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 investigation.”
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.
Novant President and CEO Carl Armato celebrated the ranking in a blog post shared internally with employees.
“Diversity 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.”
Armato 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 him.
‘I just wanted a discussion to be had’
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.
Obas 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.
The directors and manager implicated in Obas’ account could not be reached for this story.
The 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.
“Well, thank you so much for not doing that, and giving us a chance to handle it,” the director replied, according to Obas.
Three 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
Later, 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 equivalency.
“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 director.
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 true.”
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.”
The directors also accused Obas of displaying disrespect to her supervisor in a letter.
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.
Fourteen 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.
Next, 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.”
Obas 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.
Alex 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.
“If 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.”
“People 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.”