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Women Say Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Is Rife in Group for Realtors

One woman said the man put his hands down his pants in front of her. Another woman said the same man texted her a picture of his crotch. A third woman said she had a consensual relationship with the man, only to have him retaliate after it ended.

The man is Kenny Parcell, the president of the National Association of Realtors, a powerful nonprofit organization with more than $1 billion in assets that controls access to nearly every American home listing. All three women, who worked at the Chicago-based group, said they were sexually harassed by Mr. Parcell, and described a pattern of behavior that included improper touching and lewd photos and texts.

Within the organization, known as N.A.R., and its affiliates, 29 employees and former leaders told The New York Times that even after years of complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination and retribution by Mr. Parcell and other leaders, little changed. Many of these claims have begun to surface in recent weeks after Janelle Brevard, the former employee who said she had a relationship with Mr. Parcell, sued the group for racial and sexual discrimination and harassment.

Kenny Parcell, the current president of the National Association of Realtors, has been the focus of sexual harassment allegations since a former employee filed a lawsuit this summer.Credit…The National Association of Realtors

“There is the sexual harassment, and then woven into it, this culture of fear,” said Stephanie Quinn, the organization’s former director of business meetings and events, who worked at N.A.R. for more than a decade. Ms. Quinn, who quit last year, said Mr. Parcell regularly expected hugs and attempted to arrange meetings with younger colleagues late at night. After an incident where she held out her palm to block a hug, he began questioning her authority over her employees and the decisions she was tasked to make, she said.

Mr. Parcell, who responded to questions from The Times in writing, denied ever engaging in sexual harassment. “I have never tried to reach out to anyone ‘younger’ or ‘late at night,’” he said. N.A.R. said its team that investigates such matters never received a complaint from Ms. Quinn.

For more than 100 years, the American housing industry has been dominated by N.A.R., which has 1.5 million dues-paying members, making it the largest professional organization in the country. It even owns the trademark to the word “Realtor.” Despite the organization’s size and reach, employees and Realtors interviewed by The Times criticized its leadership as a tight circle of allies who deflected wrongdoing and punished those who complain. Mr. Parcell, a Utah Realtor described by co-workers as a grandstander with a fiery temper, currently sits at the top.

“His behavior is predatory,” Ms. Quinn, 52, said of Mr. Parcell. “I feel like I was constantly screaming, ‘This is so inappropriate.’”

Harassment has become ingrained in N.A.R. culture, said Kaki Lybbert, 69, a Texas Realtor who served on N.A.R.’s leadership board last year. At conferences and official N.A.R. gatherings, she said, she saw Mr. Parcell ostracize female Realtors who failed to flatter him — behavior he did not repeat with men. “I’ve seen up close and personal how people are treated, and it made me sick to my stomach,” she said.

Mr. Parcell denied Ms. Lybbert’s allegations. “In fact, I do not know what these allegations are referring to or have any frame of reference for this,” he said.

‘Sweetheart’ or ‘Honey’

After inquiries this month by The Times, N.A.R. announced a new advisory group focused on the organization’s culture, which they said will work to encourage “values of respect, integrity, transparency and continuous growth.”

The company’s workplace mission notes that sexual harassment and discrimination prevention training are mandated, which is in line with Illinois state law.

Real estate skews heavily female — 66 percent of N.A.R.’s members are women. Yet its current top leaders are mainly men.

As recently as last summer, the organization’s guidance on harassment put much of the burden on victims to prevent unwanted behavior. “Should a member, colleague, vendor, or other attendee refer to an employee as ‘sweetheart’ or ‘honey’, the employee may inform that individual that they would prefer they use the employee’s name,” the group’s human resources department announced in new protocols for conferences and gatherings. These guidelines also included, “Staff should avoid going to anyone’s hotel room,” and “Physical contact with anyone is never required.”

Many women who brought concerns to N.A.R. said that the response from leaders discouraged them from ever speaking up again about harassment inside the organization. Nineteen women who worked at or were active in N.A.R. or its affiliates told The Times in interviews that they had endured sexual harassment on the job. Another 10 said they were subjected to a sexist, belittling culture. The Times also reviewed two lawsuits, a discrimination complaint and an internal memo sent to N.A.R.’s human resources department that all pointed to a yearslong pattern of harassment and retaliation at the organization.

Ms. Brevard and two other women filed formal harassment complaints. All three women were later offered severance payments that required them to sign nondisclosure agreements. N.A.R. declined to comment.

Sixteen of the allegations examined by The Times of either sexual harassment or an abusive culture involved Mr. Parcell.

Through his lawyer, Mr. Parcell, 50, called the accusations against him “categorically false.”

“I am a friendly and outgoing person in a world that is growing ever more cynical, conflicted, and cold,” said Mr. Parcell in a statement. “Well-intended actions on my part are being twisted and distorted.”

