A former advocacy director for Amnesty International USA is challenging his firing that occurred just months after the human-rights organization threatened retaliation against him for helping to organize a petition by unpaid interns. A federal administrative judge concluded last month that those threats violated U.S. labor law.
The group says Raed Jarrar, its former Middle East and Africa advocacy director, was terminated after an internal investigation substantiated a complaint of “inappropriate conduct toward a female coworker” in May 2018, according to Jarrar’s termination letter. A National Labor Relations Board judge ruled last week that Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Margaret Huang, previously had unlawfully threatened Jarrar and others who signed the petition in early 2018. Jarrar was fired in July 2018.
The non-profit group’s response to sexual harassment allegations in the #MeToo era, and Jarrar’s claim that it was tied to both his organizing activities and stereotypes of Middle Eastern and Muslim men, could draw close scrutiny from the public and donors. AIUSA has over 60 years gained a reputation as a bastion of equal rights, advocating on behalf of abused workers, women and oppressed minorities, among other issues.
There is no dispute that Jarrar was fired shortly after he aided the interns—only why.
AIUSA told Bloomberg Law in e-mails that it’s because the harassment allegation was found credible and severe, nothing more. Jarrar said in an interview that the woman initiated the encounter and hasn’t been truthful about details of it, and that AIUSA targeted him in a number of ways after he participated in the petition seeking to pay the interns.
Jarrar’s firing played out shortly before Amnesty’s International Secretariat—a legally independent organization headquartered in Europe—conducted an internal survey that found a “toxic” workplace culture struggling with issues of bullying, harassment, sexism and racism. The results of the survey were included in a report released in February.
Jarrar, an Iraqi-American Muslim, is now accusing AIUSA of Islamaphobia and racism, according to a complaint he filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“Management portrayed me as misogynistic and gender-oblivious, which just happens to be a classic racist trope about Arab and Muslim-American men,” Jarrar said in an e-mail that summarized his thoughts after three hours of phone and in-person interviews. “I deny all the allegations, but I’m not saying anyone should presume my innocence just based on my story. I know that a fair investigation and the due process my union and I have been requesting from management for months will ultimately reveal the truth behind what’s been going on.”
Jarrar is trying to “shift the blame” to the organization and his accuser, said Amanda Simon, interim deputy executive director for public affairs for AIUSA. The organization stands “with the victim,” she said in an email.
“Any allegation that this is part of a conspiracy or setup is deeply offensive and wholly untrue,” Simon said. The findings regarding the International Secretariat are also a separate issue, and AIUSA didn’t fall under the report’s purview, Simon said.
Jarrar’s discrimination complaint is pending and the two sides are discussing mediation. The dispute could eventually wind up in federal court, as EEOC complaints tend to do when they’re not settled.
Jarrar’s accuser doesn’t wish to speak on the matter publicly, AIUSA told Bloomberg Law.
Helped Organize Intern Petition
Jarrar was known for his work as an activist and political advocate before joining Amnesty USA. He participated in projects to document the effects of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that gained global attention.
He reportedly played a whistle-blower role in a separate harassment dispute in 2013, and was later fired from his job as communications director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, according to the Detroit Free Press and USA Today. Jarrar was one of the employees urging the organization to do more about the then-director’s alleged sexual harassment of women in the workplace, the Free Press and USA Today said.
He later filed a complaint with the Washington, D.C., Office of Human Rights and reached a confidential resolution with ADC. Samar Khalaf, the current ADC president, denied in an email that Jarrar was fired for raising concerns about the sexual harassment allegations, while otherwise saying the organization can’t discuss the matter.
Jarrar began working at Amnesty USA in September 2017.
He joined the union representing non-management employees early in his tenure, and was part of a six-member team that negotiated with management over a new collective employment contract, according to the NLRB ruling. Jarrar helped lead the interns’ effort to be paid in early 2018.
Huang received the petition—signed by Jarrar and 20 other regular staffers—on April 3, the NLRB judge wrote. She held meetings with the interns and other signers on April 9 and expressed disappointment about the petition.
