Photo by Carolyn de Berry

Karen Obas, a Novant Health employee, alleges that her supervisors engaged in a pattern of retaliation after she reported a racially offensive comment by her manager.

A Novant Health employee alleges
that managerial staff at the Winston-Salem-based healthcare organization have
engaged in a pattern of retaliation after she reported a racially offensive
comment by her manager.

Karen Obas, an insurance specialist
in the Patient Financial Services Department, told Triad City Beat that she overheard a white manager in her
department tell a black employee: “If you don’t stop, you’re going to get
lynched.” Obas said the manager started walking back to her desk, and then
turned back, and continued: “And I’m gonna be there. And I’m gonna say, ‘I
tried to warn you.’”

Obas said that what she considered
to be unfair discipline began soon after she filed a complaint through the
company’s anonymous Alert Line program, and then escalated as she followed up
by bringing the matter to the attention of the senior director of patient
finance and the director of diversity and inclusion, and then availing herself
of the organization’s Employee Relations program.

Obas eventually filed a charge of
discrimination for retaliation with the US Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission. Obas and Novant failed to reach an agreement in federally mandated
mediation, the EEOC issued a letter notifying her that she may pursue a claim
through the federal courts, her lawyer told TCB.

But as a single mother who lives
paycheck to paycheck, Obas said she was unable to afford the $400 filing fee or
the thousands of dollars she would likely incur to retain counsel through the
discovery phase leading up to trial. Based on her limited financial resources,
Obas said she decided her best option for holding the organization accountable
was to take her story to the public.

While the deadline for her to file a
Title VII claim under the process set up by the EEOC passed on Sept. 26, Obas’
lawyer said she still has the opportunity to file an equal rights claim under
Section § 1981 of the US Code, which has a four-year statute of limitations.

“Who else are they treating like
this?” Obas asked in an interview. “Who else has reported things and not had
the wherewithal [to pursue legal remedies]?… I have a son to take care of. We
all have kids to love and take care of. We all have lives to live. We don’t
need to be in an environment where are insulted on a daily basis. So, it’s
what’s happened, and the aftermath, and then the overall environment that just
makes this whole picture really disgusting.”

Novant responded through a
spokesperson on Tuesday: “As an organization, we take considerable measures to
make certain Novant Health is a safe, desirable workplace that guarantees
respect for every team member, adheres to high standards of professional
conduct and is free from all forms of discrimination and harassment. To help
ensure team members feel safe to report any concerns, we have an anonymous
alert line and strong anti-retaliation policies in place. When concerns are
reported by a team member, we take them very seriously and conduct a thorough

The spokesperson continued in an
email to TCB: “We cannot
provide the outcome of an investigation of a team member to any other team
member — or the media — due to the confidential nature of personnel records. I
can confirm, however, as it relates to this matter, that a thorough
investigation was conducted and we followed all of our policies and procedures.
Because of the same confidentiality concerns, I am unable to comment further on
specifics. I can assure you that Novant Health takes all claims of
discrimination, harassment and retaliation very seriously and takes appropriate
action when necessary.”

A growing
healthcare company, Novant’s national employee roster has expanded from 26,000
to 29,000 employees over the past two years. The second largest employer in
Forsyth County after Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Novant’s local
presence has also grown — from 8,145 employees in July 2016 to about 11,000 in
September 2019, according to the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

In 2014,
Novant Health received DiversityInc’s third-place ranking, with the diversity
education company lauding Novant’s 12-percent share of black physicians — twice
the national average.

President and CEO Carl Armato celebrated the ranking in a blog post shared
internally with employees.

is in our values along with compassion, personal excellence and teamwork
because it permeates our organization and is part of the very fiber of who we
are and why we exist,” Armato wrote. “Diversity and its partner — inclusion —
are integrated into Novant Health’s DNA.”

prides himself on his accessibility and invites employees to comment on his
blog. Heartened by Armato’s professed support for diversity, Obas began
drafting a letter to her CEO about what she came to see as an institution-wide
failure to uphold Novant’s stated values. She has continued to add to the
letter, which is now up to 3,751 words, but ultimately opted to not send it to

‘I just wanted a discussion to be

The reported
comment by her manager about a black coworker getting lynched was shocking,
said Obas, who is white. Even if it was intended in a joking manner, she
immediately felt that it was nothing to joke about. Obas said she didn’t know
how to respond, and during her lunchbreak, she called her boyfriend, who is
black, for advice. After her break, she went up to talk to her black coworker,
who was the target of the reported comment.

recalled her coworker responding, “Oh, that. Oh, I just let that kind of stuff
roll off my shoulders. I don’t even pay attention to that kind of thing.”