When asked in an interview if the organization has an issue with sexual harassment, the N.A.R. chief executive Bob Goldberg said, “I would not characterize it as a problem.”

He later clarified in an email through a spokesman for the organization, “We operate in a society where, unfortunately, inappropriate conduct can occur. Like any organization, we are not immune to these challenges, and any single allegation concerns me.”

Kaki Lybbert, 69, a Texas Realtor who served on N.A.R.’s leadership board in 2022, said harassment and bullying are pervasive within the organization.Credit…Shelby Tauber for The New York Times

In a statement, N.A.R. said, “We follow clear reporting procedures to investigate any issue of concern brought to our attention and take corrective action as needed, up to and including staff termination and member suspension.”

A ‘Powerful Adversary’

Ms. Brevard, 51, was fired in September 2022 for failing to disclose her relationship with Mr. Parcell, according to the lawsuit she filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., in June.

She had worked at N.A.R. as what was called its “chief storyteller” and handled the group’s podcasts, videos and much of its marketing materials from 2019 to 2022. According to her complaint, she had a monthslong sexual relationship with Mr. Parcell. After she ended it, Mr. Parcell continued to press her with unwanted advances, saw to it that she was excluded from meetings and business trips and told her that he would have her fired, the lawsuit claimed.

Ms. Brevard is Black. She and three other female employees, all of whom are white, complained about Mr. Parcell’s behavior to lawyers hired to investigate issues of sexual harassment in the organization last year, the lawsuit said. Mr. Parcell’s actions included sending lewd text messages and pictures to all of them, the lawsuit said. N.A.R. officials said the investigation had concluded and all of the allegations had been addressed, but declined to elaborate further.

Though Ms. Brevard was fired, the other women who complained remained on staff.

She withdrew her lawsuit in July, after she and her lawyer at the time reached an agreement with N.A.R. on a severance package of $107,000, which included lawyer fees. The package also included a nondisclosure agreement. She declined to comment.

N.A.R. described the deal as “a separation agreement that included a payment to help her move forward in life.” But Bruce Fox, a lawyer who began representing Ms. Brevard in August, contested that. “Feeling intimidated by such a powerful adversary, she agreed to promptly settle her case,” he said.

A Memo Raising the Alarm

A thrill-seeker and avid motorcyclist, Mr. Parcell attended Brigham Young University on a football scholarship and was a successful Utah Realtor before he began climbing the ranks of N.A.R. leadership in 2020. He is animated and outspoken in his support for the organization: He has posed with a Realtor-branded motorcycle and traveled while president-elect to Ukraine, where he was photographed next to tanks wearing a N.A.R. T-shirt.

Inside the organization, several women described him as a boss who crossed lines.

More than a year ago, Jennifer Braun, 54, N.A.R.’s current senior events producer, filed an internal report about two incidents with Mr. Parcell to the human resources department.

Ms. Braun, who works in the organization’s headquarters, told The Times that at a 2018 conference in Washington, Mr. Parcell asked her to help him fix his shirt and then put his hands down his own pants, which she said seemed sexually suggestive. At a previous event, N.A.R.’s 2017 leadership summit in Chicago, he said another colleague was masturbating in his room, and simulated ejaculation by rubbing his hands together, she said. He then stuck his hands out toward her, she said.

“If people don’t speak up, it’s never going to end,” Ms. Braun said.

Mr. Parcell said that he had never made such references or gestures. “From my point of view Jennifer and I have a good and appropriate working relationship,” he said.

N.A.R. said there was an investigation, including by outside counsel, and that it “took action.”

Last June, a N.A.R. executive sent a memo to a senior vice president raising an alarm. She had become aware of two employees who described an “inappropriate invitation”: Mr. Parcell had invited them to spend the night in his Utah home while they were in town to produce promotional materials for his presidential term. She also shared photographs that Mr. Parcell sent them of his crotch in April 2022.

When asked about the memo by The Times, N.A.R. said it did not contain sexual harassment complaints and described the photographs sent by Mr. Parcell as “of a belt buckle.” The organization said all issues identified in the memo had been investigated and addressed.

Mr. Parcell said he was asking for input on the design of a promotional N.A.R. belt buckle when he sent the images.

Suzi Dunkel-Soto, a Realtor in Alhambra, Calif., said a male Realtor took a photo up her skirt during a graduation ceremony for a N.A.R. leadership academy.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

‘I’m scared’

Ms. Braun, Amy Swida, the director of business meetings and events, and three other current N.A.R. employees who have filed internal complaints of sexual harassment or gender discrimination by Mr. Parcell described a tense workplace where they believe they were being watched by executives. In separate interviews, each referred to a deep-rooted system of intimidation they believed was meant to keep detractors silent.

