Office fight puts print firm on spot

June 18, 2007

A local printing powerhouse is trying to regain the confidence of its employees and customers after the CEO and his secretary were involved in a profanity-laced physical altercation at work.

Interviews with the involved parties and a police report seem to agree on several points:

Cries of "Help!" and "Call 911" came from the office of Harding Poorman Group CEO David Harding on the afternoon of May 18. The screaming was Harding's secretary of two years, Susan Blair. The pair had argued in the office before, but this time it turned physical.

Hearing the screams, fellow employees rushed to the CEO's locked door. One employee went outside and, looking through a window, saw Harding standing over Blair, holding her down. He was trying to retrieve his cell phone, which she had hidden in her pants.

The argument eventually subsided, and no one called police immediately. But Blair, 41, filed a police report five days later; Harding says her version of events is exaggerated. Indianapolis police are investigating her claims and working with the Prosecutor's Office to determine whether assault charges should be filed against Harding, 52.

In the meantime, the privately owned firm is taking its own action: Blair is no longer a Harding Poorman employee, Harding took two weeks off and plans to take anger-management courses, and the company is planning sexual harassment and sensitivity training for all managers.

"Dave does not condone what he did and deeply apologizes to each and every staff member," company officials wrote in a May 29 memo to all 130 employees. "We are taking actions to make sure such a situation does not occur again."

Company leaders initially told employees Blair's accusations were untrue, but HPG changed course in the memo, saying an internal investigation showed there was "more to the incident" than originally believed. Harding also acknowledged to IBJ he had been romantically involved with his secretary.

Rebuilding trust

Ultimately, the company decided to come clean to its staff and take steps to ensure Harding Poorman is a "safe, honest" place to work, said Bob Poorman, the company's vice president. HPG, which has annual sales of $20 million, also is meeting with customers to explain the situation and make the case that the incident does not reflect on the company as a whole.

Regaining the confidence of employees could be tricky, said Mellissa Boggs, a vice president with Indianapolis-based consulting firm Quantum Human Resources.

"Incidents like this can cause a loss of morale and productivity," she said. "People wonder, if that person is allowed to stay in the workplace, will he do it again? It can create downward spirals."

Boggs said Harding Poorman's response makes sense, but it still could be too little too late. The company did not require sensitivity or sexual harassment training before the incident, as is standard at many companies of its size.

The company's effort to prevent another incident does not mean management agrees with its former employee's version of events. In fact, the company describes some of her claims as "preposterous."

"Dave grabbed her. They yelled and screamed. They had an inappropriate argument in the office. And that was it," Poorman said. "The extreme of what she says in this report is way out of bounds."

'A nightmare'

Blair filed a police report May 23, her last day as an employee at Harding Poorman. In it, she alleges Harding assaulted her on May 18 after she tried to call his wife and tell her about his infidelity. After yanking the phone away and pulling the phone cord out of the wall, he blocked her from leaving, she said. So she grabbed his cell phone instead and ran to a corner of the office.

In an attempt to get the phone back, Harding grabbed her arms and wrists, pushed her to the floor and pressed his forearm against her neck, repeatedly striking her, she said. Then he reached into her underwear to retrieve his phone.

Blair told IBJ that immediately after the incident, Harding demanded she come up with a cover story for what had happened. She said he came to her home after the Friday afternoon incident, staying about 45 minutes. After leaving, he continued to call and send her text messages and later that night called police claiming she was suicidal.

She returned to work on Monday and two days later signed a severance agreement releasing Harding Poorman from liability for the incident. But she made no such deal that covers Harding personally.

Blair later said the police report misrepresents how the fight began, claiming they scuffled when Harding wouldn't let her leave his office and she tried to call for help.

She has filed a restraining order against Harding and expects him to pay for her medical costs. The officer who took her report made note of "severe bruises, scratching and swelling in some areas on her legs, arms, wrists, back, shoulders, sides, stomach, neck and her right great toe." She told police her doctor diagnosed a broken toe and also was worried about her ribs and possible internal bleeding.

"It's a nightmare," she said. "I'm still in shock, in fear, completely."

Caught on tape

Harding acknowledges he made physical contact during the altercation and reached down her pants to get his phone, but he denies pushing her to the floor and says her claim to police is exaggerated.

He initially told IBJ he couldn't remember why the pair had fought that afternoon, and that he wasn't cheating on his wife. He later said he and Blair had been in a relationship that had "obviously ended."

The company showed a reporter footage from a company security camera that appears to refute some of Blair's claims. The camera has a view inside Harding's office when the door is open. It shows the CEO and secretary were alone, after Blair closed the office door, for at least 30 minutes starting at about 3:20 p.m. Around 3:50 p.m., several concerned-looking employees gather outside the CEO's office. There is no audio.

Shortly after the crowd disperses, Blair appears calm, chatting and walking around. She remains in the office for an hour and a half after the incident.

One of the steps the company is taking now is removing locks from all office doors, except for personnel and accounting.

Revisiting policy

The company also will revisit whether it needs a fraternization policy. It doesn't have one now.

Implementing the policy should be priority No. 1, said Dave Swider, chairman of the labor and employment law group at locally based Bose McKinney & Evans LLP.

"Typically, what happens in these relationships is they go south at one point or another," Swider said. "In this case, it seems to have erupted in a serious personal dispute that could have been avoided."

The problem is, relationships cloud what would otherwise be a business decision, he said. And since the company ultimately could bear the brunt of detrimental effects, it's good business to ban fraternization.

Both Harding and Poorman say Blair was a volatile employee who bristled at criticism. She also had taken issue with a recent performance review. The executives said they should have addressed the problem before it blew up.

Earlier in the week of the incident, Blair had thrown Harding's cell phone against a wall in his office and broke it, he said. (The cell phone they later tussled over was new.) On Thursday of that week, she broke a candy jar Harding had on his desk, he added. Despite the outbursts, she kept her job.

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