Comics got a brand new he-said/she-said with the story of Jennifer Williams, who was employed by Harrison’s Comics in Salem, MA for all of four days before being fired. According to Harrison’s it was for performance issues. According to Williams, it’s because
she complained about a remote storage area being called “the rape room”
and the manager hugging her without her consent. The controversy played itself out over social media, as these things do, with Larry Harrison, the owner of the store, claiming he didn’t now know of the firing but saying if people wanted to know the real story, they should come to the store to hear it.
Fyi, Harrison's Comics and Collectibles in Salem MA has a "rape room", dubbed such by the owner's friend Julian who is acting as manager.
— Jennifer Williams (@JenWilliams13) September 2, 2014
Williams has not been shy about telling her side of things, and launched a blog to tell her version of Harrison contacting her. Accoridng to Williams, after she tweeted about the rape room, upon com gin to work the next day she was blocked from entering. SHe also says that Harrison seemed less concerned with the fact that employees of his store would joke about a “rape room” with a new employee than about her firing and how it went down.
Harrison finally released a statement on Facebook, and a whole new story has emerged, one that involves a staff meeting, five witnesses, and a different new employee hearing “stat room” and thinking it meant “stat rape room” and being met with “The group trainer frowned at the employee who mentioned rape and sternly said “We do NOT have a rape room.” This was the last first and last time “a rape room” was ever mentioned in Harrison’s until Ms. Williams’ took to social media and we were put in the position of having to defend ourselves.
Anyway here’s the whole statement:
Dear Fellow Comic Lovers and Gaming Enthusiasts;
As you may have heard, there are allegations of sexual harassment and unfair termination against Harrison’s being circulated by a former employee on social media.
Harrison’s takes these allegations seriously and denies them all. We do not condone inflammatory, intolerant, sexist, racist or family-unfriendly language or behavior in any of our stores. We are committed to running an inclusive, family-friendly business.
The individual making the accusations, Ms. Williams, was terminated for documented, performance-based reasons only. This was explained to her at the time of her termination, when she was given full pay for her time at Harrison’s. Her employment was terminated in a professional, impartial manner in the presence of another employee.
There is certainly no “rape room” at Harrison’s Comics (or anywhere, we hope!). Unfortunately, because this repulsive term has been so heavily publicized in connection with our stores, we feel compelled to explain how it originated:
Ms Williams was hired on a 30-day trial basis, as were five other employees she was being trained with. Training includes a tour of the store, including a room we call the “statue room.”
If you’ve been in our Salem store, you know we have many statues displayed in locked cases throughout the store. They are displayed behind glass because statues are fragile, valuable collectibles that can easily break if improperly handled.
The boxes these statues come in are specifically designed to protect them, so the boxes are stored in the “statue room,” a practice that’s been in place for at least ten years. When a buyer purchases a statue, an employee goes to the statue room, finds that statue’s box, and repacks it for safe travel to its new home.
While the group of trainee employees were being shown the room it was referred to only as the “statue room” or the “stat room” for short. This prompted one of the new trainees (not Ms. Williams) to question “Stat, like stat rape?” The group trainer frowned at the employee who mentioned rape and sternly said “We do NOT have a rape room.” This was the last first and last time “a rape room” was ever mentioned in Harrison’s until Ms. Williams’ took to social media and we were put in the position of having to defend ourselves.
I have been a comic store owner for 21 years and this is deeply disturbing to me. If anything like Ms. Williams described did occur here, the employee responsible would be terminated immediately. I ask that people look at the facts before concluding I am guilty. I have 9 female employees and 10 male employees presently working in my stores. The previous manager of our flagship Salem store is a woman, and she managed it for two years before leaving to open her own store.
We have an exemplary reputation in Salem, Massachusetts and the comic and gaming community as a professional, respectful, fair and welcoming workplace. We appreciate the support of those who know and defended us against these allegations while others leaped to judgment. We wish Ms. Williams the best in her future endeavors.
Now this being Facebook, there are many different opinions in the comments. Many past customers (mostly women) are not at all surprised by Williams’ allegations and there are a lot of stories that paint a picture of the store as being a real Android’s Dungeon. Other shoppers, mostly male, think it’s fine.