“I’m scared every day coming to work,” said Ms. Swida, 39, who said that Mr. Parcell’s behavior toward her grew cruel and condescending when she became visibly pregnant. She was punished after refusing to let Mr. Parcell circumvent her job duties, she said, citing an example of being pulled from planning a major leadership meeting because she did not allow Mr. Parcell to negotiate with a vendor directly. She said she now fears being cut out of other work opportunities.

“I was never cruel to Ms. Swida,” Mr. Parcell said, disputing Ms. Swida’s account of events around the contract.

N.A.R. said it has “a strict no retaliation policy” and “her complaint was heard and documented.” The organization said she was promoted a few months later, “unrelated to the incident reported.”

Other women interviewed said the issues go beyond N.A.R.’s headquarters. Executives, they said, have been made aware of complaints about the behavior of the group’s members for years, and continually failed to take action.

Suzi Dunkel-Soto, a Realtor in Alhambra, Calif., said a male Realtor took a photo up her skirt during a graduation ceremony for the N.A.R. leadership academy held in Boston in October 2018. Ms. Dunkel-Soto, 57, said she reached out to N.A.R.’s chief legal officer to report the incident, leaving multiple messages. She said her calls were never returned. When The Times asked about the incident, N.A.R. said it “addressed this incident appropriately with the male Realtor involved,” but did not give details.

“Everything gets brushed under the rug,” Ms. Dunkel-Soto said.

A Culture of Keeping Quiet

Several women interviewed said they did not want to speak publicly because they feared retribution, losing access to the leadership roles and professional connections that their businesses depend on.

Months after making a report of sexual harassment and discrimination to N.A.R.’s human resources department, Roshani Sheth was fired from her job as a product manager for a N.A.R. subsidiary, Realtors Information Network. According to her claim, Ms. Sheth was the only woman and person of color on her team, and her male superiors had stared at her breasts, referred to her career ambition as “unattractive” and made inappropriate comments about her body and marital status. In an interview with The Times, she said N.A.R. cited “poor performance” for her 2019 termination.

In July 2020, Ms. Sheth, who is of Indian descent, filed a charge of discrimination, claiming both racial and sexual harassment, with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. It is now being examined by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After filing the complaint, Ms. Sheth, who lives in Chicago, received text messages from an unknown number referring to her as a “rat” and telling her “kys,” which is text shorthand for “kill yourself.” Ms. Sheth filed a police report.

Ms. Sheth said she believed she was fired in retaliation for her complaints. “The way for a company to win is to get somebody not to talk,” she said. She received a severance payment that came with a nondisclosure agreement at her termination. She nonetheless chose to speak to The Times, she said, because she believed she was not the only woman to experience harassment. She did not disclose the amount of the payment.

Complaints of harassment have also been reported at Move, Inc., a real estate listing company that operates the N.A.R.-licensed site Realtor.com and is based in Santa Clara, Calif. Two N.A.R. leaders — traditionally the president and president-elect — sit on Move’s nine-member advisory board. Mr. Parcell is currently one of them.

In September 2020, Suzanne Mueller, 59, sued Move for what the complaint describes as multiple incidences of sexual harassment. According to the lawsuit, Move executives minimized violent, sexually charged conversations at work events, describing them as male Realtors “just being boys.” They also referred to an International Women’s Day event as “meaningless” and made comments disparaging menopausal weight gain and menstrual cramps. Ms. Mueller, who had been the company’s senior vice president of industry relations, was laid off in May 2020. She also was offered a severance payment that came with a nondisclosure agreement.

“The case was settled in 2021, and we are unable to comment on it any further,” said Sara Wiskerchen, Move’s director of corporate communications, when asked about the lawsuit.

Several former N.A.R. leaders told The Times that keeping quiet, and even covering for those accused of wrongdoing, is a longstanding aspect of the culture.

“I hate to see my organization suffer because of the actions of a few,” said Leigh Brown, 48, a prominent North Carolina Realtor who served as N.A.R.’s vice president of advocacy in 2021. Credit…Alycee Byrd for The New York Times

“I hate to see my organization suffer because of the actions of a few,” said Leigh Brown, 48, a prominent North Carolina Realtor who served as N.A.R.’s vice president of advocacy in 2021. She described a culture where leaders are expected to fall in line and even sign a pledge that includes a promise to report those who disparage the organization.

N.A.R. said the group had not heard complaints from Ms. Brown. “We encourage members to come forward and express their concerns, and we take action as appropriate,” N.A.R. said.

Last month, an anonymous letter, signed by “a confidential coalition of 37 involved Realtor leaders,” appeared in the mailboxes of more than two dozen N.A.R. past presidents. The unnamed authors pleaded with the organization to demand Mr. Parcell’s resignation.

“This is an intimidating process. None of us are willing to put our names on anything,” the letter reads. “We are in a crisis management situation, and the members MUST speak out.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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