DALLAS — In the self-styled corporate image of Ross Perot, loyal workers were richly rewarded and wives were personally thanked by the boss for their husbands' long hours of toil.
But there is another side of this story as well, told by people who did not fit in the rigid environment of Perot's Electronic Data Systems, the computer programming giant founded by Perot in 1962 and sold to General Motors in 1984. They tell of being forced to sign an agreement that, in their minds, amounted to three years of indentured servitude, of being forced to work long days and weekends for fear of first being fired and then having to pay back the company thousands of dollars in penalties.
At the center of this is an agreement signed by EDS employees at the start of an intense 10-week training period that, upon completion, advances employees to the rank of computer systems engineers. Before the course work, employees had to sign an agreement promising to pay EDS as much as $9,000, plus interest and lawyer's fees, if they quit their jobs or were fired within three years.
EDS aggressively, and successfully, pursued scores of cases around the country. The company said that it was losing systems engineers to competitors and that the promissory note was an attempt to protect the money invested in employees admitted to the program. A spokesman for EDS says the policy continues in modified form in states other than Michigan, where it was challenged by the state attorney general.
Morton H. Meyerson, the former president of EDS and a longtime Perot associate, referred press questions to the Perot Petition Committee. James Squires, Perot's press spokesman, did not return telephone calls this week.
Glenn Graves, 35, a Dallas computer consultant who signed the promissory note, quit in 1982 and was immediately sued by EDS for $9,000.
In court documents, Graves described having to work 60 to 70 hours a week, including Christmas, with his supervisors enforcing the "slave-like hours" by threatening him with the promissory note.
"They could have come up with a better way to keep people there than hold title to them," Graves said in a recent interview. He said that he had to borrow money from his grandmother to pay off part of the note.
Graves said he has mixed emotions about Perot and his shot at presidential politics.
"I think he brings a great deal of honesty and strength that the country needs, but at the same time I'm concerned because of the policies (at EDS)," he said. "People need to know what they're dealing with. And they can make their decisions from there."
Less kind in his assessment was Michigan lawyer Robert Janover, who represented a fired EDS employee. He called the promissory note "unconscionable."
"It was like a sharecropper who was in debt to a plantation owner," Janover said. "They were afraid to do anything because they would end up unemployed and owe $9,000."
In an examination of court cases filed by EDS in Dallas County, where Perot founded EDS, there were dozens of suits in which the company sought to collect money from former employees who either quit or were fired.
Among the documents is a personal letter to Perot, dated March 30, 1983, from a woman named Lou Ann King, who was sued after she resigned to take a job with the Rape Crisis Program at the Women's Center in Ft. Worth. In the letter, King implored Perot to drop the suit and also described how she was treated when she turned in her resignation.
"I was told to clean out my desk, escorted out to my car and (had) the sticker torn off," she wrote. "I didn't have a chance to say goodby to my fellow employees."
According to court records, the case was dismissed in December of that year. King could not be located to discuss the circumstances surrounding the dismissal.
In another case, EDS fired an employee named Alfred Clark, then sued him for $9,000. According to the documents, Clark was fired for discussing his sister's salary and comparing it with his own. Clark demanded a jury trial; the suit was eventually dropped.
But in most cases, EDS won in court. A detailed look at 20 cases showed that EDS won 15 of them.
Even after Perot sold EDS, the firm continued to use the promissory note as a way of keeping people from leaving. A Dallas lawyer, Michael Britton, said that on one occasion several years ago he spoke to an estimated 35 people who had been sued for leaving.
It was only in recent years that the policy came to the attention of the Michigan attorney general's office, which deemed the policy to be illegal. Chris DeWitt, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said EDS agreed to alter its hiring practices in Michigan.