On Wednesday night, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a former Lightning employee is suing the organization for sex discrimination. Specifically, she alleges that another employee, community hockey coordinator Aaron Humphrey, sexually assaulted her and that after multiple attempts to get the organization to take action, she instead faced continued workplace discrimination and the team eventually fired her. The team did not offer a comment for the story. For more details on the lawsuit, please read the Times piece.
The responses from management described by the accuser suggest an organization of people inside of Amalie Arena who both lack proper training in how to handle something as serious as a sexual assault complaint and lack the fundamental empathy to be in a position where they would be responsible for hearing such a complaint.
The Lightning organization under Jeff Vinik, whose Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment is named in the lawsuit, has attempted to change the image of the team over the last nearly ten years. None of that work excuses or even mitigates the severity of this report.
In fact, this disconnect between the public face of the team and what the former employee alleges was happening inside the organization raises questions about how much all the external activity is an accurate reflection of the team’s values and how much of this work was just a public relations exercise.
Jay Feaster, former general manager of the Lightning and current Executive Director of Community Hockey Development is named specifically in the Times piece as refusing to discuss the issue with the former employee and instead saying that Human Resources would handle it. The response from the human resources person is somehow even more callous than that.
The woman asked human resources staff about her sexual harassment complaints and an employee responded, “Oh, I heard about that but that’s in the past and doesn’t matter,” the lawsuit says.
Based on these two details alone, we can already reject any defense based on this being an isolated incident that doesn’t reflect the organization’s culture, which is the most common initial messaging from companies in this situation. Feaster is as much an embodiment of the culture of the organization as anyone. He is one of the most public faces of the management group.
If the person in that role doesn’t have the capacity to ensure the safety of an employee who reported being sexually assaulted by another employee on a work trip, the organization as a whole has a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed. That the human resources department seems equally incapable of an appropriate response is even more concerning and again suggests that the organization does not make the safety of its employees a primary concern.
Given the severity of the accusations as well as the number and seniority of the staff who failed to take action when the former employee shared her story, this is not a “fixable” problem. This is not the time for the organization to make quick decisions, publish a concerned statement, announce that they’ve removed the people responsible, and consider the problem resolved.
If the Lightning are serious about the values they’ve been professing to the community for the last ten years, the accusations in this case require a thorough internal investigation. The organization needs to examine all policies currently in place for handling workplace sexual assault complaints. They need to understand how those policies so egregiously failed the former employee in this case. They then need to figure out how to fix those policies and enforce compliance by ensuring that everyone in the organization understands the severity of the situation. And finally, they need to replace anyone in the reporting chain who is either incapable or unwilling to prioritize employee safety and well-being above all else.
Some of that process should be public. Issuing a “no comment” on a case like this is not enough. Of course the team can’t comment directly on an ongoing lawsuit. But they can still give an indication that they are taking this seriously and that they will be conducting an investigation to figure out what happened. They should put Aaron Humphrey, who is still a team employee, on leave pending that investigation. They should consider doing the same for Feaster and anyone in the human resources department responsible for so severely mishandling this case.
The allegations in the report indicate a serious problem inside the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. The question now is how the team will respond.
If they try to sweep it under the rug with minimal comments and no action, they will have made clear their priorities and we can be confident that the values they claim to hold are no different than any of their other marketing buzzwords. This has been the modus operandi for sports teams dealing with sexual assault for years. Sadly, it would not be surprising to see the Lightning follow that well-worn path.
But if they want to show that those values really do mean something, they have an opportunity now. Even with a pending lawsuit, they can communicate that they understand the severity of this case and that it requires deep organizational introspection in response. And more importantly, they can then do the work and show the results of that work by making changes to their organization that ensure no other employee will ever have their safety disregarded so callously by management.
The next couple of months will tell us a lot about who the Tampa Bay Lightning really are as an organization. How they respond will tell us more about their values and their place in this community than anything this ownership group has done up to this point.
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