At Obas’
request, TCB is withholding the name of the woman who was reportedly the
target of the comment, to protect her from harassment.

“I never
dreamed that this is what it would turn into,” Obas told TCB. “I made
the decision to use the Alert Line because I felt like that’s the first avenue,
and I felt like that’s what I should do because hopefully I’ll fill it out,
explain what happened. It will be investigated. This person will be spoken to.
My manager will be educated. And it won’t happen again. I couldn’t possibly ask
for one thing or another. I just wanted a discussion to be had. I wanted
someone to learn something. I did think an apology would be appropriate, but
who am I to tell a company how to handle something like that?”

Two weeks
after the automated deadline for the complaint to be resolved, Obas said she
was written up for low productivity — a sanction that she believed was unfair
because she said the entire department had productivity challenges. Because she
challenged the write-up, she had the opportunity to meet with the senior
director of the department. Obas said she decided to disclose to her senior
manager that she had anonymously reported the racially offensive comment.

Obas said her senior manager looked “mortified,” and told her the complaint should have come to her. Then, Obas said, the senior director told her that the complaint must have come to the assistant director, who works under her, and that she suspected the assistant manager must have covered up the complaint to protect the manager accused of making the racially offensive comment.

“She took
one piece of paper and slid it underneath another to say” that she thought the
assistant director covered it up for the manager instead of addressing it,’”
Obas told TCB.

directors and manager implicated in Obas’ account could not be reached for this

director “telling me she suspected this happened made me sick,” Obas said. “And
it also said a lot to me about the way that department operated, what they’re
willing to turn a blind eye to. If she thought that could have happened, then
it probably happened before.”

Obas said
she told her director she had written a letter to Armato about the matter, but
had decided to wait before she sent it.

thank you so much for not doing that, and giving us a chance to handle it,” the
director replied, according to Obas.

weeks went by, and Obas said she still hadn’t heard anything. While attending a
mandatory diversity and inclusion training, she decided to share her concern
about the racially offensive comment to the facilitator, who in turn introduced
her to Tanya Blackmon, the organization’s chief diversity and inclusion
officer. Obas said she later contacted the organization’s Employee Relations
program, at the suggestion of Blackmon’s assistant, and later received an email
indicating that “Employee Relations was handling the issue.”

Obas said
in April 2018 her team eventually received an apology of sorts from the
manager. She said team members were “pulled into a huddle in an area outside of
our cube farm,” and the manager came out of her office.

Obas told
TCB that the manager said, “You know, it has been brought to my
attention that I hurt one of y’all’s feelings. And I just want to say I don’t
remember what I did. I don’t remember what was said, but apparently I said
something that hurt one of y’all’s feelings. Y’all know that I love every one
of y’all. And I’m very sorry if I offended anybody by something that I said.”

Obas said
she felt “highly offended” by the apology.

An alleged offender ‘devastated’
by a complaint

Obas said she found herself in her senior director’s office to discuss another
complaint she had filed. At the end of the meeting, Obas said her senior
director mentioned that she had heard that the manager had made an apology. In
response, Obas said she had already contacted Employee Relations about the
matter, which appeared to displease her senior director.

Obas said
her senior director pleaded with her to accept the manager’s apology, while
emphasizing how profoundly the episode had affected the manager. According to
Obas, her senior director described the manager as “devastated” and said she
was “so upset she had to go home” for the rest of the day after being called
into her office to discuss it.

