BUSINESS
30/03/2018 00:19 BST | Updated 30/03/2018 18:35 BST

Trapped Inside The Monster Energy Frat House

A woman who worked at the drink company said she was sexually harassed and abruptly fired. This is what can happen when a boys club runs amok.

A sixth woman has come forward to complain about sexual discrimination at Monster Energy, a male-dominated beverage company that appears to be plagued by a toxic work culture.

The woman, Karen Simmons, a 50-year-old former sales representative based in Alabama, spent nearly two years with Monster. She amassed a strong track record, even as she fended off one of her Atlanta-based managers, Ted Cook, who hit on her, made comments about her breasts, tried to get her drunk and invited her more than once for an “evening nightcap” in his hotel room on work trips, she told HuffPost.

Robert Duck, Simmons’ direct boss who works out of Monster’s office in Florida, also witnessed Cook’s behavior, but told her to brush it off, she said. “He said Ted was harmless, ‘a dirty old man,’” Simmons recalled.

Through a company spokesman, Duck said Simmons never complained. When reached by phone by HuffPost, he hung up. He did not respond to follow-up texts. Cook also did not respond to a call, text or LinkedIn message. 

Cooks Facebook page
Karen Simmons, a former Monster employee, said Ted Cook (above), one of her managers, regularly harassed her.

Simmons took her complaints no further. “What was I gonna say? I loved my job. I needed my job,” she said.

Simmons had worked for about 20 years in the beverage industry, a notoriously unfriendly business for women. “I knew saying things gets you retaliation.”

What Simmons did not realize was that whether or not she spoke up, she was already trapped inside a company where the odds are stacked against women.  

Last April, Simmons was fired for reasons she still doesn’t quite understand. Monster says it was for poor performance, according to a spokesman for the company. Simmons says her dismissal occurred a few monthsafter receiving a generally positive performance review and just as she was poised to win an internal sales contest. In the fall, she filed sex and age discrimination charges against Monster at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“I knew saying things gets you retaliation.” Karen Simmons

Monster is also facing lawsuits from five other women over complaints of sexual discrimination and other issues, as first reported in a HuffPost investigation in January.

One Monster executive, head of music marketing Brent Hamilton, is facing felony assault charges for allegedly strangling his girlfriend on a company business trip. He is still employed by the company.

Another executive, John Kenneally, a vice president accused of sexually harassing two women at the company, resigned after HuffPost published details of the accusations in January. He ran the business unit that Simmons worked in.

In public statements at the time, the company painted the women as disgruntled employees and said that the suits were unrelated.

“Monster Energy has zero-tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind,” the company said in January. “Monster takes all reported complaints very seriously. Any suggestions to the contrary are false.”

Just as HuffPost was set to publish this story, Monster announced it was hiring a third party to review its human resource policies and procedures. The investigators will report straight to the company’s board of directors.

“We are confident that the recent portrayal of the company in the media is not representative of [our] culture and practices,” Monster chairman and CEO Rodney Sacks and vice chair and president Hilton Schlosberg said in a statement. But they added that “in the context of the allegations made by the women bringing these lawsuits, we believe it is prudent.”

The company declined to provide more details on the third party. “If there are areas where there are deficients, we will correct them,” Sacks and Schlosberg said.

In a statement to HuffPost earlier in March, Monster said it wasn’t aware of Simmons’ complaints until recently.  

“Ms. Simmons did not make any allegation of harassment to the company or to her manager while she was employed by the company,” the statement said. Monster only learned of the claim at a mediation session with Simmons and her lawyer in mid-February, the statement said. This was about three weeks after HuffPost published its investigation, the statement points out. Monster also said that Cook is no longer with the company.

Simmons’ former boss Duck, who she said witnessed Cook’s behavior, is still working at Monster.  

Through a spokesman, Monster also told HuffPost that Simmons’ account was “not accurate.” Simmons’ last employee evaluation included significant feedback about areas for improvement, the spokesman said. It was not positive.

In response to other questions and requests for information, the spokesman wrote: “Many of the other allegations or questions are untrue, are missing facts or are irrelevant but we are not going to engage in a back and forth about this.”

I Wasn’t The Only One 

After reading HuffPost’s reports, and looking into the cases filed against Monster, Simmons was shocked to learn that another female employee at the company, Page Zeringue, had gone to the human resources department to complain about Cook ― well before Simmons started working under him.

In a lawsuit against Monster, Zeringue alleges that her complaint to HR helped trigger her firing, ostensibly for bad performance.

Meanwhile, Cook was sent to sexual harassment training, according to internal documents viewed by HuffPost. This was around the same time Simmons was hired.  

HuffPost
Page Zeringue sued Monster Energy last year claiming she was fired after lodging a harassment complaint with the company's human resources department.

