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She reported sexual harassment by a former supervisor — and was fired soon after

Kylee Lee, 34, says the federal contractor that employed her retaliated after she decided to come forward about the sexual harassment she experienced from her supervisors when she was in her 20s. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Kylee Lee thought she had left behind the toxic culture that had defined her workplace for years.

The former military intelligence officer had spent her late 20s working for a male-dominated U.S. federal contractor in Seoul, where she says she was harassed by colleagues and sexually assaulted by two supervisors. She says she didn’t report their behavior at the time because she was worried about losing her job, being a young woman at the start of her career. She stayed with the company, Black Box Network Services, and in 2017 was relocated to the firm’s office in Herndon, Va.

But in January 2018, she said she received a message from the program director of the office in Seoul, the same supervisor who she said had sexually assaulted her years earlier. He was in town visiting the Herndon office, she said he told her, and wanted to meet with her, alone.

It was months after the dawn of the #MeToo movement, when Lee had heard stories of scores of women harassed by predatory men in their workplaces. After receiving the message, she said she decided to report the allegations from her time in Seoul to the company’s human resources director, hoping to see an investigation.

“They didn’t do anything,” Lee said. “I told her I was raped by this guy in the company who is a director, and she didn’t do anything about it.”

Instead, a few months later, she was given her first poor performance review, she said. Weeks after that, she was fired.

Lee is now suing her former employer, accusing the company of retaliation in violation of Title VII and whistleblower protection laws. In late November, she filed a lawsuit against the firm, which has since been acquired by Arlington Capital Partners and renamed Tyto Athene. The lawsuit was served on the company last month.

Courtney Abbott, an Alexandria-based attorney representing Tyto Athene, said the company denies any wrongdoing or liability in the case, but could not comment further on the pending litigation. Attempts to reach the two former supervisors listed in Lee’s lawsuit were unsuccessful.

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Lee, now 34 and a consultant at Deloitte, is one of more than 250 people whose legal cases have been funded by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, an initiative created by Hollywood stars and activists in the aftermath of the charges against Harvey Weinstein to help victims of sexual harassment at work. Thousands of women have sought legal assistance from the fund since its inception more than three years ago, and their requests serve as a sort of laboratory for studying patterns in workplace sexual harassment cases, according to the National Women’s Law Center, which runs the initiative.

More than 7 in 10 people who experienced workplace sexual harassment faced some form of retaliation, including termination, poor evaluations, defamation lawsuits or denial of promotions, according to a recent analysis by the NWLC of the 3,317 requests submitted to the fund between Jan. 1, 2018, and April 30.

According to the NWLC’s analysis, more than one-third of people reporting workplace sexual harassment said they experienced physical harassment, sexual assault or rape. More than half of the workers who identified their perpetrator said they were harassed by someone to whom they reported at work, according to the analysis. Nearly 2 in 5 said that nothing happened to that perpetrator.

“Workers are doing what they should be doing, and then the response that they’re getting is making it worse,” said Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s UP Legal Defense Fund. This is a particularly concerning pattern, Tejani said, amid a pandemic that has caused massive job losses, particularly among women.

“The thing I’m most worried about is it is causing people to not complain and creating even more power imbalances in the workplace because there are so few jobs,” Tejani said.

Lee’s case also provides a window into an industry of federal contractors that has boomed under the Trump administration but that has long been criticized as lacking oversight and protections for workers. Government contractors are frequently among the top violators of workplace laws but provide little recourse for workers when their rights are undermined, according to a recent report from the liberal policy institute and advocacy organization Center for American Progress Action Fund.

About half of all complaints filed with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in fiscal 2019 included allegations of retaliation for reporting discrimination, according to the Action Fund report.

“There’s just not a lot of recourse for the victims of sexual harassment within those worlds,” said Ben Beliles, an attorney for Lee in her case.

When she first interviewed for the job in Seoul, in 2013, Lee was visiting a cousin in the city and had just wrapped up a stint as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army. She was about 26 years old and eager to launch a career in the corporate world. She was hired on the spot. It was a dream job, Lee said, with a $90,000 starting salary that would help her support her parents back in the states. And it was a chance to live in her parents’ country of birth.

