License to Leer? Court Ruling Creates Loophole for Sexual Harassment at Drug Companies

Last Updated Aug 10, 2010 2:44 PM EDT

It's OK for pharmaceutical sales rep managers at Novo Nordisk (NVO) to sexually harass women they supervise as long as those women are breaking the PhRMA sales rep code, according to a federal appeals court ruling. The ruling sends all the wrong messages to the drug industry and its tens of thousands of sales reps: It suggests that male sales supervisors ought to encourage their female sales reps to violate industry standards if they want to leer and grope them at work, and then fire them.

In the case, sales rep Vivian Garriga was a successful rep at Novo Nordisk until March 2007 when she got a new boss, Brian Taylor, the ruling says. Here's what happened that year:
  • Taylor asked everyone at his first district-wide staff meeting in early May to name the celebrity with whom they would like to have sex. Garriga was "speechless."
  • Taylor called Garriga and her work partner, Shannon Duffy, by nicknames that Garriga perceived as sexual in nature and offensive.
  • On May 17, during a two-day "ride-along" in which Taylor accompanied Garriga to her meetings with physicians, Taylor "put his arm around" Garriga in the parking lot of a restaurant. Taylor also "constant[ly]" leered at Garriga's breasts and backside.
  • The same thing happened in June and another ride-along in July.
  • Garriga complained of sexual harassment to Roger Arnell, a human resources representative, but Arnell decided that Garriga's story could not be corroborated.
  • Taylor learned of Garriga's complaint on July 22.
  • On August 1, Taylor placed Garriga on a "coaching worksheet," a tool used by Novo Nordisk to evaluate employee performance and identify skills that need improvement. The coaching worksheet required an employee to spend more time with her supervisor.
  • Garriga and Duffy arranged to pay for a meal for a doctor, his wife and their boyfriends as if it were a training presentation -- a violation of PhRMA rules.
  • Taylor learned of the meal the next day and recommended to HR that Garriga be fired.
  • Novo fired Garriga on Sept. 6.
The court decided that because Garriga's meal was a violation of company policy the firing was OK because it was not in retaliation for her sexual harassment complaint. The ruling ignores two things:
  1. While sales reps should not be buying non-educational meals for doctors, that practice is nonetheless widespread. The idea that Novo was shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that one of its successful reps was using her expenses budget to wine-and-dine influential clients is implausible.
  2. Taylor's response to Garriga's complaint was to place her in a supervision program that gave him more face-time with Garriga. In what way is this a sensible program that discourages sexual harassment?
Novo's HR department was caught napping here. From the company's point of view, they've lost a successful sales rep and replaced her with a supervisor who's a potential liability. The case sends the wrong message to middle management and the industry as a whole. Big Pharma employs tens of thousands of women as sales reps, it relies on them for its revenues. And yet -- as you can see from the related stories list below -- there's a persistent culture of sexualizing and harassing sales reps. It's a shame the courts and Novo's HR department can't see this too.

Instead, the ruling creates a set of perverse incentives for sales managers to continue harassing their female workers by enrolling them in non-compliant sales programs and supervision programs that only enhance their access to the staff they're victimizing.

Related: Image from 1933's Betty Boop's Big Boss.

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