A former employee at Avvo, the Seattle-based online legal directory, says she was fired after rejecting advances from a co-worker, according to a suit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
Selamawit Afeworki, an African-American woman who was hired as an account executive at Avvo in 2014 and promoted to senior account executive seven months later, claims that a fellow senior account executive sexually harassed her during her employment.
Afeworki is suing Avvo for retaliation and discrimination under the Civil Rights Act, alleging in the suit that the company became “fed up” with her pointing out “issues of discrimination and hostility in its office.” As a result, she says she was fired.
In an email to GeekWire, Avvo Chief Legal Officer Josh King said the suit is without merit.
“…When lawsuits are brought against Avvo that strike at our mission to serve consumers, we are happy to comment freely and fully,” King said. “It’s harder with cases involving employee relations; even when we disagree (and we do here) we want to respect our employees, current and former, and not argue in the press about the specifics of allegations.”
King said they take allegations of sexual harassment seriously, and the company investigated the claims made by Afeworki when they arose. After the investigation, King said that Avvo determined that the allegations had no merit. No one was terminated or disciplined based on the allegations, he said. The employee who allegedly made the advances is no longer employed at Avvo.
According to the suit, the senior account executive made unwanted sexual advances on Afeworki at work events. After the alleged incidents, Afeworki claims that the employee engaged in “bizarre and/or threatening behavior,” which included sending “aggressive messages” to her via the company’s Hipchat messenger service.
During another alleged incident in January 2016, the senior account manager allegedly became intoxicated at a company happy hour and attempted to grab Afeworki. When she allegedly rebuffed the advances, she claims that the employee called her a bitch.
Afeworki claims that Avvo “never took affirmative action or responded in any way” to her complaints, despite the fact that she raised the issues with human resources. Avvo said those claims are false.
Afeworki also filed a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she received a “right to sue” from the commission on February 7, 2017.
In an interview with the Seattle P-I, Afeworki — who reportedly spent five months on unemployment after she was let go from Avvo — described the company’s office culture as a “frat house” in which sexual harassment and discrimination were tolerated.
“We take great exception to the article’s characterization of Avvo’s working atmosphere as a ‘frat house’ and the implication that we don’t take seriously matters of employee fairness and safety,” King said.
Here is the full suit: