed by a labor leader, according to her complaint.
The woman had reported the incident to her United Way supervisor, whose only suggestion was that she work remotely. Meanwhile, her union representative accused her of having an affair with the man who harassed her, Avendaño alleges in her complaint.
“I was shocked and appalled,” she said in her EEOC complaint.
Avendaño convened a conference call with labor liaisons, and told them this behavior was not tolerated. She said she had their back. More liaisons came forward to tell her their own stories, the complaint said.
At the same time, Avendaño and her boss went to Gallagher to figure out what to do. He gave the go-ahead to address the issue by providing a code of conduct to local United Ways outlining what kind of behavior would constitute sexual harassment, according to the complaint.
Back then, Avendaño also reached out to the national AFL-CIO about the Florida case. She was told that there was nothing they could do.
In response to a question about the Florida incident, the AFL-CIO didn’t address specifics. “All harassment is unacceptable and the labor movement is fully committed to eradicating it from our society, including our own ranks,” Schlittner said in an email.
Even within the bounds of her nondisclosure agreement, Avendaño was able to talk with HuffPost about the pattern of harassment she says she found.
“These women were fundraisers and the men harassing them had control over their ability to raise money,” she told HuffPost. “They complained to their bosses or their local entities and they found nothing changed. So they turned to me at Worldwide.”
Avendaño said she worked with these women to address the issue and to raise awareness. “We learned together,” she said.
Still, Avendaño was clearly wading into treacherous waters. The AFL-CIO is a powerful and influential partner to United Way.
“You don’t mess with the unions at United Way,” one former employee told HuffPost. “That is a no-no.” Others familiar with the relationship said it was extremely important to the nonprofit.
In Avendaño’s EEOC charge, she describes a series of talks about sexual harassment she convened or participated in, beginning in 2016, through which she drew attention to the problems faced by labor liaisons and talked more generally about sexual harassment in the labor movement, as part of her work for United Way.
At first, the arrangement seemed to work.
At a conference about sexual harassment hosted by United Way Worldwide and Seabrook’s organization in the fall of 2016, Gallagher gave the opening remarks, declaring the nonprofit’s commitment to taking on the issue, according to the complaint. He praised Avendaño’s work. A Canadian labor leader talked about how they handle harassment up north. The AFL-CIO adopted some of those practices, according to the complaint.
The following spring she received a $1,000 bonus and “superior” rating during her annual performance review based on that work, according to the complaint.
In August 2017, Avendaño hosted a conference bringing together labor liaisons from around the country.
Then something changed. In October 2017, the Me Too movement took off, after The New York Times published revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
As part of the fallout, many other organizations came under the spotlight, including the AFL-CIO. On Nov. 7 of that year, a Bloomberg article reported on allegations against Terry Stapleton, a Trumka aide, who was accused of sending lewd messages to a secretary. He told her he’d protect her from a round of layoffs if she’d have a sexual relationship with him, according to the report.
Stapleton was sent to mandatory training by the AFL-CIO, but then resigned months later, after Bloomberg News asked the labor organization about the allegations.
Three days after the Bloomberg story, Avendaño and Seabrook co-authored a post for a labor blog called “Top 10 Things Unions Can Do Right Now To Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.” This was with United Way’s backing, Seabrook said.
That same month, at another conference hosted by Futures Without Violence, Avendaño talked about the situation with labor liaisons at United Way Worldwide.
That may have been a tipping point.
In February 2018, the AFL-CIO removed Avendaño’s name from a list of people invited to a sexual harassment meeting at its headquarters, she said in the EEOC complaint.
At that meeting, titled “Labor has a Special Responsibility to Stop Sexual Harassment.” Trumka gave a powerful speech affirming his commitment to its code of conduct and combating harassment.
In his response to HuffPost, the AFL-CIO spokesman sent HuffPost a transcript of Trumka’s remarks.
“I’ve worked hard to get where I am today. But there is no denying I am a white man in a position of power,” Trumka said. “Social and cultural norms have been specifically enforced to benefit people like me.” He also acknowledged that labor has “been part of the problem.”
