HR Manager on harassment complaints: ‘This is the kind of thing that a public agency would like to not have end up in the newspaper’
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - Reports of racist comments and sexual harassment by a supervisor within a Metro agency led the department’s former HR manager to tell complainants that going public could result in people losing their jobs.
The employees who made the complaints told WSMV4 Investigates they felt Les Bowron, former HR manager for the Metro Public Health Department, was encouraging them to go into mediation with their complaints to keep the public from finding out.
Bowron was recorded, without his knowledge, in meetings as part of a file obtained by WSMV Investigates into complaints of harassing behavior by J.D. White, supervisor of Kennel Operations within Metro Animal Care and Control.
“This is the kind of thing that a public agency would like to not have end up in the newspaper,” Bowron said in the recording. “People’s careers are at stake.”
‘MACC IS IMPLODING’
An email, sent on Aug. 20, 2021, from administrative coordinator Jessica Hoffman to Bowron, had the header reading, “MACC is Imploding.”
Hoffman’s email wrote, “Why is no one talking about J.D.’s racist, sexist, antiqueer and victim insensitive actions?”
The investigative file shows that an unnamed shelter employee, who asked WSMV4 Investigates not to identify her because she is a sexual harassment victim, spoke with HR investigators about complaints of White’s behavior.
The unnamed shelter employee did allow us to broadcast her voice because she said she wants people to hear how deeply troubled she was about the alleged harassment.
One of her complaints stemmed from a 2020 lawsuit, where a woman sued the city after she said she was left along with a dog that then attacked her, injuring her hand and breast.
The unnamed employee told investigators after the injury, White said something so disturbing that she wept describing it.
“I don’t know why I’m so emotional,” she said in the recorded meeting. “I’ve never told anybody this.”
The employee said White identified the woman injured as a Black woman whose nipple was damaged.
“(White) was like, you know, those dark colored nipples. And (White) was like, that’s not something I like. And (White) was like, you don’t have dark colored nipples, do you?” she recounted. “I was so uncomfortable with the question.”
The investigative report reads, “Mr. White adamantly denied making any comment to MACC Employee 1 about the dog bite incident, claiming he “didn’t know the woman was African American until just now.’”
The HR investigation ultimate determined that the complaint was “unsubstantiated” because it was a “he-said, she-said” situation in which no other employee overheard.
However, the investigation did find that White asked if the unnamed employee was on her period.
“I said (to White), ‘Did you really just ask me that?’” the unnamed employee recounted.
The investigative file reads, “Mr. White denied asking MACC Employee 1 if he was “having her period.”
In the report, Hoffman told investigators that she heard White make the comment to the unnamed employee.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” Hoffman told WSMV Investigates. “I was appalled.”
The investigative report reads that White questioned the timing of the allegations made by Hoffman and MACC Employee 1, “again describing the falling out between himself and MACC Employee 1 as well as the purported split of the MACC staff into two camps as being potential motives for complaining about him.”
While the investigators found that it was “undetermined” that White was accused of using the word “animals” to describe black people, they did find, “While Mr. White admitted to making inappropriate racial comments in the work environment, no other MACC employees corroborated this allegation.”
Ultimately, the records show White waived a hearing on the complaints and took a three-day suspension without pay.
Earlier this year, both Hoffman and the unnamed employee resigned from MACC, but White remains employed.
“How do you feel about the fact that he’s still there, but you’re gone?” asked WSMV4 Investigates.
“I don’t think he should be there. I think his behavior over the years shows that he should not be in that position,” Hoffman said.
White declined to speak with WSMV4 Investigates through a Metro Health Department spokesman.
Hoffman said she resigned not only because White kept his job, but because health department management knew about the complaints and ignored it.
“Completely did not do anything. Just swept it under the rug,” Hoffman said.
In the recording of the meeting, Hoffman expresses her frustration.
“This is why I came to you guys. Because of (J.D.’s) behavior. Not just because JD is inappropriate, that was one thing. But there’s all these other things happening,” Hoffman said.
Bowron recounts in the meetings that they interviewed 19 staff members and spent hundreds of hours looking into the complaints.
In the recording, Bowron can be heard advising mediation between the employees and White.
Hoffman and the unnamed employee both told WSMV4 Investigates that mediation would have kept their complaints out of the public record.
“What happens if that stuff ends up in the newspaper? You get council people getting called for everybody’s hide! Including the HR guy. ‘Where were you man? What were you doing? Didn’t you hear any of this rumbling?’” Bowron said in the recording.
Bowron then apologizes for how his office handled the complaints.
“It wasn’t enough that we got you part-time help (at the shelter). It wasn’t enough to listen over the phone and then hang up and go deal with some other fire in another section. It wasn’t good enough. I didn’t do a good enough job. I failed,” Bowron said.
WSMV4 Investigates contacted Bowron by phone, offering to play for him all of what he is recorded saying in order for him to explain his side of the story, but he repeatedly declined.
Dr. Gil Wright, Metro Health Director, agreed to speak with WSMV4 Investigates, but backed out of the interview 24 hours before we were to air this story.
A spokesman for the department said Wright was advised not to speak after agreeing to an interview because Hoffman had inquired about filing an EEOC complaint.
Hoffman told WSMV4 Investigates she does not intend to file the EEOC complaint.
A statement from Metro Health sent to WSMV4 investigates reads in part, “Metro Public Health Department takes any claim of discrimination or misconduct extremely seriously. We cannot comment further pending the outcome of legal proceedings.”
Bowron resigned on July 1 and sent a scathing letter to Metro Health.
While it is unclear what Bowron is referring to in his letter, a story first reported by The Nashville Scene detailed turmoil within the department.
In the resignation letter, Bowron writes in part, “I cannot continue working for an employer that does not protect employees from false attacks made by a member of its senior leadership team nor can I work for a Director who allows members of his administration ot send emails and hold meetings that are designed to intimidate and insult me. In short, your refusal to step in and correct the inappropriate and retaliatory behavior of persons serving on your Executive Leadership Team, and your tacit approval of their actions, make working for MPHD simple untenable.”
WSMV4 Investigates will continue to update this story as more information comes available.
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