SAN FRANCISCO — A former corporate banker and managing director with banking company SunTrust used LinkedIn to send a sexually explicit photo to a prospective hire, a lawsuit claims.
LinkedIn is increasingly used by companies to recruit for white-collar positions. In the suit, filed Tuesday, the unnamed plaintiff — described as a successful financial services professional who works at a California-based Fortune 500 multinational — said she had been discussing a possible job at Atlanta-based SunTrust Robinson Humphrey.
But the messaging conversation took an abrupt and unwanted turn. The corporate banker, Aaron Eichler, sent a nude photo of himself, exposing his genitals and suggesting the plaintiff and he “play” and that it would be a “late night secret,” according to documents filed with the suit.
The suit seeks unspecified damages for sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent retention against SunTrust Banks Inc..
SunTrust chief communications officer Sue Mallino said that Eichler is no longer with the company and that as soon as the company was made aware of the allegations it promptly began an investigation.
Eichler was the managing director in SunTrust Robinson Humphrey's San Francisco office. Prior to that he was a client manager and senior vice president at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, according to SunTrust.
“No one should be subject to such behavior. We do not tolerate inappropriate conduct, and have policies against such activity,” Mallino said in a statement. Such conduct is unacceptable, “regardless of whether the individual acted on personal time using a personal device and his own LinkedIn account,” she said.
The case follows several high-profile incidents of sexual harassment at companies that have raised questions over whether corporate America does too little to stem behavior that creates hostile work environments for women, holding back their advancement.
The former head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, and his employer were sued by women working for the company claiming sexual harassment dating back decades and penalization if they didn't comply. Before his death Ailes had denied any wrong-doing. His employer, 21st Century Fox, had paid $45 million in settlements.
Last year, a female Tesla employee sued the electric car company for sexual discrimination, alleging she was paid less than men doing the same job and subjected to harassing behavior such as catcalls in a work environment dominated by men. The company run by Musk has disputed the charges, saying they were without merit. She was fired earlier this month, according to The Guardian.
At Uber, a female ex-engineer at the company described being sexually propositioned by her manager over company chat message shortly after starting the job. The revelations contributed to a leadership crisis at the ride-hailing start-up, whose CEO took a leave of absence Monday.
Social media like LinkedIn isn’t creating harassing behavior, but social media does make visible things that used to be invisible, said Kelly Dermody, a lawyer with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in San Francisco.
“They’re not just happening in a conference room that no one else is in,” she said.
The majority, though not all, of such cases involve men harassing women. According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, about 85% of sexual harassment allegations filed with the commission were from women in 2016.
The alleged interaction described in the suit is a case in point. Doe and Eichler had met professionally in a few group settings with other SunTrust employees but had never met alone and had never exchanged non-work electronic messages, according to the complaint.
They had been discussing a possible position at SunTrust via messages on LinkedIn.
The incident occurred on March 3, when Eichler messaged Doe on LinkedIn at 11:46 pm, asking if she was still open to new job possibilities and saying he had a couple of opportunities open.
She stated that she was still looking.
Eichler responded by saying “You’re up late” and “here’s my number if you want to play.”
Doe responded that she’d been up dealing with a financial issue for her current employer. Eichler answered that he was up late because he was taking care of his crying baby.
"A parent works 24/7! Hang in there! Good night,” Doe responded.
According to Exhibits appended to the complaint, Eichler next messaged to suggest that they switch to text, then sent an image which appears to be himself sitting naked in a chair. According to the legal filing, which includes an image of the photo with a black box over the center, it featured his erect penis.
When Doe did not respond, Eichler messages, “Ugh, I guess I screwed up:( bummer, dude, sorry…”
The fact that the LinkedIn account was Eichler’s and didn’t belong to SunTrust probably doesn't matter, said Amy Oppenheimer, a California lawyer who specializes in workplace investigations and training.
“I suspect that a court would probably rule that if he’s working for the company and he’s recruiting for them, the fact that it’s through his LinkedIn wouldn’t matter,” she said.
Employers are often seen as culpable for the behavior.
The SunTrust case is a “classic example — an individual behaved in a wildly inappropriate manner and the result is his employer is being sued,” said Nancy Flynn of the ePolicy Institute in Cleveland, Ohio which advises companies on setting workplace policies.