“It actually became my identity,” Lee said about the job as a document management specialist, “because it was the only thing that I had going for me.”

She had little experience in the field, but she performed well, consistently meeting or exceeding expectations in her evaluations, she said.

But she also quickly realized she was one of the only women in the office. Most of her colleagues and supervisors were middle-aged men. Many were former members of the military, and many had remarried younger Asian women, she said. Lee was often the subject of unwanted sexual attention and harassment, according to her lawsuit.

We would go out to lunch and co-workers would grab my a-- really hard and laugh about it,” she said. “It’s one of the most disgusting feelings.”

There was also a big drinking culture, Lee said, and frequent happy hours in which the program director would ring a bell at the bar and buy shots for the entire company. Her supervisors would egg her on to keep drinking, even when they knew she had a low tolerance for alcohol, she said.

After one of these nights, in 2014, her direct supervisor offered to make sure she got home safely. Lee woke up the next morning with her underwear on backward, she said, with very little memory of the night except for flashes of her supervisor asking for the password to get her into the apartment, and later, of him turning on the shower.

She initially told no one in her office about that night but eventually reported repeated sexual harassment from her supervisor to the program director — the top manager of the team in Seoul and the person in charge of all personnel decisions. The program director had been her mentor since the start of her time on the team, Lee said. She trusted him.

But he dismissed her report, she alleges in her lawsuit, “only to engage in similar behavior shortly thereafter himself.” After one off-site meeting, she alleges, he offered to share a taxi with her, dropping her off on his way home. He then asked to go up with her into her apartment because the company was considering leasing office space, and he was interested in seeing the building. But he then pushed her into her bedroom and sexually assaulted her, she said.

“When he trapped me in my bedroom, he said, ‘I’ve been waiting over a year for this,’ ” Lee recounted in an interview. “He held me in a grip so I couldn’t get out.”

At the time, she felt she had no option but to stay silent about what happened. “Who would I even complain about him to?” she said. “He was the HR guy. … If you had something to complain about, you would go to him.”

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She continued to work with both men until the spring of 2017, when she was told she would have to move to the Virginia office, three months before her contract in Seoul had been scheduled to end, she said. It wasn’t until she received the text message from the program director, in January 2018, that she decided to tell her new supervisor, among other things, that the program director in Seoul had sexually harassed her and engaged in “Harvey Weinstein”-like behavior, according to her lawsuit. She later disclosed the sexual assault allegations to the company’s human resources professional.

The HR manager told Lee that an investigation had already been performed into the allegations, which Lee said was not true, and that Lee should “limit her concerns to things that had occurred since she relocated to America,” according to Lee’s lawsuit.

“It was just demeaning and disrespectful,” Lee said. “After that I went to the bathroom and cried. I felt like I did something really, really bad.”

A few months later, in March, Lee met with the company’s legal counsel to discuss the allegations. She learned that the company did not begin investigating her allegations until 50 days after she brought them to attention. By then, the program director had already resigned.

Soon after, Lee noticed her supervisor and other senior employees avoiding her, treating her coldly and giving her unrealistic deadlines, according to the lawsuit. Lee decided to file a charge of discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and in June, submitted a whistleblower-retaliation complaint to the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General.

The following month, Lee was placed on a performance improvement plan, the only disciplinary action she had received in more than five years with the employer, according to her lawsuit. She filed an internal HR complaint, and eight days later was terminated.

“I just felt like I was placed in a sinkhole,” Lee said in an interview.

The company offered her a six-month severance package and a cause of termination of “workplace reduction” — if she signed a nondisclosure agreement pledging to stay silent about what happened, she said. She refused.

As her legal case plays out, Lee hopes to see the case go to a jury trial, where she will be able to speak openly about her experiences, “which is what they didn’t want from the very beginning.”

The two former supervisors who Lee says sexually assaulted her are no longer with the company. But according to their LinkedIn accounts, they are still working in the federal contracting sector. They are both still in South Korea.