Monster Energy markets its drinks primarily to men using cliched tropes about masculinity. Scantily clad Monster Girls in leather bikini tops serve as brand ambassadors. One beverage is actually called “Assault.” A few years ago, the company gave out Monster branded condoms as a promotional gimmick.

That toxic male culture translates into policy where sexual harassment is not taken seriously. Monster’s employee guidelines ― reviewed by HuffPost  ― require that managers who observe sexual misconduct must report it. But in Simmons’ case, it appears that her direct boss, Duck, never informed HR about Cook’s conduct.  

Even if HR learns about misbehavior, what passes for an investigation into sexual harassment complaints seems to amount to a surface questioning of the parties involved, where the accounts of men are weighed more seriously.  

At Monster, terminations may be helped along by a confusing performance review process where managers are allowed to add damaging comments into evaluations, months after employees read their reviews, according to documents reviewed by HuffPost.

A Problem of Culture

Even in an industry known for being heavily male, Monster stands out ― particularly in the sales division where Simmons worked.   

Overall, only 13 percent of the company’s 505-person U.S. sales team are women. If you include administrative assistants, the percentage rises to 18 percent female, according to an internal employee directory from January obtained by HuffPost. None of the company’s 11 vice-presidents in sales are women.

Monster said some of the numbers HuffPost obtained were incorrect, but declined to offer specifics or provide its own data. In an earlier statement to HuffPost the company said “many women hold top leadership positions within Monster,” and pointed to its chief commercialization officer, Emelie Tirre.

Still, sales is so male-dominated at Monster that at a 2016 national sales meeting in Las Vegas ― even with human resource representatives in attendance ― a vice-president told a blatantly misogynistic joke to a packed room, according to three separate accounts from current and former employees.

The joke goes like this: There is an old bull and a young bull on a hill, overlooking a field of cows. Young bull says to the old bull: “Let’s run down there and fuck a cow.” Old bull says, nah: “Let’s walk down there and fuck them all.”

It was meant to inspire.

The more Ted drank, the handsier he got. Karen Simmons

Simmons recalls being appalled. But she was used to hearing sexist talk from male colleagues. After all, she had spent most of her career in beverage sales, a notoriously sexist culture. She knew how to handle herself.

Over the past three years, at least four other women in the east division, where Simmons worked, were fired or pushed out. They include Simmons, two other women who are suing the company for sex discrimination, and one who declined to speak on the record with HuffPost but has since quit. As of January 2018, there were only 16 women out of 153 employees working in the east division.

Simmons was often the only woman at the dinners and events where she would meet up with Cook and Duck. Given the company’s cultural penchant for partying, drinking alcohol at these meet-ups was a given.

She didn’t drink, and repeatedly rebuffed Cook’s efforts to “get her drunk,” she said. She declined his invitations for a “nightcap” in his hotel room.

“The more Ted drank, the more handsy he got,” Simmons told HuffPost. On one occasion when he asked for a hug, Simmons said she uncomfortably gave him a half-hug. He wasn’t satisfied, and pulled her in for a do-over, she said. “He said, ’I felt that,” Simmons said, meaning he could feel the pressure of her breasts on his chest.  

Harassment Training Was A Joke

Arguably, Simmons should never have had to deal with Cook in the first place. Two years earlier Zeringue had filed her complaint about him with the human resources department, according to the lawsuit she filed last year against the company.

Huffpost obtained Zeringue’s original complaint to HR. In it she said Cook had a reputation for getting grabby when he drinks, and was known as “Touchy Ted” around the office. She detailed an incident where he talked to her about her breasts and those of a coworker; he also pulled the hugging-close move on her, she said.

The HR department reached out to Cook’s boss, Kenneally, the executive who recently resigned in the face of harassment allegations after HuffPost’s investigation published. Kenneally defended Cook, telling the HR representative he had already spoken with him about the incident and there were “no noted recurrences,” according to a review of an internal HR report obtained by HuffPost.

Kenneally also made a point of criticizing Zeringue. Her “performance is not where it needs to be,” he is quoted as saying.

When Cook was confronted by HR, he confessed and said “he learned his lesson,” according to internal notes. He also conceded that “touchy Ted” was one of the nicknames he was known by inside the company, another being “Uncle Ted.”

He was assigned to sexual harassment training, called “stop sexual harassment training for supervisors,” and given a warning. It’s unclear if HR ever planned any kind of followup to make sure he stayed on track.

Zeringue was fired a month later. In her complaint against Monster she claims her firing amounted to retaliation for speaking up. That suit is now headed to private arbitration ― outside the public court system.

It was around this time, at a dinner in New Orleans that Simmons attended with Cook, Duck and several other male Monster employees that she said she heard them joking about “having to go to HR classes,” if they misbehaved.

“It was just like a big joke,” Simmons said

Where Is This Coming From

Simmons’ last few months at Monster played out like a corporate gaslighting.

In February 2017, less than two months after she had received a decent performance review from Duck, he asked to meet up with her in Florida where they had both traveled for business.

