Two women who worked at SAP SE filed reports to the software company’s human resources department within 18 months of each other saying that they were raped by colleagues while attending after-work events on business trips.
The incidents – one in Las Vegas and the other near Dallas – provide an unsettling look into how some women at SAP say they struggled to convince their own HR team that they didn’t consent to sexual advances.
For this story, Bloomberg spoke to the women, as well as seven other current and former employees who say they experienced sexual harassment or assault at company events, or witnessed it. All asked not to be identified because they fear reprisals or because they signed non-disclosure agreements. Bloomberg also reviewed internal emails and documents that detail how SAP, one of the world’s largest tech companies, responded to these complaints.
In the two instances of alleged rape, dating back to 2018, the accused attackers said they had sexual relations with the victims and that each woman appeared to be very drunk or acting abnormally, according to summaries of SAP’s internal investigations, which were seen by Bloomberg. The women said they believe they were drugged, and both filed reports with the police. SAP concluded that the men showed poor judgment and that the employees shouldn’t work together in the future, the SAP investigation showed.
“We take all allegations of misconduct and criminal behaviour extraordinarily seriously. Ensuring the safety and well-being of our employees underlies all our decisions,” Joellen Perry, an SAP spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement in response to questions for this story. “We fully supported their independent investigations as well as opening our own internal enquiries. Law enforcement ultimately did not file any charges in either case. Together with our own findings, this led us to take the actions we deemed appropriate for the accused employees.
“The SAP of 2022 is, moreover, different than the SAP of the past,” Perry said. The company said it has recently commissioned an external review of its policies.
The women’s experiences were at the extreme end of a culture that current and former employees of SAP said allowed sexual harassment to fester. The company often hosted networking events that had a “boys’ club” climate, involving heavy drinking, which was used as an excuse for inappropriate and unwelcome advances from senior male managers, according to the current and former employees. Several women have said they were groped, followed to hotel rooms or forced to put up with lewd comments and other inappropriate behaviour from men they worked with.
The company’s human resources department suffered from a widely held perception that it effectively worked against women who complained, moving them on to other departments or encouraging them to quit while the men involved faced few or no repercussions, Bloomberg has previously reported after speaking to more than a dozen of those women, whose jobs spanned three continents, or people with knowledge of the issues. SAP said previously that it has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and unlawful discrimination and has severe consequences for employees found in violation.
SAP is one of the world’s largest enterprise software companies, focusing on selling products covering a range of uses, from filing expenses to helping store and sift through data. With more than 100,000 employees worldwide, its rivals include US firms such as Salesforce Inc. and Oracle Corp.
Corporate events, both internal and for clients, play a key part in how these companies sell software to potential customers. SAP – which sponsors a number of sports teams and owns the naming rights to the SAP Center in San Jose, California – has regularly held events at venues including Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and hired Lady Gaga to entertain clients in 2019. Enthusiastic blogs have been written by external attendees of SAP Sapphire, a flagship conference that has attracted more than 20,000 attendees in some years, listing where the best happy hours are.
Some other enterprise software companies are more circumspect about the use of alcohol at company events. Salesforce chief executive officer Marc Benioff banned alcohol from Salesforce’s offices in 2017, claiming it was unfair to those who chose not to drink.
At SAP, these events regularly became the backdrop for sexual advances from colleagues and clients, current and former employees told Bloomberg. Women also felt pressure to attend alcohol-fuelled mixers, even though they knew the risk of inappropriate behaviour by other attendees, lest they miss out on valuable networking opportunities.
SAP’s employee manual for company-sponsored events attempts to limit alcohol intake – stipulating that drinks can’t be self-served and that food and non-alcoholic beverages must also be offered. Alcohol can generally only be offered for two hours, unless a senior executive says otherwise, and employees who appear impaired are not to be served, the manual states.
It also says “all employees who choose to drink alcoholic beverages at company functions are expected to behave in accordance with usual business standards and all company policies at all times”.
Like many other companies, SAP allows what it calls “close personal relationships” among employees – provided there is no conflict of interest. Its code of conduct states that it aims to create an environment that is free from “unwelcome sexual advances and requests for sexual favours”.
The two women who said they were raped while on work trips at SAP – in 2018 and 2019 – had strikingly similar stories. They’d been out for drinks with colleagues after a work event. They said that they believed they were drugged, and that a co-worker followed them into their hotel room and had sex with them when they were incapacitated and couldn’t consent. One woman woke up with her clothes torn, according to a police report, and said she had cuts and bruises from the encounter.
The two women, unknown to each other, both filed complaints to HR, which interviewed the men involved. The men said they had sexual encounters with the women, and described them as drunk or not themselves, according to SAP’s own investigations. SAP failed to conclude that the encounters weren’t consensual, just that they’d violated the company’s “respect” policy, according to the reports.
