This Bad Boss Had the Facts He Needed to Stop Sexual Harassment, Yet Failed to Act
At first, Tracy White saw LaVerne Armstrong as an ally.
Facing sexual comments from her supervisor at the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) — and a lewd office culture that she saw as discriminatory — Ms. White asked to meet with Mr. Armstrong, her higher-level boss, according to testimony in a lawsuit she filed.
“He listened,” the social work administrator said in a deposition. “He was empathetic. … I felt supported.”
Nothing changed, however. In her deposition, Ms. White said she went back to Mr. Armstrong several months later, updating her complaints and reminding him that her supervisor had told her, in front of a co-worker, that he dreamed of her in dominatrix gear.
Mr. Armstrong’s response, according to her testimony?
“You need to stop telling me that … It makes me uncomfortable.”
Mr. Armstrong started an investigation that didn’t focus on discrimination or harassment and found no violations of DHS policy by Ms. White’s supervisor, Michael McInroy. The conclusion, according to testimony: Ms. White needed to upgrade her relationship with Mr. McInroy or look for a job elsewhere in the organization.
Mr. Armstrong also told Ms. White to work with a coach who asked her to consider ways “to make [Mr. McInroy] better” — and who then convened a torturous joint coaching session in which Mr. McInroy implied that his behavior was her fault.
“It felt like … being in marital therapy with my abuser,” Ms. White testified.
LaVerne (Vern) Armstrong is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ultimately, Ms. White complained to someone who acted: Kim Reynolds, the governor of Iowa. Mr. McInroy was fired shortly afterward. Ms. White sued Iowa in state court and, after an 11-day trial this year, won a jury award of $790,000 for emotional distress. Late last month, the trial judge denied two motions to change the outcome.
Ms. White had joined DHS as a social worker in 2000, rising through the ranks of the Des Moines region along with Mr. McInroy, who eventually became her manager. The pair initially got along: Drawn to Ms. White’s office by her stash of chocolate, Mr. McInroy would hang out and chat with the door closed.
“I finally had to ask him to quit coming in so much because people were starting to wonder why he was in my office so much,” Ms. White testified.
But Mr. McInroy was known for playing favorites in the office, according to testimony — and by 2012, Ms. White had fallen into the “out crowd.”
The behavior of some of the “in crowd” troubled Ms. White and other employees: One member of Mr. McInroy’s leadership team, for example, joked about spanking a female employee, whom he allowed to call him “Daddy,” and spoke to co-workers about bodily fluids being “the nectar of the gods,” according to testimony.
Women were frequently assessed in sexual terms. When discussing one employee’s short dress, for instance, Mr. McInroy joked about praying she’d drop her pencil, Ms. White testified. Consequences for bad behavior were rare, she said.
Two incidents prompted Ms. White to seek help from Mr. Armstrong, a level up, in early 2017.
First, a fired employee accused Mr. McInroy in a grievance of discriminating against her as a woman and as a lesbian. While Ms. White agreed with the firing, she testified that she felt the portrayal of Mr. McInroy had merit: Mr. McInroy said he avoided meeting with the employee, for example, and expressed disgust at the idea of the employee having sex with her wife.
Then there was the dominatrix comment.
In the wake of the employee’s firing — which arose from the death of a child under the eye of DHS — the Des Moines office was on edge. A co-worker said she’d had a bad dream that featured Ms. White. According to testimony, Mr. McInroy jumped in: “Oh, was she wearing black leather and whipping you in your nightmare, too?”
The co-worker confirmed the awkward interjection and said she was “taken aback” by Mr. McInroy’s innuendo, an investigator later testified.
Ms. White reviewed her concerns in an initial meeting with Mr. Armstrong, the division administrator for DHS; the session lasted about three hours, she said in a filing. Nevertheless, Mr. Armstrong testified, he never concluded that Ms. White was “making a complaint or an allegation. It was a conversation of … how to make things go better.”
His only action in response: “I talked with Mike to get his perception…[we] talked about how to maybe improve their relationship [and] move forward collaboratively together.”
If anything, however, the opposite happened.
Mr. McInroy became openly hostile toward Ms. White, according to testimony — a change that she saw as retaliation for going up his chain of command. “I had a couple [of meetings] with Mike where he derided and berated me,” she said in a deposition. “I asked to leave the room. I cried.”
When she told Mr. McInroy that she was looking for a way to escape his management, she testified, he seemed “gleeful.”
Stung, Ms. White went back to Mr. Armstrong and then followed up with an e-mail that put her concerns in writing, adding more examples of discrimination. Mr. Armstrong triggered an investigation that ended up being handled internally by DHS rather than by Iowa’s Department of Administrative Services (DAS), which normally looks into harassment allegations.
Court records don’t fully explain why DAS didn’t step in, but the then-director of DHS said in a deposition that both Mr. Armstrong and another top executive, Jean Slaybaugh, had painted Ms. White to higher-ups as “a complainer.”