What happened next came as a total shock.

Duck showed her a disciplinary write-up.

“For stuff I didn’t do,” Simmons said. The writeup ― which HuffPost has reviewed ―  claimed she was unwilling to leave her hometown for work. Yet, she was in Florida on a business trip at the time she was given the writeup. “I was out of town every week,” she said.

The writeup also claims that Duck spoke with Simmons in January about these issues. Simmons said the only feedback she got that month came when she downloaded her performance review from the company’s internal website. Monster provided HuffPost with a copy of the document.

Dated Dec. 31, the review judges Simmons’ performance as “Meets Standards,” giving her a 2.14 rating out of 4, and was generally upbeat and positive but is peppered with constructive criticism.

“At this point the only thing I can ask Karen to improve on is slowing down,” Duck wrote. “She also needs a little more work on time management.”  He called her a “great problem solver,” who sometimes needs help prioritizing, “I have asked her to make sure when she schedules a meeting...to ALWAYS make sure she can do it…”

In the category of “job knowledge and skill,” Duck gave Simmons a rating of 3 or “exceeds expectations.”

So the negative writeup baffled Simmons.

She cried.

“Where is this coming from?” she asked him. She wanted to understand what she did wrong, so she could fix things. He refused to provide more details. “He said I was making things worse and to go home and forget about it,” Simmons said.

The Weird Review Thing

For about a month-and-a-half after that, Duck, still Simmons’ direct supervisor, did not talk to Simmons. She said he wouldn’t respond to texts or calls.

One thing he apparently did do: update Simmons’ Dec. 31 performance review ― topping the document off with an extremely harsh “summary paragraph” slamming her for poor performance.

The added paragraph is dated March 3, 2017. The tone of this text is vastly different from the rest of the document. “At this point, Karen has lost the trust of some of her bottlers and needs to ‘fix’ this soon or she will struggle,” Duck wrote. “Karen acts disconnected in meetings and face to face with her Coke partners.”

Duck used gender-coded words like “abrasive” and “demanding” to describe her demeanor with outside contacts at Coca-Cola bottlers Simmons worked with.

The final comment was meant to assess Simmons’ work from the end of December through March, a Monster spokesman told HuffPost. “The final comments reflect not only her manager’s assessment of her work through 12/31/17,” he said. “But the final comment on 03/03/17 was also influenced by her performance in the months after 12/31/17 and before the final comment.”

Simmons said she had not seen this paragraph until she was asked about it by HuffPost.

Monster, which provided HuffPost with the review, claimed that Simmons had likely seen the additional paragraph. However, Monster could not provide evidence that she did. According to Monster’s records, Simmons signed her review on March 1 ― two days before Duck signed off on the harsh additional paragraph. 

“I Just Think It Was Wrong” 

Finally, in late April, Duck broke the silence. He called Simmons and said he needed to meet in person. But when he met her in a hotel lobby in her hometown of Daphne, Alabama, he was there with Cook and they had an HR representative on the phone to talk to her.

She was fired.

“It was like somebody just punched me in the stomach,” Simmons said. She cried and begged, she said, telling them she needed the insurance and that her family would suffer.

She was offered two weeks severance ― if she signed a document promising not to sue. “I didn’t sign. I just think it was wrong. It was totally wrong,” she said. “Two weeks pay for what they did is wrong.”

Zeringue  ― the woman who had complained about Cook years earlier ― also was offered two weeks severance when she was fired. She declined, too.

Interestingly, Cook retired less than a month later. It’s unclear why.

His colleagues threw him a going away party.

And just a few months later, during Christmas time in 2017, Cook returned to Monster’s Atlanta office dressed up as Santa Claus. Young women at the office sat in his lap and posed for pictures. One woman posted a shot on Facebook captioned #UncleTed.

Facebook
Retired Monster executive Ted Cook, twice the target of sexual harassment complaints, came back to the company's Atlanta office dressed as Santa last Christmas and female employees sat on his lap.

Simmons, meanwhile, took her dismissal hard. She was so embarrassed about being fired that she stopped leaving her home during the day, not wanting anyone in her small Alabama hometown to ask her why she wasn’t working. “The first six months were awful,” she said. “If I needed to go out, I’d go at three or four in the morning or ten or 11 at night.”

Because she lost her job, Simmons’ husband, a 68-year-old who supervises utility crews in Tampa, has had to put off his retirement. He had relocated to Tampa temporarily to make a little extra cash before finishing his career. Now it’s unclear when he can come home.  

“This has affected my marriage, my life. It’s been really tough on my family,” she said, breaking down in tears. Simmons is responsible for paying college tuition for her 21-year-old daughter. “My daughter worries all the time. I told her don’t worry about it; we’ll figure a way around it.”

Do you have a story to tell about sexual harassment or discrimination at Monster or another workplace? Email: emily.peck@huffpost.com