Open Letter: The Silencing of Women at Ernst & Young

Karen Ward
Aug 5 · 7 min read

Note: On Monday, August 5, 2019, I sent the following Open Letter to Ernst & Young (“EY”) Global Chairman and CEO, Carmine Di Sibio, regarding EY’s use of forced arbitration for sexual harassment and gender discrimination disputes.

Dear Mr. Di Sibio,

First, I would like to congratulate you on being elected to serve as Global Chairman and CEO of Ernst & Young Global Limited (“EY”) in January of this year. As you are keenly aware, such an influential role comes with a tremendous responsibility to contribute to meaningful, global change for women and to be ahead of the curve on gender equality. I write to address some of EY’s shortcomings under your predecessor, Mark Weinberger, with respect to the firm’s handling of sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints. I also write to request that EY voluntarily release me from the arbitration provision contained in my partnership agreement so that I can pursue my claims in court, rather than in a secret forced arbitration.

Allow me to recap the facts of my case: I joined EY in 2013. Throughout my employment, I worked in groups that were run entirely by men and was routinely subjected to sexual harassment and gender discrimination. I was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars less than men who were doing the same work as I was. One EY Partner even admitted, “there is an issue here because you are a woman,” and “women do not succeed here [at EY].” I reported the discrimination and harassment numerous times, but rather than take these complaints seriously, EY’s male leadership told me to stop complaining and that I was being perceived as a “bitch.” Ultimately, EY stripped all support for my team and propped up a competing team. Then, in October 2018, EY terminated my employment.

To make matters worse, I was also forced by EY to enter into an agreement to arbitrate any claims I might have against EY, rather than pursue them in open court before a jury of my peers. After filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September 2018, I wrote an open letter to Mr. Weinberger, pleading him to release me from the arbitration agreement. Mr. Weinberger declined the request. Instead, EY made public statements to the press defaming me, making it completely impossible for me to obtain a new position at a different firm in the same field.

From there, my situation only continued to worsen: EY refused to pay the costs of the arbitration, and the arbitrators — who often feel beholden to cater to the businesses that repeatedly use their services — ordered the parties to split the costs of the proceedings. Since then, I have been billed an astonishing $185,000. My case is still only in the discovery phase. When all is said and done, I will likely have paid over $200,000 just to have my claims heard by a “neutral” party. By comparison, if I had been permitted to file in Court, I would only have had to pay $450 to have my case heard by a judge or jury.

As you are likely aware, on Wednesday, July 31, 2019, a bipartisan group of 67 New York State Senators and State Assembly Members led by Sen. Liz Krueger sent you a letter calling on EY to end its use of mandatory arbitration for employees’ claims of sexual harassment and discrimination, including mine. According to the letter, my case “is a particularly egregious example of the abuses that led New York State to pass legislation banning such forced arbitration agreements in cases of harassment and discrimination in the first place.” The letter has since garnered public support from several influential parties, including U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Gretchen Carlson and the National Women’s Law Center.

The New York City Council’s Women’s Caucus also penned a letter to you on August 1, 2019, standing in solidarity with their colleagues in the New York State Legislature and expressing their “grave disappointment with the efforts by Ernst & Young to deny” me my opportunity to have my claims heard in a court of law. The City Council’s Women’s Caucus urged EY to “show its commitment to a harassment-free workplace” and told EY that it “must comply with State law and join a growing number of private companies in eliminating forced arbitration.”

After receiving such harsh criticism from state and local lawmakers, one would expect EY to at least be willing to engage in a dialogue about its use of forced arbitration in employment cases, EY’s ongoing efforts to prevent workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, and how EY can do more to protect victims when they have experienced unlawful misconduct in the workplace. Instead, Sen. Krueger received the following response from Tammy R. Velasquez, EY’s Director of State Relations in its Office of Public Policy:

Dear Senator Krueger:

On behalf of EY, I am writing to acknowledge the letter from you and your legislative colleagues to our Global CEO Carmine DiSibio, and your continuing advocacy of the protection and advancement of women in the workplace. As one of the largest employers in the State of New York, EY fully shares your commitment to these important goals: a diverse, inclusive and safe workplace, free of harassment or of any kind, and full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

We value your input and appreciate the perspectives you and your legislative colleagues bring to the important policy questions around the fairness of the arbitration process and specifically the allocation of the costs of arbitrations.

Very truly yours,

Tammy Velasquez

Mr. Di Sibio, this response is completely inadequate and is an insult not only to me, but to all women at EY and beyond. It is well known in the #MeToo era that forced arbitration perpetuates sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace by eliminating a woman’s fundamental right to seek justice in court when her employer engages in unlawful behavior. If EY is truly committed to a workplace that is “free of harassment or of any kind,” it would not require any woman to sign away her right to pursue any claims she might have against EY in open court before a jury of her peers — let alone force her to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to have her claims heard in secret arbitration.

Notably, EY’s response fails to elaborate as to what specific actions EY will take to address “the fairness of the arbitration process” and the “allocation of the costs of arbitrations.” Clearly, EY has not given any meaningful thought to this outrageous injustice. That said, I am hopeful that you, Mr. Di Sibio, can lead the conversation to a more ethical path.

Mr. Di Sibio, you have said with respect to sexual harassment in the workplace that EY tries “to deal with these issues in fairness to all parties involved.” Such an exorbitant price to have my claims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination heard in private arbitration is antithetical to any notion of fairness. Not only does outrageously expensive and binding arbitration insulate harassers from liability by restricting employees’ access to seek justice in the courts, but it also deters other victims from coming forward. The reality is that forced arbitration emboldens those men who engage in sexual harassment and gender discrimination and ensures that this kind of misconduct remains the status quo.

You have also said that “making sure that there’s equality and making sure that everyone’s comfortable at work is something that we’re very focused on. It’s part of our values.” What kind of message do you think EY is sending about its values when it requires female employees to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue claims of sexual harassment behind closed doors in arbitration? As a woman, I believe this practice sadly speaks for itself: a woman’s right to work in an environment that holds sexual harassers accountable comes only second to EY’s ability to generate revenue.

EY’s tagline is “building a better working world.” Forcing women, as a condition of employment, to pursue claims of gender discrimination and harassment only in secret arbitration proceedings does not help to “build a better working world.” In fact, it does the opposite. Taking away a woman’s right to a trial by a jury of her peers and providing sexual harassers with the relief and comfort of this private forum only serves to facilitate workplace harassment and hostility towards women.

Finally, as I understand it you are a father to at least two daughters. I truly hope that they never experience anything similar to what I have. But, if they ever did would you not want them to have every opportunity to obtain justice? Would you want your children to have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their claims heard in a secret and biased arbitration process? I do not believe that any parent would want that for his or her child.

For the reasons stated above, I respectfully ask that you voluntarily release me from my arbitration agreement once and for all, so that I can pursue my claims in court. Mr. Weinberger failed to honor my request, and in doing so failed to accept a critical responsibility to make EY a better place for women to work.

I am hopeful that you are more committed to providing access to justice for victims of sexual harassment and discrimination than your predecessor. Ending forced arbitration for these victims, including me, is the right thing to do and would send a message that EY, under your leadership, is truly a champion of positive, lasting change for women around the globe.

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Karen Ward

Karen Ward

Written by

Former Head of U.S. Real Estate Investment Banking at Ernst & Young challenging EY’s use of forced arbitration. Wharton MBA ’99; Stanford BA ’92.

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