“The sexism and misogyny in our ranks has been tolerated for far too long. Some of you have personally experienced it. The looks. The comments. The innuendo,” he said. “This old boys’ club mentality must die, and it must die today.”
After that, Avendaño was excluded from all AFL-CIO meetings on the topic, according to her complaint.
She was still speaking out about sexual harassment in the labor movement in other venues, at universities and at United Way Worldwide conferences.
In the summer of 2018, she hosted a conference that appears to have been her last for United Way that included another panel on sexual harassment in the labor movement. This appears to have set in motion her dismissal, according to the events outlined in the complaint.
After that panel ended, United Way Worldwide CEO Gallagher got a call from AFL-CIO president Trumka, who was “upset,” according to the complaint.
Avendaño found out about the call the next day when Gallagher relayed the conversation. According to the complaint, Trumka was upset that Avendaño posted an article about him possibly endorsing President Donald Trump to her Facebook page. Trumka also said he didn’t like the title of the panel, “Sexual Harassment and the Labor Movement,” according to the complaint.
“Trumka objected to me ‘defaming good guys who have passed through his shop’ and ‘got caught up in the #MeToo stuff,’” Avendaño said she was told.
She offered to meet with Trumka, which wasn’t unusual; the two met often. But that meeting never transpired, according to the complaint.
“[M]onths before the emergence of #MeToo, the AFL-CIO Executive Council adopted a comprehensive code of conduct that is read at all federation gatherings and reiterates our commitment to ensuring safe workplaces, activities, meetings and events,” Schlittner, the AFL-CIO spokesman, said. He also pointed HuffPost to guidelines the AFL-CIO issued last year on how to handle harassment.
Avendaño told HuffPost that she advocated for the creation of those guidelines.
Trumka may have been upset with Avendaño’s work, but the labor liaisons — who’d long had their complaints overlooked — were thrilled to finally have someone on their side.
After hearing Avendaño discuss sexual harassment on that first conference call in 2016, Wilder, the former United Way labor liaison in Topeka, reached out to Avendaño and told her that at fundraising events where there was alcohol, she had been groped and propositioned by a local United Way board member repeatedly over the years. He was also a member of her union (part of the AFL-CIO network) in Topeka, where she works at a manufacturing plant.
When she’d complained about harassment in the past, union leadership offered no help, essentially telling her to deal with it herself. She kept quiet until the fall of 2016.
At a Halloween fundraising event, according to Wilder, the board member who had been harassing her actually paid a waitress $20 so he could “motorboat” her, e.g., place his mouth between her breasts and blow. The incident, widely witnessed, caused a stir.
Wilder was asked about it by leaders at her local United Way, and revealed that this man had harassed her for years. Her local United Way said it was obligated to investigate her claim that she had been harassed by him. And even though Wilder asked to keep her name private, the branch did not.
What happened next was a nightmare for Wilder. Word got out that she reported the board member. The backlash from her fellow union members and her local United Way was swift, she said.
She ran into a fellow union member, who “walked by and whispered in my ear, ‘fucking cunt,’” Wilder told HuffPost.
In 2017, when the man was kicked off the local United Way board, it was too late for Wilder, who left her position at the nonprofit.
Wilder said the one person throughout this ordeal who helped her was Avendaño. “Ana was the only person I had in my corner,” she said.
When Avendaño was fired last year, Wilder had no doubt why. “I know Ana was fired because of her work with sexual harassment,” she told HuffPost. “She has balls of steel and isn’t afraid to call people out.”
Meanwhile At Headquarters
Lisa Bowman had spent decades in marketing, rising to the top of her profession in an executive role at UPS, where she spent 15 years. From there, she jumped to United Way Worldwide in 2015 with high hopes of spending the rest of her career at the esteemed nonprofit.
She took a high-paying position and worked directly for Gallagher, the CEO. Her base salary the year she was fired was $305,000, plus a 15% bonus.
