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Even John Madden -- that is, John Madden's likeness -- became part of the sophomoric games. Madden, the former football coach and Fox Sports personality, joined Rent-a-Center as a spokesman in February 2000. His image is plastered on store windows, hangs from store ceilings and appears on life-size posters on showroom floors throughout the chain.
At one store in Bridgeport, Michigan, a recently hired male worker cut the crotch out of a stand-alone Madden display and inserted a hot dog. One of the men working in the store bent over a desk and, with the Madden poster propped up nearby, posed for a photo of simulated anal sex. Another photo shows the man crouched on the floor, mimicking oral sex with the poster.
Gwen Davis, an account manager at the store, found the scene offensive. But when she complained to her store manager, he laughed and invited a manager from another store over to look at the pictures. Davis called Roustio, manager of coworker relations, who initially didn't even believe the incident occurred. When she faxed him two of the photos, he called her back a few days later and said the men had claimed she took the illicit photos, insinuating she had been part of the whole prank.
"You are going to believe an employee who has been here less than thirty days over me?" Davis asked Roustio incredulously.
The men weren't disciplined. For Davis, the incident was one of many she'd already endured at Rent-a-Center. She quit. With no paycheck, she was forced to rely on food stamps for her family and borrow money from relatives.
Just five months after the acquisition by Talley, Rent-a-Center had become a downright hostile place for women.
"No matter how hard I worked or tried or what I did in the past, none of it mattered," says Wilfong, the Arnold store manager. "Just because I'm a female, it didn't matter."
On January 1, 1999, Wilfong quit. For a few months, she says, she lay around in her pajamas, feeling "pretty depressed, pretty sad." She'd invested more than a decade in the company, building up a successful store. Now, she says, "it just seemed like it was all for nothing."
But then she started talking to other women, some who'd left Rent-a-Center and others who were trying to "stick it out" and for whom "it wasn't going good."
"It wasn't just me that felt betrayed; everybody did," she realized. Wilfong decided she owed it to her daughter to stand up to the company.
Wilfong contacted Mary Anne Sedey and Jon A. Ray, prominent St. Louis employment-discrimination lawyers who had been involved in successful discrimination cases against Mitsubishi and St. Louis-based HBE Corp. At their first meeting, Wilfong showed Sedey and Ray two Rent-a-Center telephone directories, one from August 1998 and the other from April 1999. During the seven-month period, Ray says, "all the girls' names changed to boys' names."
Wilfong brought with her the names of eight other women who had worked for Rent-a-Center. Sedey and Ray met with the women, each of whom told a tale of discrimination or harassment that didn't start until after the company was acquired by Talley. Suspicious that there was more at work than just one discriminatory store manager or market manager, Sedey and Ray began calling other women around the country. As soon as the word "discrimination" was mentioned, the lawyers say, the women couldn't wait to talk about Rent-a-Center.