Would YOU Want To See Your Boss In Underwear?  

wistfuljester 65M
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7/29/2006 12:53 pm

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7/29/2006 12:54 pm

Would YOU Want To See Your Boss In Underwear?

(From a report that aired on Dateline Friday, July 28 )

Every work day in America, millions of employees spend many of their waking hours with all kinds of bosses. But how many can say they work for a guy who likes to run around the office in his underwear? Or a CEO who let videotape of himself doing just that go up on the company Web site?

His name is Dov Charney, the 37-year-old founder and CEO of American Apparel, the ultra-hip chain that sells clothing, and yes, underwear.

Mary Nelson is one of three women who filed sexual harassment lawsuits against Charney last year. Keith Fink is her attorney.

Charney (in deposition tape): I frequently drop my pants to show people my new product

Keith Fink is often on the other side of this debate, hired by companies trying to ward off harassment litigation.

Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline correspondent: You do workshops for employers telling them how to avoid sexual harassment cases.

Keith Fink, attorney for Mary Nelson: Quite often. I’m a pretty entertaining guy.

Mankiewicz: And you give out a bunch of guidelines for people to sort of live by if they wanna stay out of a courtroom.

Fink: Absolutely.

Mankiewicz: How many of those guidelines were broken at American Apparel?

Fink: Every single one of them.

Mankiewciz: Mr. Charny’s been pretty open about the fact that he’s been involved personally with a number of his employees.

Fink: Open. Brazen. Yes.

Charney has talked to reporters from the New York Times, Business Week and Jane magazine about his intimate relationships with women who work for him. “I’m not saying I want to screw all the girls at work,” he was quoted as saying in Jane, “But if I fall in love at work it’s going to be beautiful and sexual.”

By all accounts, the women who have sued Dov Charney for sexual harassment–including Fink’s client Mary Nelson–were not intimately involved with him. But Nelson and the two others claimed the boss shocked and disgusted them with dirty talk and gestures, creating what some lawyers call a phrase you’ve heard before, “a hostile work environment.”

Mary Nelson started working as a wholesale salesperson at American Apparel in 2003 when she was 31. Over the next year and a half, she claims in her complaint, her boss made her work life miserable with unwelcome sexual comments and suggestive signals. And she says she was dismissed after she complained.

In the videotaped deposition, over several days, her lawyer grilled Charney about all of it.

Fink (deposition): Did you ever, at work, refer to women as “sluts”?

Charney: In private conversations, where such language was generally welcome.

Fink: Do you view "slut" to be a derogatory term?

Charney: You know, there are some of us that love sluts. You know, it’s not necessarily–it could be also be an endearing term.

Fink: An endearing term. Is that something you call your mother?

Charney: No. But it’s maybe something that you call your lover.

Fink (Dateline interview): I’m very difficult to floor me. That floored me when I heard his explanation that “slut” is an endearing term.

Charney freely admits using a number of explicit terms for female body parts–including the “C” word.

Charney: During the period when she worked, did I use the word c***?

Fink: In the workplace?

Charney: Absolutely, as she did.

Fink: I didn’t ask you if she did.

Charney: I’m telling you a little more. I’m volunteering a little more ha ha [sticks out tongue].

The company argues in the freewheeling creative environment of American Apparel, it’s not inappropriate to use foul language.

And in fact, a recent court decision might back that up: this spring the California Supreme Court ruled that an assistant scriptwriter on the NBC sitcom "Friends" could not proceed with a sexual harassment lawsuit. The court ruled that lewd language was permissible in a creative workplace generating scripts with sexual themes.

Charney hangs explicit vintage magazines on the walls of his retail stores. He even posed for one ad himself in the magazine “Sweet Action.” To Charney, it’s all part of an unconventional vibe he says is the very essence of his hip young company.

Charney: I believe that we work hard to create an environment of freedom.

And in the world of Dov Charney, freedom can sometimes mean dressing down at the office.

Fink: At the workplace in the years 2003 and 2004 how often in the work week would you be in your underwear?

Charney: There were months I was in my underwear all the time. It became very common.

Dov Charney argues sometimes taking off his pants at the workplace is perfectly appropriate. He is, after all, in the business of selling underwear. He serves as a fit model for the company so he says he has to try it on at work. And he says he wants to build enthusiasm for the product.

Charney: There was a time in fact we put it on the Internet that I was running around in my underwear.

Fink: Why did you do that?

Charney: To be humorous.

Fink: And did all the employees tell you that they thought it was funny seeing the CEO walk up and down the workplace in his underpants?

Charney: We had people cheering.

The video of a pant-less Charney on the job has been removed from the company’s Website. But it turns out someone saved a copy.

In the video, the workers on the floor don’t seem alarmed by their boss’s behavior.

American Apparel CEO Dov Charney doesn’t try to hide the fact that his company has different rules about workplace relationships than a lot of other American businesses.

Keith Fink, lawyer: Now, as you understood this American Apparel policy or spirit of having freedom in the workplace, does that encompass American apparel employees having sex at the workplace?