Huang also met with Jarrar individually on May 9, according to the NLRB ruling. She said during the meeting that the petition was adversarial and coercive, and urged Jarrar to take a different course in the future, the judge wrote.
The NLRB judge later found Huang’s actions amounted to unlawful threats in violation of federal labor law. The judge pointed out in a footnote that AIUSA tried to “impeach” Jarrar by introducing his termination letter, but ruled that Jarrar was still credible as to whether AIUSA retaliated against its employees for their organizing.
AIUSA was issued a cease-and-desist order. It has to post a notice advising employees of their rights and admitting that it violated federal labor laws. The organization told Bloomberg Law that it intends to appeal the ruling.
Fired After Informal, Formal Complaints
Jarrar said in an interview that he was subjected to a pattern of retaliation between April 9, when Huang met with the interns and petition signers, and May 30, the date of the alleged unwanted advances that caused his firing.
According to e-mail exchanges reviewed by Bloomberg Law and authenticated by both Jarrar and AIUSA, Jarrar was told in a counseling session with a manager that a white, male manager had complained about his tardiness and behavior during a meeting where he was the only man present. Jarrar responded that the “fact that White men on the management team are stepping in to speak on behalf of women colleagues” fits a sexist and racist trope, and indicated he was being targeted.
“As I said, and do actually believe, it’s very possible that staff have unconscious/conscious bias around working with a Arab Muslim man,” an AIUSA manager said in one portion of the exchange with Jarrar. The manager also said it’s “still simultaneously possible that you also could have behaviors that other staff feel are microaggression[s].”
Simon, the AIUSA spokeswoman, said Jarrar is “conflating the normal process of receiving feedback” with formal complaint processes to indicate a pattern of repeated investigations that “does not exist.”
“Amnesty International USA believes that all workplaces have microaggressions, unconscious and conscious bias, and that these issues need to be identified and discussed openly,” Simon said. “The essence of the entire movement around implicit bias and microaggressions is that no one is free of bias. It was in this context that our manager acknowledged to Mr. Jarrar the importance of introspection, and the need for him to reflect on his own behavior.”
Sexual Harassment Probe
Then came the sexual harassment complaint, arising from an incident between Jarrar and a manager from AIUSA’s New York office during an organizational retreat.
The manager said Jarrar made “repeated unwanted sexual overtures toward her, including making comments about her body, suggesting sex that night, attempting to kiss her” and “pressing [his] body against her in an intimidating manner,” according to the termination letter. Jarrar said he didn’t know the woman before the retreat.
Simon said AIUSA has “a clear and well-established policy” of conducting prompt investigations and taking actions when a credible complaint is made to human resources. The organization said in its termination letter that it “takes such misconduct very seriously” and fired Jarrar for that complaint alone, “given the severity of the incident.”
“This is not a blanket ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, but rather an established protocol for investigation and review,” Simon said. “We have terminated the employment of two other staff in the last two years because of inappropriate behavior” and the “handling of this particular incident was fully consistent with our policy.”
AIUSA’s investigation was conducted by internal managers including the acting head of human resources, according to Simon. Huang, the executive director who made what the NLRB found to be improper threats against Jarrar, was aware of the probe but did not participate in it or decide whom HR should talk to, Simon said.
Alexis Ronickher, an employment and harassment attorney in Washington, said whistle-blowers are sometimes accused of sexual harassment shortly after revealing organizational problems or misconduct.
The dispute between AIUSA and Jarrar, though, presents a particularly difficult set of issues, Ronicker said.
“The tough thing about when you handle things without a neutral investigator, or in some way that raises concerns about ulterior movies, is that there’s also pain for this woman claiming sexual harassment, and her claims and right to a harassment-free environment are being questioned along with the organization.”
Ronicker said AIUSA’s decision to handle the investigation internally under the circumstances could cloud the picture.
“The best practice in that situation is the organization needs to know they’re walking a tight-rope, and get a truly neutral investigator so when all’s said and done you’re not left with this morass of ‘Was there sexual harassment? Was there still retaliation? Is it because he’s an Arab and Muslim man?”
Some situations may “warrant investigation by an outside investigator,” but likely not potential misconduct by an employee who had just completed his 6 month probation period, AIUSA said in an email.