The future looked bright, until the day in 2018 that she met a man brought in by Gallagher from a United Way branch to interview for a vice president position.
At the request of Bowman and the other female executives interviewed for this story, HuffPost is not publishing the vice president’s name. Their issue now isn’t with him, but with how the nonprofit handled their complaints about him, they said.
Bowman said the new VP acted strange around her from the start. At a job interview before he was hired, he looked down at Bowman, who is 5 feet tall, and sarcastically told her she was “intimidating,” Bowman said.
Afterward, Bowman told Gallagher she thought the man was “awkward,” but qualified for the job. Since he was a peer, she didn’t have decision-making capability anyway. He was hired.
From then on, he continued to comment on her appearance frequently and would look at her in a way that was creepy, she said. In meetings and conversations at work, he’d never comment on her actual work; instead, it was always something personal about how she looked.
The feeling of being objectified in a professional setting can be humiliating, especially for someone so senior. It’s a signal that your worth isn’t about your professional success or expertise but purely your looks.
It was “degrading,” Bowman said.
“It felt really uncomfortable. It was hard to engage with him for work. I was always afraid there was going to be some comment or something,” she said. “I don’t expect any male colleague to ever be commenting on how something fits my body. I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
““She replied, ‘Oh, that’s just him.' I said, 'It’s inappropriate.'”
She didn’t formally speak to HR, though, until February 2019, when the situation reached a tipping point. The man approached her at a United Way conference and looked her body up and down. “That skirt looks great on you,” he said, according to Bowman.
“That was the snap moment for me,” she said.
Bowman was standing with a woman subordinate to her in the organization and felt like she needed to be a role model. “I’d been enduring comments and looks from him for a really long time, but he did this in front of other people,” she said. “It was really embarrassing for me.”
She later sent the other woman an email saying, “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
“She replied, ‘Oh, that’s just him,’” Bowman told HuffPost. “I said, it’s inappropriate.”
A male colleague suggested Bowman speak to HR, and she did, according to her EEOC charge. Bowman later heard from HR that the man had been spoken with.
After that, the retaliation started, according to the charge. Bowman had staff pulled off her team and moved to different roles, with some now reporting to the man she had complained about. Her team was still required to do the same amount of work, and Bowman herself was working harder than ever, but felt like she wasn’t doing well. Her performance rating was downgraded, she said in her complaint.
Bowman felt like she was being targeted and didn’t understand why. “Something had absolutely changed,” she said.
Meanwhile, another executive at United Way headquarters had also gone to HR in February 2019 to lodge a complaint about the same man, the VP. Like Bowman, this woman said she was retaliated against for coming forward and has also filed an EEOC charge against United Way.
The executive has since left United Way Worldwide, and asked that HuffPost not publish her name out of fear of retaliation.
She made the report on behalf of a subordinate, who had complained that the VP flirted with her and made her feel uncomfortable. United Way Worldwide’s sexual harassment policy requires supervisors to “immediately report” any potential incident of harassment, the executive said. But ultimately, the subordinate decided not to file a complaint of her own.
That makes what happened next even more stunning: Gallagher asked the executive’s boss to fire her, despite her having no performance issues, according to the charges she filed at the EEOC. When the executive’s boss asked Gallagher why, he only said that she was “bad for culture.”
“He wanted to shut me up by getting rid of me,” the executive told HuffPost.
United Way declined to respond to specific allegations, citing its ongoing internal investigation.
Like Bowman, this woman had planned on becoming a United Way “lifer,” spending the rest of her career there.
She’d taken all the harassment training the nonprofit had to offer, an increasing amount in recent years, she said. When the executive brought her subordinate’s complaint to HR, she believed she was simply following the nonprofit’s rules.
“I was all-in,” she said. “I worked my ass off. And because I did what’s right, everything changed.”
Finally, a few months after she first went to HR — and after her own boss ignored Gallagher’s order to fire her — the executive found a new job and left United Way Worldwide.