Obas also
said that her senior director told her, “There’s more than one meaning to the
word lynch,” appearing to minimize the comment, and shared a story about
a white employee who filed a complaint about two women of color speaking with
each other and using the N-word, which Obas considered to be a false

“I don’t
feel sorry for a person who is in a position of management at a billion-dollar
nonprofit company that does not know what the word lynch means, to the
extent that she’s going to use it towards a black person in that manner, and go
as far as she went with it,” Obas told TCB.

As her
relationship with management deteriorated, Obas said she learned about a
patient-relations specialist position in another office. The position wasn’t
open at the time, but she said the hiring manager advised her to “sit tight.”

In the
meantime, Obas said the manager who had made the reported comment and her
direct supervisor pulled her aside one day in May 2018 to speak to her about
her productivity. After that meeting, Obas instant-messaged one of her
coworkers to say she was “in trouble,” and she would no longer be able to help
the other coworker if it took more than five minutes.

The next
day, Obas was called into a meeting with her senior director and assistant

In a
recording Obas shared with TCB, one of the directors can be heard
saying, “Not only was it inappropriate to share that information, but it wasn’t

When Obas
asked what was untrue about what she said, the same supervisor responded, “There
was no coaching and counseling. There was no progressive discipline, and so to
indicate that you were in trouble for helping another team member is not true.”

directors also accused Obas of displaying disrespect to her supervisor in a

A Novant
Health disciplinary document Obas shared with TCB shows that as a result
of the instant message to her coworker, she received a written warning and 90
days of probation. As a reason for the discipline, the document cites
“immoral/dishonest or indecent conduct on Novant Health property.”

As part
of Novant Health’s progressive discipline policy, Obas would not be eligible
for transfer during the 90-day probationary period.

days before the end of her probation, Obas said she received an email from the
hiring manager alerting her that the patient-relations position was open, and
asking if she would like to apply.

“I went
on that interview,” Obas recounted. “It went really well. They set up and third
and final panel interview. Every interaction was positive with this manager. I
got along great with her. I got along great with the peer that interviewed me.
I passed the writing test. I have all the skills. I have experience at Novant.”

On a
Wednesday in September 2018, Obas recalled receiving an email notifying her that
her final interview was set for the following Friday, in two days, and asking
if it was okay to call her supervisor for a reference. By then, she had five
days left until the end of her probation. Obas said she readily agreed, and she
checked with her supervisor, who told her the probation shouldn’t interfere with
her transfer prospects.

Obas said she overheard her supervisor speaking with someone who appeared to be
calling for an employment reference. She was stunned when she heard him recommend
that they also speak with her manager, the same person whom she had reported
for making a racially offensive comment.

About 30
minutes later, Obas said she received an email abruptly canceling the final
interview, and indicating, “We’ve decided to move in a different direction.”

recalled, “At that point I decided to file a complaint with the EEOC because
that’s my life and my money and my sanity. And I didn’t understand why they
wouldn’t just let me go. I felt trapped. I felt completely violated. I have
been called a ‘liar.’ I have lost money.”

Obas said
she understands that a consequence of speaking to the media could be
termination from a job that she desperately needs to pay her bills and support
her son.

Kelly, Obas’ lawyer at the Kirby G. Smith Law Firm in Charlotte, said his
client isn’t breaking the law or doing anything wrong by speaking to the media,
but North Carolina is a fire-at-will state.

they’re terminating her for speaking with a reporter, you could argue this is
an extension of her opposition [to discrimination], and for them to fire her is
another form of retaliation,” Kelly said, “but it’s unlikely a court would
agree with that.”

Obas said
she believes she followed Novant’s processes and upheld the organization’s
service standards. And if the consequence is getting fired, she can make her
peace with it.

“I have
to uphold humanity’s standards as well,” she said. “It is morally wrong to
retaliate and treat people like there’s something wrong with them because they
point out a systematic problem that’s not being fixed.”

in this area in particular, I think, have a responsibility to speak up to those
kind of things,” Obas added. “And if we have leaders in organizations that are
not willing to do that within their organizations, it gives permission to the
employees and really to society as a whole because people will take comfort in
that corruption, and feel safe in it and protected. Whereas people like me have
been pushed out, ignored and treated like the enemy.”

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