BlackBerry CEO sexually harassed senior employee, lawsuit claims

A former BlackBerry Ltd. employee has filed a lawsuit against the company and its new chief executive John Giamatteo, who she claims sexually harassed her and then retaliated against her after she reported the behaviour.

The complainant, a California-based woman of colour who worked for the Waterloo, Ont.-based tech company for more than a decade, including in several senior roles, alleges members of the firm’s leadership ranks were aware of her complaints when Giamatteo was named chief executive in December.

The lawsuit was filed in a U.S. district court on Wednesday hours before the tech firm was due to report its fourth-quarter results.

The complainant, known as Jane Doe in court documents, alleges her treatment at BlackBerry violated both the U.S. labour code and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and resulted in her wrongful termination. 

No charges have been laid and the allegations have not been proven in court. An answer to the complaint has not been filed.

“BlackBerry and Mr. Giamatteo believe that these allegations are without merit and intend to vigorously defend against them,” BlackBerry said in a statement. 

“BlackBerry is committed to maintaining a respectful and productive work environment free from discrimination and harassment. To this end, we do not tolerate, condone, or ignore workplace discrimination or harassment or any unlawful behaviour. We conducted an extensive investigation, which found no evidence of wrongdoing or violations of the company code of conduct, and we are confident that the robustness of our process and its findings will be made evident in court.”

A law firm named as representing Giamatteo in the court documents did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his behalf.

In the complaint, Doe is described as a “high performer” and “high-potential employee” who was rewarded with “promotion after promotion” during her time at the company.

In her court filing, she alleges her career was “derailed” when Giamatteo became the president of BlackBerry’s cybersecurity business in October 2021. Giamatteo had previously been president and chief revenue officer of antivirus giant McAfee Corp.

She alleges he asked her to consider working for him so they could “travel together.” 

In an interview, the complainant said the suggestion of travelling together was raised the first time she met Giamatteo, when she was expecting the conversation to be introductory in nature.

“I had not had that conversation with others before and no one had brought that up and it did sort of raise a red flag for me,” the complainant said. 

In the complaint, she alleges she politely rejected Giamatteo’s suggestion, telling him she was not looking to change her reporting structure.

Later, she alleges he invited her to a dinner she assumed would be a business occasion because she says he had been meeting with other senior leaders that the company. 

“I didn’t really feel comfortable going but I thought well, he was having dinners with others, I can’t really be the outlier, because as so often happens to women you get called difficult or uncollaborative or something like that,” she said in interview.

In court documents, she claims she left the meal with the impression it was a date because he “tried to get close to her” and “woo” her throughout the evening, telling her stories about how he dresses up when he’s out with his daughters so people mistake him for “a dirty old man” out on a date with them.

“I have been working for many years and have had many different business dinners or lunches and know what … the tone of it should be and the behaviours within it should be and the conversation within it should be and that dinner did not come across like a professional business dinner,” she said in an interview.

Court records claim that soon after, she reported the incident to then-chief executive John Chen, who she says was supportive and agreed she did not have to travel alone with Giamatteo.

Chen did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to a social media account under his name.

After her discussions with Chen, the complainant says Giamatteo stopped inviting her to meetings she should have been included in, and “actively spread the false rumour to employees that (the) plaintiff was not a good collaborator.”

She alleges he started telling staff he wanted to get her “out” and around late 2021 or early 2022, she claims he threatened her, saying if she is “not nice to him, he has a large network and could impact her career.”

In early 2023, the complainant says she reported his conduct to human resources, which tried to create more separation between her role and Giamatteo’s. 

Later that year, when the company was searching for Chen’s successor, court records claim that she co-operated with an investigation launched by law firm Morrison and Foerster and notified the company’s interim chief executive, Richard Lynch, of her allegations.

On Dec. 4, the complainant says she was told she was being terminated effective immediately as part of a “restructuring.” 

When BlackBerry reported its third quarter results in February, it said it had cut around 200 jobs as part of efforts to slash costs and anticipated further job losses in its cybersecurity business, which it plans to split from its Internet of Things division.

Days after the complainant’s termination, BlackBerry named Giamatteo its new chief executive. A press release announcing the move lauded his “deep industry experience and outstanding track record of inspiring teams and delivering operational excellence.’

The complainant says in an interview that her termination and his appointment left her feeling “shocked and numb.”

The decision to file a lawsuit, she said, was difficult but she pressed on with the legal action because she felt if she was “silenced” it wouldn’t help other women.

“I feel like I have a responsibility, particularly having been at the executive level, to help other women, whether that is other women in BlackBerry or in the industry or broader than that,” she said.

“I am hoping that if they can hear my story, that that will help give them strength.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2024.

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Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press