It turned out that other women had complained about the VP. In April 2019, Bowman’s then-executive assistant, a Black woman, said that she had a “creepy” encounter with the man, according to Bowman’s complaint. He had picked up one of the executive assistant’s braids and made a comment about how good her hair looked.
Apparently, HR was conducting a full investigation into other complaints about the VP’s “inappropriate” behavior, Bowman said in her EEOC charge. (Bowman had also lodged a complaint on behalf of the woman whose hair was touched by the VP.)
That investigation came to an abrupt end, according to Bowman’s complaint, because the HR executive’s role at the organization was eliminated.
It’s unclear if anything ever came of those complaints. The VP still works at United Way Worldwide and has been promoted at least once.
The women who complained are the ones who are gone.
United Way declined to answer specific questions about the situation.
From Marketer Of The Year To Fired
In January 2020, Gallagher called Bowman into his office and fired her. He said her position was no longer needed because he’d hired someone else to handle her role. And that was it. There was no other explanation, she said.
“I was beyond blindsided,” Bowman told HuffPost. “I’d never been reprimanded, fired — nothing less than a stellar review.”
Up until that point, the Bowman had had a spectacular career. Only the month before, she had been named 2019 Marketer of the Year by a national trade magazine. United Way’s chief of staff was quoted in the magazine saying glowing things about her.
In 2017, Gallagher himself praised Bowman in print when she was awarded Nonprofit Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association.
“Thanks to Lisa’s vision and willingness to challenge the status quo, we’re raising our awareness, motivating more people to engage with the issues that matter to them and becoming the place people turn to create social change in the 21st century,” he said.
It took getting fired for her to get a clear picture of what changed.
“I sat back and was like, ‘What just happened’?” she said. It didn’t hit her until she sat down and sketched out the timeline.
“Oh my god. This is retaliation,” she recalled realizing.
She got a lawyer and filed her EEOC complaint in March.
Recently, she made her case to Gallagher’s bosses, the board of directors at United Way Worldwide.
“I firmly believe my termination was a direct result of the reports of sexual harassment I made to HR,” she said, in a letter to them sent on Oct. 14 that she shared with HuffPost.
Bowman, who lives in Atlanta, knows the risks in coming out publicly against the powerful nonprofit. But she felt compelled to speak up, she told HuffPost repeatedly.
“Please know that it was not an easy decision for me to come forward with my story, but I simply could not continue to remain silent,” she wrote to the board members. “To do so makes me also complicit. I am speaking out on behalf of all of those other employees who are too afraid or intimidated to do so.”
While the board acknowledged they received her letter, as of publication, they had not sent Bowman a substantive response.
‘It’s Your Tone’
Things went rapidly downhill for Avendaño, the VP for labor at United Way, after her August 2018 meeting with Gallagher about AFL-CIO chief Trumka’s complaints, according to her EEOC complaint.
About two months later, she had a medical issue — a pinched nerve — and asked to work remotely. Instead of granting the accommodation, she was told to go home and not to work.
After intense negotiations, she was permitted to do some remote work — which was odd. According to Avendaño’s complaint, other employees frequently worked remotely without issues.
Then, her boss, a vice president named Mary Sellers, along with an HR representative, told her that employees had complained about her attitude. There were reports she was bullying them, and Avendaño was under investigation, she was told.
“It’s your tone,” Lori Malcolm, United Way Worldwide’s chief culture officer told her, according to Avendaño’s EEOC complaint. “You are very aggressive.”
Employees had complained that Avendaño was “reacting emotionally, angry and mean,” Malcolm told her in a subsequent conversation that is described in the EEOC filing.
Avendaño was never provided with specifics, but defended herself, according to the complaint, admitting that at times, she could be irritable or curt — especially given her current pain issues — but she had never yelled at anyone or threatened or bullied a worker.
Until this period, Avendaño had only gotten good performance reviews, and there was no record of complaints against her at United Way Worldwide, according to her EEOC filing.
