(Bloomberg) — Prudential Financial Inc. said it fired three employees for misconduct, rather than retaliation for whistleblowing on indications a business partner sold the insurer’s MyTerm life-insurance policies without customers’ permission, as they allege in a lawsuit.
The employees engaged in “inappropriate and unacceptable workplace misconduct” by sending text messages last year that included “inexcusable comments ranging from an ethnic slur to profane and degrading statements about supervisors and co-workers,” Prudential said in documents filed Wednesday in state court in Newark, New Jersey, where the insurer is based.
Related: How 10 life insurers got their start
Prudential said the texts show repeated violations of company principles on how employees are supposed to interact with each other, according to the filing. Their lawsuit is “nothing more than an obvious attempt to avoid responsibility for egregious actions that Prudential does not tolerate,” the company said.
The complaint was filed last month by Julie Broderick, a former co-head of the corporate investigations department, and two of her colleagues, Darron Smith and Thomas Schreck. They claimed that Prudential fired them after they sought to learn more about possible sales abuses by Wells Fargo & Co. in signing up people for Prudential’s MyTerm insurance.
An attorney for the workers, Linda Niedweske, said they stand by the allegations.
“We expected them to use this as a pretext, but the firings had to do with the MyTerm policies,” Niedweske said. “All of the text messages were done on their personal time and personal devices and had to do with management-related issues that were all investigated and found to be accurate.”
In an interview last month, Broderick said the message from her company was clear: “Don’t rock the boat, don’t speak up, toe the party line and your job will be safe.”
The lawsuit, filed under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act, says they faced illegal retaliation. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
You’re invited to join us on Facebook.