Gender, Secretaries / Administrative Assistants, Shoes, Women's Issues

When Your Firm’s Secretaries Could Be Cast in Mad Men, Your Firm Has Some Problems

Sorry fellas, this is your past, not your future.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin the season finale of Mad Men for those who still have it sitting in their DVRs.

Instead, I’m here to remind people that Mad Men is a television show set in a time long since past. Much to the disappointment of white males everywhere, those days are gone and never coming back.

Of course, nostalgia (and the cultural memory of a time when white men were in unquestioned positions of dominance) is a powerful thing. It must be sad to know that winning the birth lottery doesn’t pay off quite as much as it used to. But that’s no excuse for trying to force an anachronistic worldview upon your current working environment. Society has moved on; at some point living in the past stops being “traditional” and starts getting “obsolete.”

And maybe even “illegal.” That’s the argument a former secretary at the firm of Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn is trying to make. She clams that the firm’s “old-school” policies created a hostile work environment and caused her to suffer a physical injury.

According to the secretary’s lawyer, administrative assistants at Honigman are required to strut to work in high heels…

The set-up is pretty simple. A secretary, in this case Denise Fitzhenry, gets injured; her performance suffers; her boss (Alan Schwartz, vice-chair of Honigman) gets mad; the secretary gets fired; and the secretary files an EEOC claim, citing various allegedly discriminatory practices.

But it’s the way the secretary became injured that really catches your attention. Fitzhenry’s lawyer, Deborah Gordon, told the American Lawyer:

Gordon, a former president of the labor and employment council of the State Bar of Michigan, claims that Fitzhenry received her initial injury when she caught one of her high heels on a carpet in Honigman’s office. (Gordon claims secretaries at the firm were required to wear high heels.)

I like ladies in high heels as much as the next guy. Sure, it’s kind of barbaric to have women squeeze their toes into pinpoints and prance around on stilts, but it forces women to thrust their butts in the air and shake it while they walk — and that can be a very nice visual effect.

But with the notable exception of strippers and streetwalkers, I find it hard to imagine that such footwear could possibly be a legitimate job requirement. I mean, heels are dangerous when on the feet of people not professionally trained to use them. After her foot’s run-in with the carpet, Fitzhenry claims she suffered a back injury that required surgery. But she still suffered from chronic pain, which made other work-related tasks difficult to complete:

After returning to work in July 2007, Fitzhenry maintains that she requested “reasonable accommodation of her disability” such as working part time, regular work breaks, and avoiding having to lift heavy objects. But Schwartz, who was then the firm’s chairman and CEO, was hostile to her request, according to the suit. Her efforts to transfer to another job at the firm were rebuffed, Fitzhenry claims, and she was eventually forced to undergo another medical procedure that required her to take a leave of absence from Honigman in the summer of 2008…

When Fitzhenry returned to work the following fall, she was sent to Honigman’s “document services department (word processing pool),” which “further exacerbated her injury” and caused Fitzhenry to take another leave on Nov. 23, 2009, according to her complaint.

Perhaps all of these cascading back issues could have been solved with a sensible pair of flats. Yet Gordon claims that this “heels only” rule is part of the traditional culture at Honigman:

Fitzhenry’s lawyer, Gordon, claims that the atmosphere at Honigman is more akin to an episode of Mad Men than a modern workplace.

“[Honigman] is a very old-school law firm, up until a few years ago they were still using teacups and saucers in a very intentional kind of way,” Gordon says.

I’m not sure what “a very intentional kind of way” means. It could just mean that lawyers at Honigman are “intentional[ly]” trying to avoid guzzling tea directly from the kettle. But this Honigman place apparently has a history of being sued by women claiming they were discriminated against.

The thing is, Honigman seems to win these lawsuits:

A complaint filed by Darlene Flowers in 2004 accused the firm of terminating her after she sought FMLA leave to care for her mother and husband. A district court ruled against Flowers on summary judgment, and the decision was upheld on appeal.

A sexual discrimination suit filed in 2005 by former Honigman partner Lisa Panepucci accused Schwartz and the firm of giving female partners lesser assignments and allowing only limited exposure to clients. Panepucci claimed her problems worsened in 2002 when she sought 12 weeks of maternity leave to adopt a child. Honigman also won that case on appeal.

So Honigman has prevailed against two sex discrimination claims in the recent past, and now they’re looking at a woman who had to take numerous leaves of absence for the always difficult to prove “back pain.” Honigman to 3-0? Maybe Honigman is a wonderful place to work and is just unlucky to have hired three litigious women in the past few years?

Or maybe Honigman is full of a**holes who want to recreate a simpler time when men were men and women were docile second-class citizens? But if that is the case, there is still good news for women considering working at Honigman: Google. Women can Google Honigman and decide for themselves if that’s the kind of environment they want to be a part of.

Back in the days depicted by Mad Men, professional women didn’t have much choice but to put up with boorish male behavior. But like I said, those days are over and never coming back.

Honigman, Former Firm Chair Sued by Ex-Assistant Over Discrimination Claims [American Lawyer]

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