HuffPost spoke to several people who know Avendaño; they all said she is a fighter and a tough advocate, but certainly not a bully.
“Avendaño wrote that United Way Worldwide’s response to her complaint rests on portraying her as an 'angry Latina' and a 'tyrannical supervisor.'”
Nevertheless, on a conference call with her direct boss and Malcolm on March 5, 2019, while she was still at home, Avendaño was told “there is no way back,” according to her complaint.
She was told she was fired because of United Way’s “nonviolent workplace policy.”
“I was shocked,” Avendaño said in the EEOC charge, adding that she is concerned about the reason given for her abrupt termination. After 25 years spent defending workers’ rights, being accused of bullying subordinates could be career ending.
Sellers, the vice president, did not respond to HuffPost’s interview request, nor did Malcolm. United Way declined to respond to these specific allegations.
Avendaño filed her charges against United Way Worldwide in June 2019.
“I believe I was also subjected to a discriminatory and retaliatory work environment on the basis of my gender,” Avendaño said in the complaint, “because I brought the issue of sexual harassment of women within our industry to the forefront, and was a frequent lecturer and presenter on these issues.”
This summer, the nonprofit settled her charges for $300,000 and required her to sign a nondisclosure agreement, although she remains free to talk about the pattern of labor liaison harassment she discovered.
In June, as she was negotiating the settlement with United Way Worldwide, Avendaño wrote an email to the chair of the board, a copy of which was obtained by HuffPost, protesting the “onerous” restrictions in the NDA.
In the email, Avendaño wrote that United Way Worldwide’s response to her complaint rests on portraying her as an “angry Latina” and a “tyrannical supervisor.”
This is “both demonstrably false and sexist,” she said. “I do not believe that the public or a jury will take well to UWW casting me in the trope of the Angry and Emotional Latina. “
Avendaño had believed that United Way would want to help with her mission to root out sexual harassment inside labor. She never dreamed it would go south the way it did, Seabrook — whom Avendaño confided in and is not bound by the NDA — told HuffPost.
“She thought United Way would step up,” she said.
Seabrook said she’d tried to talk Avendaño out of filing a case at the EEOC: Making a complaint against a big, well-funded enterprise is a challenging endeavor, she said.
“It’s so hard. Financially. Emotionally. Professionally.”
These things usually don’t come to light — even now three years into the post-Me Too era — because of the impact cases can have on a woman’s career.
Bowman, the former chief marketing officer, said something similar. She doesn’t know what’s next for her professionally, and she knows that speaking up will have a cost.
“People will say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re not going to hire her. She ratted out her company,’” Bowman told HuffPost. “I’m a believer that you have to do the right thing.”
She Was My Protector
Not one to stay silent, Avendaño is now writing a bill — and hopes to push it through Congress — that would prohibit nonprofits from requiring victims of harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation to sign nondisclosure agreements. Part of the bill would require nonprofits to disclose to donors how sexual harassment complaints are handled.
“Speaking generally, not about any particular nonprofit, I do believe that it is highly questionable whether nonprofits should have the right to require that anybody sign NDAs,” she told HuffPost. “[T]hat shields important information from donors and others who might hold the organizations accountable.”
Wilder, the former labor liaison from Topeka, had been organizing a working group with other women focused on combating sexual harassment in the labor movement. She said Avendaño’s departure put a halt to that work.
“I stopped that immediately. I was like, I am not going to get targeted,” she told HuffPost, adding that though United Way told her Avendaño wasn’t fired because of this work, it didn’t offer an alternate explanation.
Wilder said there’s no way she could continue without Avendaño.
“She was like my protection. She was my great white shark. She was gone. That right there sent a very clear signal as to what happens to people that speak out.”
Wilder pointed out that it absolutely didn’t have to end this way. The unions and United Way could’ve taken action on this issue and been leaders in making work better for women and fighting sexual harassment.
“They’re supposed to support people,” Wilder said, referring to unions and the United Way. “The working class. Well, it just depends on what your problems are.”
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