Page 2 of 10
On rare occasions, Talley summoned her to his office, where he often sat enveloped in a thick haze of cigar smoke. Leigh dreaded appearing before the person she describes as "a nasty man -- not nasty as in a sexual way, but mean."
Then one day Leigh discovered a lump in a lymph node. Her doctor wanted to see her immediately -- he was leaving town and wouldn't return for two weeks. She took the only appointment available, but when she told Davis, he insisted that she'd have to reschedule -- Talley wanted her at a meeting.
Leigh canceled her appointment but says, "Not once during this 'mandatory' meeting was my presence even acknowledged." Fuming, Leigh sent Davis an e-mail: "In the future, I would appreciate advance notice of any meeting in which my involvement may be needed." Moments later, Davis stormed into her office and fired Leigh for insubordination. She was the third woman in fifteen months to be kicked out of the position.
Things weren't any better for Leigh's successor, Donna Smith. She says that after she took the job, Davis sought her out and described the "nasty" dreams he'd had about her and discussed his penis size. After Smith complained, she received an unfavorable evaluation.
A year later, Smith sent a resignation letter to Talley, stating that she could no longer work for a company whose top management tolerated "sexual harassment and discrimination."
If the women at headquarters were complaining, they were hardly alone. As Talley's company grew, so did allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Even highly regarded veteran employees felt the sting. Just ask Claudine Wilfong, a former store manager in Arnold, Missouri.
Wilfong had worked for eleven years at Rent-a-Center when it was acquired by Talley's company, Renter's Choice, in 1998. Rent-a-Center had been a good place to work -- that is, before the company was sold to the people she now describes as the "good ol' boys from Texas."
Wilfong proudly displayed the plaques her store had received for winning store-of-the-month and sales contests. And she expected to serve the new company as a good manager, which she did by meeting or exceeding their new sales and collections goals.
But stereotypes seemed to matter more than job performance.
Wilfong recalls that when Rent-a-Center vice president Dowell Arnette spoke at a store managers' meeting in Kansas City, he joked that the women were "probably better at selling washers and dryers" than the men. Arnette admitted he didn't really know anything about the machines or how to "press the buttons" because his wife did all the washing at home.
After the sale in 1998, the Texas owners also increased the lifting requirement for store employees from 50 pounds to 75. Managers such as Wilfong and Karen Dueker-Meyer of Farmington, Missouri, claim they were ordered to send female workers out alone to make deliveries and pickups. Meyer says her market manager made her send a woman to collect a side-by-side refrigerator from a customer; if the employee refused, Meyer was supposed to fire her. But Wilfong and Meyer claim they were never encouraged to send men out alone on large deliveries.
James Weinrich, Oklahoma regional manager at the time of the 1998 acquisition, said in a sworn statement that Talley, Arnette and Arnette's brother, training director Joe Arnette, told him that the new weight-lifting requirements would "keep females from applying."
Weinrich added: "All three men made it a point that there was an unwritten rule that women employees should be sent out alone on deliveries." Weinrich said the thinking was: If you work them hard enough, they'll quit or give management a reason to fire them.