“That’s the way they referred to her,” testified Jerry Foxhoven, the former director. “To me, they seemed like they were in Mike’s court, you know, particularly Vern … She complains all the time, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
The internal investigation found no violations on the part of Mr. McInroy, according to Mr. Armstrong. “It was a difference of leadership style,” he testified.
His resulting plan: “To clarify that Mike was remaining in his role, that people needed to get along, that they needed to stop … the discord.” He had no worries about Mr. McInroy’s continued supervision of Ms. White, he said — and he suggested hiring a “leadership development specialist,” or coach, to help defuse tensions.
Mr. Armstrong also explored the possibility that Ms. White could take a demotion or move outside of her area in DHS, child welfare. But, he testified, “she’d have to apply and interview. We weren’t going to just be able to move her.” That discussion went nowhere.
The coaching didn’t go anywhere, either.
Besides asking Ms. White to consider changing her own behavior, the coach organized a joint session with her and Mr. McInroy. During that meeting, Mr. McInroy acknowledged in testimony, he argued that Ms. White had faced his “Angry Mike” persona because of her failings — communication lapses and the like.
“She perceived me as Angry Mike,” Mr. McInroy said. “I would say that I was Annoyed Mike.”
Ms. White reported the dysfunctional outcome to Mr. Armstrong, who quickly gave up on coaching, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, the environment in the Des Moines office didn’t improve. Ms. White testified that she heard, for example, that an I.T. technician had sent an e-mail to a departing female employee saying that he’d miss his “eye candy.”
She reported the harassment to a responsible manager, but no action was taken until she pressed the manager several days later — and then, at the conclusion of a meeting on the matter, the same manager told an anecdote that ended with her singing part of Get Low, an explicit song by crunk star Lil Jon.
Mr. McInroy attended the meeting, Ms. White testified, and didn’t intervene.
Ms. White brought her continuing concerns to Mr. Armstrong, who opened a follow-up internal investigation that resulted in “essentially the same” finding of no violations — except that this time, Mr. Armstrong testified, he opted to “coach and counsel” Mr. McInroy on three incidents, including the dominatrix comment.
Counseling at DHS is a verbal process. Mr. McInroy testified that Mr. Armstrong gave him no specific guidance on what he called the “whips and chains” matter: “He just told me to be careful with my comments.”
In a memo at the end of 2018, Mr. Armstrong informed Ms. White that “appropriate action” now had been taken against Mr. McInroy, who remained in place. In a subsequent meeting, she testified, Mr. Armstrong told her she “needed to get on board.”
A couple of weeks later, she e-mailed Gov. Reynolds in frustration. “I felt I had no other recourse,” Ms. White said in a deposition.
Meanwhile, a different employee had triggered an investigation of another member of the “in crowd” — a female manager whom Ms. White had previously reported to Mr. Armstrong, and who now was accused of sexual harassment. Despite discussing penis size and breast size and giving sex toys to staff members as birthday gifts, an investigator testified, this manager had seemed “untouchable” because of her alignment with Mr. McInroy. Now there was strong evidence, however: A photo of the manager groping the complainant’s breast.
The combination of a phone call from the governor’s office and the new harassment complaint finally spurred DHS into action: This was the point, Mr. Armstrong testified, when he finally realized his office might have a problem.
It was also the point when Mr. Foxhoven, the former DHS director, got more involved. He ordered the firing of Mr. McInroy and told Mr. Armstrong to start looking for a job himself, he said in a deposition.
“Clearly, it was a mess,” he said he told Mr. Armstrong, “and you either didn’t know or didn’t care.”
Mr. Foxhoven warmed Mr. Armstrong that he would be fired on July 1, 2019, if he was still there. He also removed some responsibilities from Jean Slaybaugh, the other executive who had sided with Mr. McInroy over Ms. White, he testified.
But then, in an unexpected twist, Mr. Foxhoven himself was fired in June 2019 — for questioning Gov. Reynolds’ office on an ethical matter, he said in his deposition. Mr. Armstrong, who had never looked for another job anyway, was off the hook.
At trial earlier this year, jurors heard further testimony about the sexually charged Des Moines work environment, which featured photos of action figures in crude poses and a sign that designated one cubicle area as “Sniffer’s Row,” a lurid reference to certain seats at a strip club.
According to court documents, the fired Mr. McInroy agreed at trial that he had talked at work about picturing lesbians having sex — but only, he told jurors, to divert discussion from something inappropriate.
Ms. White cried through much of the trial, according to a filing. Her therapist testified that her distress, which had triggered several mood disorders and two outbreaks of shingles, would continue well into the future — an opinion that the judge cited in finding that the jury’s $790,000 award wasn’t excessive.
Ms. White still works at DHS, according to her attorney. So does Mr. Armstrong, who now serves as the head of DHS field operations, according to a recent org chart.
Ms. Slaybaugh, who with Mr. Armstrong had tagged Ms. White as a “complainer,” according to testimony, has risen to become the agency’s chief operating officer.
» Read Ms. White’s original complaint in the case
» Read the judge’s ruling on post-trial motions
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in White v. State of Iowa. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
Ms. White was represented by Fiedler Law Firm, P.L.C.