Investigating a workplace sexual harassment claim is almost invariably messy. In many cases, only the alleged victim and perpetrator were present during the events and, ultimately, the situation may come down to the credibility of the parties.
That seems to be the case in the recent ouster of Demos Parneros, who had been CEO of Barnes & Noble since spring of 2017.
The bookseller let Parneros go in June, stating only that he had violated company policy. Parneros claims that such a statement was bound to result in speculation that he was accused of sexual harassment, and that his reputation has suffered as a result. Moreover, he claims to have been fired without warning. He filed a lawsuit claiming breach of contract and defamation and seeking $4 million in severance plus equity and damages.
In response, Barnes & Noble recently released a new statement that Parneros had indeed been “terminated for sexual harassment, bullying behavior and other violations of company policies.” An investigation had discovered “multiple examples of significant misconduct,” the statement said, and the board agreed unanimously to fire Parneros.
The lawsuit lays out a defense against the sexual harassment allegations and asserts that they are being used as a pretext.
The sexual harassment claims, as detailed in the lawsuit, are as follows. In one incident, an executive assistant claimed that Parneros described a Quebec hotel he had visited as the sort of place where “you would put out.” He says that he merely described the hotel as romantic and charming.
The second incident involved a conversation about who was taller, Parneros or the executive assistant. According to the woman, she and Parneros stood back to back and that this had been uncomfortable. He counters that they stood side by side and that the incident involved no inappropriate touching.
According to Parneros, Barnes & Noble’s chairman indicated that these incidents were not very serious.
It was actually a deal falling though that brought about the termination, Parneros alleges in his lawsuit. This spring, a book retailer offered to purchase Barnes & Noble. After conducting due diligence, however, it withdrew the offer, which allegedly left B&N’s board chair “extremely upset” that he no longer had a graceful way to exit the company. At that point, Parneros says, the board chair stopped returning his calls and began fabricating reasons to fire him.
In this case, Barnes & Noble apparently found the sexual harassment claim to be more credible than Mr. Parneros’ defense. When a discrimination or harassment claim is found credible, the company is duty bound to take appropriate action to prevent any further instances.