Dov Charney, American Apparel CEO: Provided they’re in a private setting and no one else is aware of it and they’re on their break.

Fink: How about if they take their 10-minute break which the law allows them and they go into a supply closet and no one can see them and they actually have intercourse?

Charney: Well if it’s if no one could see them and or there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, I’m not going to run rush in like some Nazi and tell them to stop having consensual activities.

In his videotaped deposition, Charney declined to answer whether he had ever had sex in the workplace, or to discuss which women in the company he’s been involved with. But one former American Apparel employee claims Dov Charney was eager to pursue a number of his subordinates.

Employee: It was understood that Dov was looking for sex almost constantly.

Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline correspondent: And that he was looking for it from his employees?

Employee: Yes. He was looking for sex from his employees.

The former employee is a young man was a mid-level employee at American Apparel until last year. On Dateline, he asked us to conceal his face and voice saying he thinks publicly criticizing a former boss could hurt his career. He acknowledges he was fired by Dov Charney. His account of Charney’s behavior was backed up by six other former employees Dateline spoke to from American Apparel locations in three different cities.

Some say they left voluntarily, others acknowledge they were fired. All say they were distressed by a boss they describe as obsessed with sex.

Employee: His language was constantly inappropriate talking about sex, talking about–his own genitalia, talking about–other people’s.

Mankiewicz: He would say, “Hey, I’m all about sex and freedom of expression and everybody should say what’s on their mind, and that’s what was on my mind.”

Employee: I agree with freedom of expression. However, when you combine that with the job setting, when you’re using it as power over other people, that’s inappropriate.

Charney declined to talk to us, but a company spokesman said our sources are “disgruntled ex-employees” asserting “blatant falsehoods under a cloak of anonymity.”

He also said: “The truth is that American Apparel, which employs more than 4,500 people, faces a single baseless workplace lawsuit.”

It’s true there is only one lawsuit now because the other two plaintiffs, who sued Charney jointly, have reached a confidential settlement with the company out of court, in which American Apparel did not admit any wrongdoing.

And the company introduced us to a group of high level employees, all women, who say working for Dov Charney is a pleasure.

Alex, employee: Dov’s a really exciting person to work with. I mean, he’s definitely eccentric, we all know that, but he’s also really inspiring.

Carolina, employee: I think Dov’s a brilliant man, he’s very loyal, I enjoy working for him.

These women say any bad publicity American Apparel has gotten stems from a misunderstanding of the company’s unconventional style.

Mankiewicz: How important is sex to the American Apparel image?

Alex: Very. Sex definitely comes into play. Every ad we do, “Is this sexy? Does the garment look sexy, does the model look sexy, is it the right kind of sexy?” You know.

Cara, employee: It hasn’t always been just about, you know, sexiness. I mean, we have an adorable older couple taking about this new jacket and how cute is.

But when Dov Charney talks at work about what’s sexy, they say, it’s always in a professional context.

Mankiewicz: Ever hear him talk about women’s bodies at work?

Alex: Sure, I mean, again, with the photos, with the models–

Mankiewicz: Ever hear him talk about sex?

Alex: Yeah, in a way, we do talk about sex, as I mentioned.

Mankiewicz: I don’t mean just sex, as in sex he might have had, as a–

Alex: As in, “I had sex last night”? No. No. We don’t talk about that.

These employees do acknowledge the company’s Web site isn’t the only place where the boss has made appearances in his underwear.

All the women, nodding: Yes, we’ve seen him in his underwear.

Cara: American Apparel underwear. Not randomly in underwear.

Marsha, employee: I mean, we sell underwear, it’s not uncommon to see someone in their underwear here.

They know Charney has dated some of their colleagues, but say they don’t care.

Carolina: Yeah, it’s his personal life. I’m more concerned about getting artwork out to the source, meeting my deadlines, than worrying about who’s dating Dov.

And the women reminded us that American Apparel has no rules against dating in the office. The company says Charney’s relationships with his employees have been consensual, that he’s never demanded sex nor let sex be the basis for hiring, firing or promoting any employee. And this group says they’ve never seen Dov Charney behave inappropriately.

Mankiewicz: There are women in this country, in the work force, plenty of them, who feel as if they have the right to come to work and not have any discussion about sex with their boss, regardless of what kind of work they do.

Alex: Well, it’s actually in our employee handbook. We do talk about how, you know, especially in a creative department, you can expect a certain type of dialogue happening, and if you don’t feel comfortable with that, than maybe this isn’t the place for you to work.

That language in the handbook states that employees working in creative areas of the company “will come into contact with sexually charged language and visual images. This is part of the job...and is not deemed to be harassment by American Apparel.”

Cara: You can’t go work for Hustler Magazine and then, all of a sudden, say, “I’m offended by women’s breasts.”

Marsha: You could just go onto our Web site, wear our clothing, go into one of our stores, and you’ll see that sex is a big part of how we build our brand.

Employees: If that makes anyone uncomfortable–

Mankiewicz: Go work at Sears?

Female employees: Yeah.

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