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May 24, 2010

One Dumb Manager Remark Costs Firm Big

Filed under: General HR Buzz10:25 am

Note to managers — when making hiring or promotion decisions involving female employees, avoid applying the following standard: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes flex time and a baby carriage.”

Sales managers at giant drugmaker Novartis disregarded that advice. Now the company’s on the hook for $250 million in damages for discriminating against women — and perhaps opening the floodgates for a special type of bias lawsuits.

“Caregiver discrimination” (call it “family responsibility discrimination,” if you prefer) is a concept that’s been bandied about by attorneys for a couple of years now. But the Novartis decision — and its enormous price tag — has brought the issue front and center.

And smart companies are paying attention.

The Lily Ledbetter controversy — and the resulting passage of the Fair Pay Act — brought the problem of gender inequality in salaries into sharp focus. The Novartis decision is likely to do the same for the issue of women trying to juggle family responsibilities and careers.

And don’t forget the recent federal court decision granting class certification in a case against retailer Walmart — what’s being billed as the largest gender discrimination case in the nation.

Not their finest hour

We’d be hard pressed to think of a company that came off looking worse than Novartis did in its recent month-long trial in federal district court in New York. A few high(or low)lights:

  • One manager’s explanation of why he didn’t want to hire young women: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes flex time and a baby carriage”
  • Another manager denied a maternity leave request from a woman who’d just adopted a baby, saying maternity leave was only for women who’d actually given birth, and
  • Still another told a woman he didn’t think she could do here job because “she was a single mother of three children who was going through a divorce.”

There’s more — a lot more — but you get the idea.

Time for HR to step up

So what’s the message here? Simple: The issue of caregiver discrimination is real, and it’s not going to go away.

It’s a symptom of what’s happening in today’s workplace. Employees are finding it harder and harder to juggle increasing work demands and the pressures of the home front — and that goes for men as well as women. Employee morale’s been deflated by wage freezes and the threat of layoffs.

The political timing’s right, too. What with the Obama administration’s pro-employee push — from increased DOL enforcement efforts to a power shift in the National Labor Relations Board — business isn’t exactly getting a lot of good press.

One bright spot in all this: the HR function’s more important than ever. Who else is going to help companies set up fair, equitable promotion, hiring and pay policies — and devise ways to keep employees engaged and motivated?

Case cite: Velez v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals
Source: Tim Gould, HR Morning

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