When Karen Jenkins went to work for a market-research company a few years ago, she expected to spend her time talking to consumers about their lifestyles and purchasing habits. What she didn't expect was a stream of crude comments about spanking, anal sex and other dicey topics--all issuing from a male co-worker.
Jenkins, a phone interviewer for Quantum Research Services in Boulder, says the company president failed to take her complaints about the talk seriously, even after other women objected to what she calls "this obnoxious and offensive behavior, vulgar language and lewd innuendo." Instead, she says, the situation escalated to threats and physical harassment--culminating in an insult-laced letter last month that prompted her to obtain a restraining order against the man, who no longer works at Quantum.
Jenkins and her alleged harasser, Grant Cyrus, don't see eye-to-eye about what happened at Quantum, but they do agree on one point. Both blame company management for letting the dispute get out of hand, and both suggest their bosses were "intimidated" by the prospect of a discrimination lawsuit--on the basis of race, gender or disability--by the other party.
According to Jenkins, she first met Cyrus in the mid-1980s at a party and took immediate exception to him when he began following her around, complimenting her on her "nice butt," until he was asked to leave. Cyrus doesn't recall the incident and denies that he ever behaved in such a way toward her.
"I am an honorable man," says Cyrus, who is of Jamaican heritage and, like Jenkins, is in his mid-forties. "I've gone to a lot of parties in Boulder, but that's certainly nothing I remember."
When Cyrus began working at Quantum in 1993, "I was crestfallen, to say the least," Jenkins says. "But I decided I was just going to ignore him and act as if he didn't exist."
Jenkins, though, found it difficult to ignore Cyrus. She claims he often sat in the cubicle next to hers and launched into graphic conversations about sex--for example, about "how much this woman [he knew] enjoyed being spanked." The talk was sometimes so loud, she adds, that her interview subjects could hear it over the phone.
"He would scream variations of the F word as if trying to conjugate the verb," Jenkins says.
In March 1995 Jenkins filed a written complaint with Quantum management about Cyrus's behavior, charging that he had continued to sit next to her despite being asked to stay away; had blocked her way when she tried to enter the building; and had even "roamed around the room mumbling, 'Now I'm going to have to kill someone' while casting an ugly glance at me."
Cyrus says he has a "rambunctious personality" and suffered a cerebral aneurysm several years ago that may have left him "less inhibited" and subject to infrequent lapses in memory or judgment. He did "get loose" at times in his language, but he insists that it was never as explicit as Jenkins claims and that it was directed at males or younger females in the office; for example, he says, he offered to be one woman's "boy toy."
"I would be flirting with them more than anything else--unwanted advances, you could say, if you wanted to push it," he says. "I did have a real good rapport with the guys; they looked up to me. I was the joker of the phone room."
A male co-worker recalls that Cyrus talked about sexual matters with him loudly enough "that it might make other people uncomfortable." But he also describes Cyrus as a "good guy" who wouldn't hurt anyone. Cyrus emphatically denies threatening Jenkins or harassing her.
"Some of my humor just wasn't understood or appreciated," he says. "The only killing I ever talked about was joking with the guys about going to a gang fight. I never did anything to Karen Jenkins. She's delusional. She became obsessed with me."
Jenkins admits to having a "depressive condition," but she insists that Cyrus is the one who's deluding himself. After she filed her complaint, she says, a Quantum executive assured her that Cyrus would be fired the next day. Then she was told the company required corroboration of her complaint "to cover their butts." Several women subsequently logged objections of their own to Cyrus's conduct and language. In support of her request for a restraining order, Jenkins submitted a letter from one former supervisor who stated she'd documented seven sexual harassment complaints against Cyrus, including Jenkins's and her own. Cyrus "showed no remorse for his behavior, but rather attributed it to a different moral code he learned [growing up] in Chicago and continued his harassment," the supervisor wrote.
Cyrus says the same supervisor left Quantum as the result of a counter complaint he filed against her, "so her credibility is in question, too." As for the other complaints, "a lot of it is made up," he says. "Boulder is run by women. It's a very cliquish place. They will turn on you, and if five people say you did something, you're guilty, whether you did it or not."
Through a spokesman, Quantum president Andrew Smith declined to comment on the company's handling of the raft of complaints--including Cyrus's lament that Jenkins was, in effect, harassing him. But in a letter Smith wrote to Cyrus last July, he noted that Cyrus had previously been issued a written warning and that his behavior had since improved, "but complaints from women employees have continued."
"With regard to the complaints brought by Karen Jenkins," Smith wrote, "I believe that they are exaggerated. I also believe that you did cause her some offense at some point, even though it was probably inadvertent."
Smith also reminded Cyrus that Boulder wasn't like Chicago and cautioned him that "remarks and conversations that would fit in well to a men's locker room [need] to be totally absent from any workplace...where women are present or within earshot."
Smith's solution to the dispute was to place Jenkins and Cyrus on different work schedules. But Jenkins protested that Cyrus was being offered "his choice of shifts," and complaints about his language continued from other female employees.
"It got pretty raunchy down there," says Laura Paschke. "Grant homed in on me as Karen's friend. When I complained about him, I was told that I was supposed to tell Grant to shut up. I really didn't think that was appropriate."
Cyrus was supposed to leave the building five minutes before Jenkins's shift started, but she claims that sometimes he was still on the premises when she arrived. "He would follow me up the hall and leer at me," she says. "It was very uncomfortable."
Cyrus left Quantum last November. He says he returned from a trip to Jamaica only to be told by Smith that "it wasn't a good idea" for him to go back to work at the company. "They were terrified of Karen bringing the business down with a lawsuit," Cyrus says now. "As a businessman, I can understand it. As a man, I was disgusted. But I wasn't going to fight it. There had been so many instances where I'd been misunderstood or misinterpreted." He adds, though, that he hasn't abandoned the idea of exploring legal options against the company himself.
Cyrus's departure should have put the matter to rest, but Jenkins continued to hear from him--first through a mutual acquaintance, who told her, "Grant says hello" ("I got extremely angry," Jenkins says), then through a letter sent last month, addressed to her and Paschke and signed "Cool Hand."
"This letter is not meant to harass or threaten, perhaps to insult a bit (which is valid)," Cyrus wrote. Although the women had been successful in "railroading" him, they would be "forever locked in your putrid, paranoid, insipid, bigoted and sick little world while I'm laying on the beaches of Jamaica and Barbados...I guess I should thank you two bitches...Good-bye and please don't call."
Jenkins's response: "Like I'm trying to call!"
"I just wanted some closure," Cyrus says. "People said to me, 'Don't do that, Grant. Why not just let it go?' But I had to write that, get it out. I knew she would explode. I can't pretend to be innocent there."
Last week a visibly shaken Jenkins went to Boulder County Court seeking a permanent restraining order prohibiting Cyrus from attempting to contact her in person, by phone, mail or through third parties. When Judge Carol Glowinsky granted her request, Jenkins beamed with relief and flashed her friend Paschke a thumbs-up.
Cyrus didn't bother to appear to contest the order. He says he has no intention of contacting Jenkins again. "Anybody can get a restraining order," he says. "It's a harassing technique more than anything else."
Although he's now working at another market-research job without any problems, he adds, "I'm ready to go home to Jamaica. I can't stand Boulder."
Jenkins says she just wants to get on with her life. "This has been a nightmare," she says. "But if I got just one more person to stand up and say, 'I'm not going to take this,' it's worth it to me."