A former employee at Big Brothers and Big Sisters of North Idaho has filed a sexual harassment suit against the non-profit organization and its general manager.
Shelley Olson of Coeur d’Alene says she was fired after complaining that director Don Kaufman made inappropriate comments about her breasts.
But an attorney for the group says the woman is merely trying to make money at the expense of a charity.
“This is a tragic suit,” said Harvey Richman. “It’s like stealing from the plate passed around in church.”
Big Brothers and Big Sisters - with offices in both Spokane and Idaho - helps connect disadvantaged youths with adult role models.
Although the agency is widely recognized for its humanitarian efforts, court records and a report from the Idaho Human Rights Commission talk of an employee accused of drinking on the job and another female employee accused of soliciting sex in the office.
In June 1994, Olson began working at the Idaho office as a social worker. Kaufman, who has been given an Outstanding Community Service award for his Big Brothers/Big Sisters work, is the managing director in the Spokane office.
In September that year, Olson attended a conference that included a round of golf as part of the recreation. Olson says she later heard from two co-workers that Kaufman had made comments about her dress and her breasts.
According to the suit, Kaufman told one of Olson’s co-workers that someone like her shouldn’t wear “flimsy bras.” He also mentioned that she had “porked out.”
Olson says that when she complained to the president of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Idaho board of directors she was told, “this whole thing is so ridiculous.”
She was fired in March 1995.
“Employers owe their employees … a dignified, businesslike working environment,” Linda Pall, Olson’s attorney, said Tuesday. “I think it’s very important women in employment setting be treated with respect and dignity.”
But according to attorney Richman, Kaufman only mentioned Olson’s breasts to her supervisor after a female board member complained about them protruding from her shirt on the golf course.
Kaufman denies making derogatory comments about her breasts although he admits he may have said “porked out,” according to a Human Rights Commission report.
The issue came up again in a board meeting when one of Olson’s friends asked Kaufman to explain the disagreement, Richman said.
Officials with Big Brothers and Big Sisters say they fired Olson not because of her complaint but because she had used alcohol during work, abused her sick leave, missed appointments and breached confidentiality, according to the Human Rights Commission report.
After investigating Olson’s complaint of sexual harassment, the Human Rights Commission determined “the whole episode to be demeaning to women’s physiology.” But they did not find that illegal sexual harassment had occurred, according to the report.
However, they did find that Big Brothers and Big Sisters had terminated Olson in retaliation for her complaints.
The commission pointed out that many of the complaints with her work had only been documented after she claimed she was being harassment or after she was fired.
Richman said the organization started documenting her behavior carefully only after she threatened to sue them. It was then that they started realizing how poor an employee she was, he said.
Pall said she and her client still believe in the work Big Brothers and Big Sisters do and said she hopes the lawsuit can be settled. But Richman said the charity group would not settle the case.
“They simply do not want to bury a sin if one has occurred but they insist they have not sinned at all,” he said.
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