The incidents took place within SAP’s Ariba unit, a business the company bought for US$4.3bil (RM19.24bil) in 2012 that makes software that helps corporate clients handle payments and deal with suppliers. At the time, the company was making a belated transition to cloud software after competitors began winning customers. Ariba was a key part of that strategy and, because of that, was allowed to operate largely independently, people familiar with the company at the time said. That allowed cultural problems with harassment to continue, they said.
Within SAP, both alleged sexual assaults were known by at least some members of senior management, people with knowledge of the matter said. One of the women said she was compelled to sign an NDA in order to recoup some of her lost pay after a protracted battle with the company ended in an arbitration session over the alleged assault.
The other woman refused to sign an NDA, which would have included a settlement of US$10,000 (RM44,765), and emailed her version of events to Jennifer Morgan, a senior US executive who became co-CEO in 2019 only to leave less than a year later. The woman spoke to Morgan on the phone on her last day, and Morgan expressed remorse for what had happened, according to the woman and another person with knowledge of the conversation, who wasn’t authorised to speak publicly about it.
The alleged victims’ managers reported both incidents to HR. Bloomberg previously reported that some employees at SAP said that they are reluctant to complain to HR for fear of reprisals or because they doubt HR will act.
‘Derelict in their duties’
Both women filed reports to the police, who investigated but didn’t pursue charges, even after one woman submitted to a forensic examination where her bruises and cuts were photographed. In one instance, a detective in the Plano, Texas, police department maintained that he couldn’t disprove the alleged attacker’s story – that the encounter had been consensual – and that the police therefore wouldn’t pursue a case, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
A Plano police public information officer said that the department investigated the incident but was “unable to develop sufficient probable cause”, and declined to comment further. A PIO for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said that after their investigation, the findings were submitted to the Clark County District Attorney’s office for review. Clark County never prosecuted. The DA’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment that were left Tuesday.
In the US, every state has different legislation surrounding sexual consent. In Texas, a person can’t consent if they’re unconscious or unable to resist. In Nevada, the attacker is deemed to act without consent if the person knows or should know the other person is mentally or physically incapable of resisting.
For every 1,000 sexual assaults in the US, just 310 are reported to police and only 50 of those will lead to an arrest, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. About half of those arrests lead to a conviction, the group said.
HR departments have a duty to make sure that they minimize risk factors for sexual harassment and assault, like a culture of heavy drinking at work events, said Debra Katz, a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP in Washington.
“This seems pretty derelict in their duties on the part of the HR department saying it’s, ‘he said, she said’,” said Katz, who specialises in sexual harassment and assault complaints. Katz was not involved in the SAP instances. SAP’s current head of HR, Sabine Bendiek, joined the company in 2021, after these alleged assaults occurred.
The alleged Texas incident occurred in May 2019 when the woman was in town visiting a customer. Her team took the client out for dinner, and then a group staying in the same Marriott went out for drinks. She left a drink unattended while she went to the bathroom and said she began to lose control soon after. Her last clear memory was getting in the elevator to go back to her room after a bartender refused to serve her. This account is based on an interview with the woman as well as the police incident report seen by Bloomberg.
In the report, the detective said that when the woman woke up the next morning, she was naked, her bra clasp was broken, and her underwear was “shredded”. She found her colleague’s credit card on the bathroom floor, and later had a flashback to the night before where her co-worker was on top of her. The police report, filed a few days later following the Memorial Day holiday, described her as visibly shaken and crying.
SAP’s human resources team interviewed the man involved, who’d claimed that she’d invited him up to her room to have another drink after they were thrown out of the bar, and once there, aggressively kissed him, according to a copy of the internal SAP report seen by Bloomberg.
SAP said its investigation found that the male employee “exhibited poor judgment when deciding to engage in sexual relations” with the woman and that he’d said he believed she’d had too much to drink. But the company’s only proposal was to limit her interaction with her alleged attacker in the future and recommend that she contact security next time she traveled to an event, the letter showed.
When the woman replied to SAP’s HR representative that she’s a lesbian and was in a committed relationship at the time, SAP’s HR manager declined to take either factor into account, she said.
At an Ariba Live conference in Las Vegas in 2018, the other woman said she woke up in the early hours of the morning in her hotel room to find a co-worker having sex with her. She said her last memory from the night before was being handed a drink from her alleged attacker.
In the following investigation by SAP, the alleged attacker said they engaged in sexual relations, and that she didn’t appear to be “acting normal”, according to documents seen by Bloomberg. Despite concluding that his behavior was “contrary to SAP’s Respect Policy in the Employee Manual”, SAP closed its investigation, and promised the woman that it would limit his interaction with her, according to the company’s final report. SAP also encouraged her to continue working with the police if she wished to pursue the case.
Both women eventually left SAP. Of the men, one remains at SAP. The other left in early 2022 to become a senior executive at a US-based enterprise-software company. Neither of the men responded to requests for comment. – Bloomberg