4 women allege sex harassment at Manchester firm
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Four female employees of Manchester-based HR Concepts LLC have filed a sexual harassment suit last week against the Manchester company and its CEO, Peter H. Jennings.
The suit charges that Jennings inappropriately touched several of the defendants and made crude sexual comments to them and about them to their fellow co-workers. After they complained, the women charge, the company retaliated and "wrongfully discharged" three of them.
Jennings referred all questions to his attorney, Andru Volinsky of Bernstein Shur in Manchester. Volinsky said the company -- a third-party benefits administrator that employs 50 -- plans to challenge the facts of the lawsuit in court.
The women -- Amanda Boal of Derry, Jessica Columbus, of Merrimack, Jennifer Duguay, now of Philadelphia, Pa., and Jamie Jordan of Hooksett -- all filed complaints in the fall of 2010 with the state Human Rights Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but withdrew them to pursue the case in U.S. District Court in Concord. Only Boal, who started at the firm at the end of 2008, still worked there when the suit was filed on Aug. 25.
The suit -- filed by Nixon, Vogelman, Barry, Slawsky & Simoneau of Manchester -- seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages.
According to the suit, Jennings -- who the suit describes as the "alter ego" of HR Concepts -- recruited young female employees, "the majority of whom have no office or sales experience," from health clubs and restaurants and "physically, emotionally and sexually harassed" the employees.
On numerous occasions, the suit alleges, Jennings would "silently approach female staff members from behind and caress and smell their hair," the suit alleges. He allegedly spanked one woman's "rear end" with a piece of paper, shouting "nice jeans" and allegedly fondled another though a decorative hole in her jeans, and made offensive comments about her breasts in front of her family.
At one point, he allegedly said to one of the woman at the office to "hurry up the stairs or he would look up her skirt," and then made comments about her underwear.
He also would discuss his own genitals and his sex life on several occasions in front of several employees, the suit charges.
The suit also alleges that in May 2009, Jennings told all female employees to wear, "as a condition of employment, black pants, high heel shoes, and a company shirt, without an undershirt and unbuttoned to reveal cleavage," for a "brokers gala" hosted by the firm in May 2009. The suit says Jennings explained to the women, "there are going to be a lot of men there."
The HR Concepts manual said any employee who was harassed and thought it inappropriate to contact their manager should "immediately contact the President," meaning Jennings.
Volinsky said that Jennings was only a part-owner of the company and that HR Concepts "has in place policies against harassment and discrimination and has human resources personnel to address complaints of discrimination and related forms of misconduct."
Several employees did say they complained to the company's human resource manager.
Volinsky has a different take about the discharges.
"Despite the allegations of being forced from their jobs because of misconduct, of the four complainants seeking monetary damages, one remains gainfully employed by HR Concepts to this very day, a second complainant voluntarily left HR Concepts' employ after providing the company with four weeks' notice so that she could move out of state and a third worked for the company for just a matter of weeks and was unable to successfully complete required training."
HR Concepts -- founded by Jennings a decade ago -- claims to work with 450 benefits brokers in the Northeast in developing various employee plans involving flexible spending, health care reimbursement, health savings, dental reimbursement, dependent care and COBRA. Lighthouse 1, a national W-based health care benefits company, honored HR Concepts as its Market Maker in 2010, and Innovator in 2011, according to the company's website.
Jennings, who lives in Merrimack, ran for the Republican nomination for state Representative in Hillsborough County District 19 in 2010. He lost the Republican primary by 37 votes. -- BOB SANDERS/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW