Where the Boys Are

The thin, attractive blonde stood up before a room of Rent-A-Center's top execs--the only woman in a sea of white shirts, dark suits and ties--and began delivering her report on the company's tax situation.

She didn't get far. Before Leigh had completed two sentences, Ernie Talley, crimson-faced and ready to explode, rocketed from his chair, bellowing, "That's not what I wanted!"

Leigh tried to calm the boss down, explaining why what he wanted wouldn't be meaningful.

Bad move.

Nobody questioned the chief executive officer of Rent-A-Center--especially not a woman. Pushing his face just inches from Leigh's, Talley slammed his fist on the conference-room table and shouted, "By God, you will have what I want, or I will find someone who will!"

Humiliated by the dressing-down and furious that her own supervisor, the chief financial officer, kept his lips zipped during the tirade, Leigh snatched her files, fled from the conference room and made her way back to her office. "I just sat there, and tears were streaming--and I'm a hard-core type of girl; I'm not a little prissy dame," Leigh says.

From the start, Talley seemed less than thrilled with the idea of giving 32-year-old Leigh the proverbial keys to the executive washroom. Talley had been heard to say that women belonged in the kitchen, not in the rent-to-own business.

The attitude was pervasive in the nation's largest rent-to-own company, permeating its operations from headquarters to the smallest branch office, according to a sexual discrimination suit filed against the Plano-based company.

Women were subjected to sexual and derisive comments, the suit alleges.

Work requirements were changed in an effort to induce female employees to quit and keep women from applying. Pregnant employees were summarily fired.

Women who complained about boorish or offensive behavior were ignored or punished.

What was going on at Rent-A-Center, according to hundreds of accounts, was a systemic corporate culture that drove female employees away. That culture also could prove costly to the company. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Illinois, are seeking damages of $410 million. But the company is trying some fancy legal footwork that could let it dodge the potentially huge bill.

Leigh, a certified public accountant who asked that her surname not be published, got her first glimpse of Rent-A-Center culture and Ernie Talley when she interviewed with the company in January 1999. The gray-haired 64-year-old seemed to care more about her personal life than her qualifications, she recalls. He asked whether she was married or had children--questions that most employers know are off-limits in a job interview.

Then, she says, Talley glanced at Robert Davis, his 28-year-old CFO, and said reluctantly, "Well, I don't know if this is gonna work, but if you want to try it, fine."

The personal questions and Talley's icy demeanor made her want to turn down the job offer, but Davis later assured her that Talley was planning to leave the business. Moreover, Davis promised, Leigh's contact with Talley would be minimal; he would act as a go-between.

But Davis wasn't the best messenger, Leigh claims; he seemed more interested in popping his head into her office to ask, "I'm just wondering, did you have sex last night?"

Then one day Leigh discovered a lump in a lymph node. Her doctor wanted to see her immediately. She took the only appointment available, but when she told Davis, he insisted that she'd have to reschedule; Talley wanted her at a meeting.

Leigh canceled her appointment but says, "Not once during this 'mandatory' meeting was my presence even acknowledged." Fuming, Leigh sent Davis an e-mail: "In the future, I would appreciate advance notice of any meeting in which my involvement may be needed." Moments later, Davis stormed into her office and fired her for insubordination--the third woman in 15 months to be kicked out of the position.

Things weren't any better for Leigh's successor. Donna Smith claims that after she took the job, Davis sought her out and described the "nasty" dreams he had had about her and discussed his penis size. After Smith complained, she received an unfavorable evaluation.

A year later, Smith sent a resignation letter to Talley, stating that she could no longer work for a company whose top management tolerated "sexual harassment and discrimination."

"I do not believe that upper management promotes the advancement or enrichment of women," she wrote. "Nor do I believe that women are judged by the same standards as their male colleagues."

If the women at headquarters were complaining, they were hardly alone. As Talley's company grew, so did allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Even highly regarded veteran employees felt the sting, among them Claudine Wilfong, a former store manager in Arnold, Missouri.