Now, as far as he said and she said goes, I would like to point out some of the fascinating comments here, like this one from a Marie Loging:
It’s between the owner and the ex employee. I still intend to shop there. Think it was a bad idea to publish this though. Makes the store look bad. I hope if it happened for real, that there is physical proof and I hope the store had a security camera there to cover their side. If she has sex in that room, it could have been mutual, and is just claiming it rape because a) got fired or b) because it was a one time thing and she wanted more
WHOA WHAT THE FUCK. This person has fabricated a whole sex act and security cameras out of the incident? This is how telephone works.
A few more:
Kain Mcgreed — Just look how the Feminist eat this up.
Renee Mallett — I was sad to see this story about the store. But, honestly, was not surprised. I lived in the North Shore area when I was about 18 and the shop wasn’t even it’s own stand alone store yet. It was my go-to store for several years and I watched it grow into one of the best comic stores I’ve been to anywhere. I got a LOT of comments from employees about how I looked and what I wore back when I was younger. It’s been a long time since I was a customer of the Salem store (I did frequent the Manchester location with my kids over the past few years and was never treated with anything but the greatest respect and courtesy) but if the culture today at the Salem store is ANYTHING like it was back in my day I can totally see this kind of comment being said.
Kathryn Pickett — Larry, as someone who spent years as a faithful patron of your store, I am sorry to inform you that the language and attitude of your employees was frequently NOT family friendly, with cursing, explicit sexual comments (sometimes directed at me, when I was underage) and even derision concerning my purchase choices.
I have loved your store and had many wonderful positive experiences there, but the negative experiences I lived through as a customer make these allegations completely plausible to me. I am personally familiar with some of your current and former employees, and find Ms. Williams’ account much more likely than your own above.
If you are truly trying to make your business the kind of place described in your above statement, let this serve as a wake-up call. It is not there. It hasn’t been there. Denying this is a problem doesn’t do a thing to convince me as I know through first hand experience that it IS a problem. Until you accept that there may be an actual issue with the culture and attitude of some of your employees and take measures to rectify, you are going to lose business and suffer bad publicity. That’s not a threat, it’s simply fact.
There seems to be a fundamental ignorance among those blaming Williams for being a disgruntled ex-employee: she made the claims of the rape room BEFORE SHE WAS FiRED. The sequence of events was that she allegedly heard the comment, complained about it, and even tweeted it, and then showed up for work the next day and was barred from the store. The cause and effect here are entirely with Williams’ chain of events.
And if you’re going to go with a chain of evidence, the many real customers at Harrison’s who think there is a real problem there indicate that where there’s smoke, there may very well be fire.
Harrison’s has a PR disaster on their hands obviously, and waiting five days to make a statement hasn’t helped matters any. And as armchair sleuth Gene Ha wrote, according to Massachusetts employment laws, they may have a king sized legal headache, as well:
Yep, that’s the key. In Massachusetts any business with 6+ employees has to create and follow a sexual harassment policy. [Note: I’m a comic book artist not a lawyer, yadda yadda]
What happened could be considered a “hostile work environment.” From the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Guidelines” website:
In some circumstances, a hostile environment may be established based on a single incident, due to its severity, despite the fact that the conduct is not frequent or repetitive. Moreover, purely verbal conduct, without a physical component, may be severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. However, minor, isolated conduct does not constitute sexual harassment.
The rape joke and the embrace were bad but not a big liability yet for the shop.
What Harrison’s owner should have done is talk to the manager and make sure that he doesn’t continue being a jerk and that he can’t retaliate. If they’d done that then there would have been no problems. Got that, everyone? The joke wasn’t the big problem.
Instead, after scheduling her for more hours the shop tells her she’s fired when she reports back for work. More from the MA government website:
Employers should instruct recipients of sexual harassment complaints to inform complainants and alleged perpetrators that they will:
*keep the complaint confidential to the extent practicable under the circumstances;
*conduct a prompt, neutral investigation into the allegations; and
*not tolerate any form of retaliation against the complainant for having complained of sexual harassment.
Yep, it looks like they screwed up every element of their legally required response. More from the MA gov on what Harrison’s was supposed to do:
Generally, remedial action consists of the following:
*promptly halting any ongoing harassment;
*taking prompt, appropriate disciplinary action against the harasser;
*taking effective actions to prevent the recurrence of harassment, including conducting a sexual harassment training where appropriate, and
*making the complainant whole by restoring any lost employment benefits or opportunities.
There’s a saying: it’s not the crime it’s the coverup… that’s the bigger crime.
More to come, I’m sure.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.