Aon is facing investigations by two separate federal agencies into allegations that an employee was fired as retaliation for complaining about incidences of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The broker has strongly disputed the allegations, arguing that it discontinued a relationship with a client accused of harassment and dismissed the employee in question for speaking disparagingly about the company to clients, as well as other performance issues.
The female employee worked as a vice president in the Houston office of Aon Risk Services from February 2015 until last April. Conduct at issue allegedly took place from about October 2017 to April 2018.
Following her dismissal, she filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), agencies charged with addressing unfair labor practices and violations of anti-discrimination law, respectively.
The agencies have the power to investigate employers, assess remedial measures or penalties, and potentially take further action in court.
According to documents reviewed by The Insurance Insider, the proceedings remain ongoing, having overcome early procedural hurdles. The NLRB has issued a subpoena to Aon for more documents relating to the woman’s employment and termination, as well as communications between supervisors and managers concerning the woman and other individuals at issue.
The woman alleged she was fired for discussing a situation in which a client propositioned her for sex, and further complaining about a male coworker who
allegedly made inappropriate comments in the office, and posted or sent sexually explicit messages using colleagues’ computers.
In one such incident, the male employee changed a colleague’s screensaver to a photo of a penis, and in another referred to a colleague as his “favourite pussy” according to the woman’s claims. The woman acknowledged that she was not a target of this conduct.
Aon contended in responses filed with the agencies that her dismissal had nothing to do with the issues she raised, that it responded to her complaints properly, and that she was fired for cause.
The woman “cannot substantiate her claim that Aon ever retaliated against her,” Aon said in a response to the EEOC matter. She violated corporate policies by disparaging the company to “external clients” and was “never a strong performer,” the broker said in the documents.
The probes come as sexual harassment in the workplace becomes an increasingly visible issue across numerous sectors. The so-called #MeToo movement, which has become a topic of interest in insurance discussions for clients, is now bleeding into the insurance industry itself.
Brokers, in particular, became subject to sexual harassment-related claims as of late, with lawsuits filed against Lockton, Marsh and AJ Gallagher.
The NLRB provided certain documents relating to the Aon case to The Insurance Insider in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The names of the woman, the client and colleagues were redacted from the legal papers. This publication has also reviewed documents relating to the EEOC investigation.
The woman claimed she was terminated after “discussing sexual harassment and work harassment in the office with other employees and by complaining about that conduct” to Aon, according to the documents.
One of those incidents involved a client who was an executive of a Mexico-based multinational conglomerate. The woman alleged he repeatedly asked her to have sex with him in exchange for business.
The other involved the behavior of the Houston-based Aon employee who engaged in what the broker described as “pranks”. The woman said in her papers that the broker's description of the activities as “pranks” served to “minimalise [his] offensive and serious behaviour”.
Aon alleged in its responses to her claims that it acted on her complaints appropriately, including disciplining the Houston-based employee and implementing anti-harassment training. The broker also said that the woman’s airing of grievances with clients violated company policy, contributing to her firing.
While acknowledging a male employee engaged in inappropriate workplace conduct, “nothing, however, suggested [he] had directed his behaviour toward women in particular", Aon said in its filings.
The company also said that the Aon Risk Services Houston office terminated its relationship with the client at issue.
The woman disputed the broker’s claims that it ended the client relationship and that it handled her complaints appropriately.
The NLRB receives about 20,000 to 30,000 complaints each year, but almost all are either thrown out or settled immediately. Only about 1,000 per year progress to a hearing before an administrative law judge. A formal hearing in the Aon case has been scheduled for later this year.
The EEOC enforces civil rights laws that safeguard against workplace discrimination. It receives about 75,000 to 100,000 complaints per year, but many are similarly initially thrown out or settled. Only a small number progress to a thorough investigation, given limitations on agency resources, said Michael Willemin, a partner with Wigdor LLP, a law firm specialising in employment discrimination cases.
Representatives for Aon declined to comment.