HR Hell at Novartis: Alleged Rape Victim Threatened With "Disciplinary Action"

Last Updated Apr 28, 2010 6:50 PM EDT

Novartis (NVS) must have the human-resources department from hell, according to federal trial testimony from one of its drug reps who was allegedly raped by a customer. Novartis HR staff invited Marjorie Salame to a meeting in a public lounge at the Tampa Airport Marriott where higher-ups asked her to recount the sexual assault in detail and later threatened her with "further disciplinary action" if she ever contacted the alleged rapist again, according to a transcript of the testimony which gives both the victim and her boss's version of events. Salame gave her testimony in a sex-discrimination case that alleges Novartis underpays and under-promotes its female pharmaceutical sales reps. The suit will likely go to a jury in May. It will be a miracle if Novartis prevails, as the story of what happened to Salame in the weeks following May 22, 2002, is a case study of how not to run an HR department.

Salame organized a golf outing for two doctors to help promote Zelnorm, Novartis' irritable bowel syndrome drug. She alleged on the witness stand that one of the doctors stole her car keys, leaving her stranded at night with the other doctor. Her cellphone battery had died. Salame told the court:

A. Generally, what happened, was towards the end of the evening, Dr. [redacted] had joined our party at the golf outing. My keys had ended up missing that night. Eventually, I was isolated, alone from my counterpart, with just Dr. [redacted]. And he held me, against my will, for more than an hour. He groped me, assaulted me, and before returning me to my counterpart, had raped me.
Salame reported the incident to her boss, Joseph Simmons, and to Novartis' HR department. She was then invited to a meeting with Simmons and HR exec Eric Robinson at the local airport hotel, where she was asked to recount what happened while Robinson wrote it down. She said:
A. Having to discuss the details of the night of that assault was extremely difficult. So I looked down. And Mr. Robinson asked me if that was it when I finished. And then he told me to look him in the eyes. And he got up in my face and pointed in my face and told me, "Look me in the eyes when I'm talking to you so I can see that you can hear what I'm saying to you."

And then he started to tell me how I should have had another set of keys. That my phone was low on battery that night, I should have went to a landline. Asking me how much I had to drink. Telling me how I needed to take accountability for what happened that night.

Q. Did Regional Director Robinson say anything else to you?
A. Yes. He said I need to stop calling HR; that HR is not for me; that HR is only for me and my manager, Joseph Simmons.
On June 18, Salame received an email from Simmons, referring to the Marriott meeting. It said:
You agreed to desist from making sales calls at the office of [the two doctors] from June 14, 2002, for the duration of your tenure with Novartis Pharmaceuticals. These conditions include verbal contact such as phone contact or e-mail. Under our agreement, you will have no contact in your capacity as a sales representative of Novartis Pharmaceuticals. Should you fail to adhere to this agreement, we will have no alternative but to take further disciplinary action.
Later, Simmons invited the doctor whom Salame believed had stolen her keys to a meeting, at which he sat down next to her.

When Simmons took the stand, he testified that the alleged rapist had called him the next day and admitted he'd had sex with Salame, and apologized for his behavior. But, Simmons said, he didn't tell the police that when they investigated:

Q. Well, you failed to tell the police detective that Dr. [redacted] had apologized to you on the phone saying that one thing led to another, and that he didn't want his wife to find out about the allegations; isn't that true?
A. Yes.

Q. You didn't tell that to the police, did you?

A. No.

... Q. You didn't give that information to the police in connection with an investigation into a rape, isn't that true?

A. Yes.

Q. And, instead, in fact, you told police detective that Dr. [redacted] advised you that he didn't remember what happened, didn't you?

A. Yes.

Q. And so you -- it was your intent, with that, to mislead the police; wasn't it?

A. No.

Although the incident was investigated, police brought no charges. Nonetheless, from a management point of view Novartis seems to have broken every common sense practice in the book:

If an employee is raped, managers should disclose their evidence truthfully to the authorities. If HR needs to meet with a victim, it should probably use female staff to do so, not two men. The meeting should take place in a private place where no one can overhear. And HR staff probably shouldn't threaten staff whom they believe have been assaulted by the company's own customers.

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Image by Flickr user Simon Bonaventure, CC.