Nobody questioned the chief executive officer of Rent-a-Center -- especially not a woman. Pushing his face just inches from hers, Talley slammed his fist on the conference room table and shouted, "By God, you will have what I want, or I will find someone who will!"
Humiliated by the dressing-down and furious that her own supervisor, the chief financial officer, had kept his lips zipped during the tirade, the woman snatched her files, fled from the conference room and made her way back to her office. "I just sat there, and tears were streaming -- and I'm a hard-core type of girl; I'm not a little prissy dame," she says.
From the start, Talley had seemed less than thrilled with the idea of giving 32-year-old Leigh, a certified public accountant who asked that her surname not be published, the proverbial keys to the executive washroom. Talley had this thing about women -- he had been heard to say that women belonged in the kitchen, not in the rent-to-own business.
That attitude was pervasive in the nation's largest rent-to-own company.
Women were subjected to sexual and derisive comments.
Work requirements were changed in an effort to induce female employees to quit and to keep women from applying. Pregnant employees were fired.
Women who complained about boorish or offensive behavior were ignored or punished.
What was going on at Rent-a-Center, judging from hundreds of accounts, wasn't just fraternity-style high jinks but a systemic, top-down corporate culture that drove away female employees. It was a culture that reflected Talley's attitudes and one that will be costly to the company. Rent-a-Center is in the process of settling a sex-discrimination lawsuit that originally sought damages of $410 million, an amount that puts the Plano, Texas-based company in the same league as Mitsubishi, Shoney's, State Farm, Home Depot and other companies nailed in big-dollar discrimination cases.
Leigh got her first glimpse of Rent-a-Center culture and Ernie Talley when she interviewed with the company in January 1999. The gray-haired 64-year-old Talley seemed to care more about Leigh's personal life than her qualifications, she recalls.
He asked whether she was married or had children -- questions that most employers know are off-limits in a job interview.
Then, she says, Talley glanced at Robert Davis, his 28-year-old CFO, and said reluctantly, "Well, I don't know if this is going to work, but if you want to try it, fine."
The personal questions and Talley's icy demeanor made her want to turn down the job offer, but Davis later assured her that Talley was planning to leave the business. Moreover, Davis promised, Leigh's contact with Talley would be minimal -- he would act as a go-between.
But Davis wasn't the best messenger. Although he held the title of chief financial and accounting officer, Davis wasn't much of a bean-counter -- he wasn't a CPA or even particularly well-versed in accounting practices. Besides, he seemed more interested in popping his head into Leigh's office to ask, "I'm just wondering, did you have sex last night?"