When Melissa Howard joined the Wal-Mart store in New Castle, Ind., in 1992, she received a blue vest, a red, white and-blue nametag, six bucks an hour, and the title of "electronics department manager." Howard hoped to climb the corporate ladder, accept greater responsibility and take home a fatter paycheck.
So she worked diligently and her performance evaluations reflected that: the reviews rated much of her work as "exceeds expectations," the top ranking allowed. Howard says that in the space set aside for her comments, "I wrote that my long-term goals were to work my way up the ladder to store manager, district manager and ultimately regional manager."
After several years at Wal-Mart, Howard became a store manager, joining a small group of women who held that title. Not only was she a store manager by 1999, she was asked to open a brand new Supercenter in Bluffton, Ind. "The Supercenter was the up-and-coming thing," Howard says. To be asked to open one meant "prestige." She likened it to the difference between driving a Ford and a Cadillac. "It was just a major accomplishment."
She was now on the top rung of responsibility inside a store, yet she wasn't earning the top salary. That honor went to two men who reported to Howard as co-managers at the Supercenter. One man with no Wal-Mart work experience, she claims, was making $15,000 more a year and getting three weeks of vacation, a perk Howard only got after seven years at Wal-Mart. The other man, Howard says, was "hired off the street for $10,000 more than I was making."
Although the store opening was successful, Howard's own career was headed for trouble. In March 2000, some stores in her district were experiencing high shrink and inventory was disappearing because of theft or sloppy paperwork. She was told her Supercenter wasn't a problem, but a store she'd managed months earlier was struggling with inventory loss.
Several managers, district managers and loss prevention managers were summoned to the corporate offices in Bentonville, Ark., for a meeting. On the trip, some of the men decided to stop at a roadside strip club. Despite her instincts, Howard says she felt it best to go into the club rather than sit alone in a dark parking lot off a highway.
"I tried to ignore the show, but at one point," Howard says in an affidavit, "I was approached by one of the strippers and District Manager Kevin Washburn proposed that he pay one of the strippers $50 to have a 'threesome out back' with me."
Shocked, she refused. But she didn't complain to higher-ups at Wal-Mart. Managers, she alleges, routinely went to strip clubs during annual meetings. Moreover, she says, the last time she objected, in 1994, to what she felt was belittling treatment from John Waters, a regional vice president, she was told she needed to learn to "take the shit and let it roll."
In any case, the return trip wasn't much different. There was another stop at a strip club in Missouri and, she says, some of the men planned to visit a massage parlor.
Two months later, Howard realized that lap dances, massage parlors and invitations to a threesome would be the least of her problems. That's when John Waters was named as her new district manager. (He'd been demoted from regional vice president.) "At our first meeting, he made a point of telling me, in a less than friendly tone, that he 'remembered' me," claims Howard.
On June 16, 2000 she says he called her and told her she needed to step down. Howard drove 30 miles to meet with him. In an affidavit, Howard recalls: "He told me that a woman should not be running a Wal-Mart store and that I 'needed to be home raising my daughter.' He instructed me to step down 'voluntarily' and to tell my employees at the morning meeting that having this new Supercenter was too stressful for a single parent and that I needed to take a break."
Though her store was "running in the black" – unusual for a new Supercenter – she says Waters wanted her out. If she didn't quit, she alleges that he told her he'd make her life "hell."
"I had no choice but to step down," Howard says.
He also wanted her out of his district. She was assigned to a co-manager position in a store 120 miles away. Meanwhile, she claims the regional personnel manager told her to stay away from her old Supercenter; her presence in the store was undermining the new store manager's "ability to succeed."
Soon after, Howard says Waters accused her of having sex with an employee, something forbidden by Wal-Mart's anti-fraternization rules. She vehemently denied the claim. The company investigated and cleared her of any wrongdoing.
By late summer of 2000, Howard felt battered: She had stepped down as a store manager, left the Supercenter she'd worked hard to open, been assigned a two-hour commute, and endured a humiliating investigation into her sexual conduct.
Howard was no longer able to take the shit and roll with it. "I knew at that point that I had to leave Wal-Mart," she says. And so she did.