Gender & Sexuality

‘Really it is a he-said she-said matter’

When Karen Carlson started working at trucking behemoth CRST in June 2013, the company's team trucking branch CRST Expedited had for years been the subject of complaints from scores of women that it had not done enough to prevent sexual harassment.

As the employee relations manager, Carlson was responsible for conducting investigations of employee concerns and tracking trends within the department, including its investigative duties. So it was surprising when Mary Review recently reviewed a deposition released as part of a pending class action case against CRST Expedited, a branch of the larger company, on behalf of women who claim they've been harassed. In it, Carlson talked about how the company handles sexual harassment claims: the accusation is always considered unfounded unless there is outside corroboration or an admission from the accused — a high bar with sexual harassment and assault.

The Carlson deposition underscores a July report from Mary Review, in partnership with the Investigative Fund, that chronicled the patterns of sexual harassment and lack of enforcement many women in the trucking industry face. A review of documents and interviews with dozens of drivers, lawyers and industry experts described an atmosphere in which women were allegedly subjected to on-the-job harassment ranging from catcalling to rape, as well as a system that may be incentivized to not investigate or handle claims. The putative class-action lawsuit against CRST Expedited could include more than 125 women, a lawyer for them said. Among the issues they cite is harassment of women in male-female driving teams, which can send a woman alone with a driving partner in a truck for days on end.

In her deposition, Carlson was asked about a situation in which there is no outside evidence, just the word of the accuser against the word of the accused. Was it CRST policy, Carlson was asked, to always deem the accusation uncorroborated? Carlson said yes, though she also said a driver's certification could be revoked after multiple complaints. Carlson was also asked whether the company took such prior unsubstantiated complaints into account when investigating a subsequent complaint against a driver. She said no. “Each case is going to stand on its own merit,” she said.

“We explore as fully as we possibly can to determine if there is any witnesses,” Carlson said, “any additional information that can be located through whatever means to make a determination one way or the other. But if we simply don't have any additional information, then we cannot say that the infraction occurred.”

Team trucking, from a human resources standpoint, is an inherently difficult workplace to navigate, as it's common for two drivers to be on the road for a long time by themselves, often in terrain where cell reception can be patchy. Which makes external corroboration — like witnesses or crime scene evidence — especially unlikely.

While the company said it went to great efforts to separate accused and accuser drivers, “nine times out of ten,” Carlson said, “there are no witnesses, and so really it is a he-said she-said matter.” The company also had “no written policy” that explains when a driver manager is supposed to split up drivers — for instance as soon as he or she receives a sexual harassment complaint — or what a manager has to do to pass along knowledge of a complaint on to the next dispatcher or driver manager.

A lawyer representing the women in the class asked whether there are substantial barriers to firing; Carlson said she was not aware CRST had such a policy. Carlson also said that during her time at CRST staffing in the human resources division “has always been an issue” Carlson said. (She testified that there are four people in her department who handle employee complaints.) She also was asked about complaints from drivers who said that after they complained about sexual harassment, they were taken off truck without pay and also, sometimes, forced to pay for their own hotel rooms while they waited for a ride back home. Carlson testified that she didn't know whether or not CRST had a policy that would compensate drivers in such situations.

Kevin Visser, an attorney representing CRST, declined to comment on the deposition, citing the pending litigation. Previously, speaking generally about the company, Visser said that the company logs complaints about drivers and has added more information regarding sexual harassment to its employee orientations, among other efforts.  In the deposition, however, Carlson said that CRST had “no tolerance for harassment or discrimination based on sex, gender, and gender identity.”

About the reporter

Mary Pilon

Mary Pilon

Mary Pilon is the author of The Monopolists, a New York Times bestseller about the history of the board game Monopoly.