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Terminating the Pregnant Employee: Novartis Emails Lay Out the Appalling Tale

Some Novartis (NVS) employees still don't believe their company discriminates against women, but if you read Novartis' internal emails regarding sales reps who get pregnant -- and women in general -- it's not hard to see why the company just got socked with a $250 million discrimination verdict.

Raelene Ryan told Pharmalot that when she got pregnant, "What happened to me was about the worst thing that could happen." If you dig around in the trial testimony you can piece together the emails sent by Ryan's bosses before and after she gave birth to a daughter in 2003.

The one thing that can be learned from all this is that Novartis's HR director, Adrienne Fudge, had a clear idea that Ryan's bosses were trying to schedule her termination with her pregnancy -- an obvious violation of the law. Why HR failed to stop Hansen isn't clear.

To set the scene, here's a quote from Ryan's 2002 Performance Review:

Raelene had solid performance in the key indicators for N2, Lotrel, Zelnorm, Famvir. The territory led the district in growth for both Lotrel and Famvir and finished second in percent achievement for Zelnorm. Her willingness to go the extra mile with both staff and provider is apparent. She is well liked by both her peers and clients.
Jim Hansen, her district manager, may have liked her a bit too much. In testimony, Ryan said:
Q. Did Mr. Hansen ever make inappropriate comments to you?
A. Yes, he did.
Q. What kinds of inappropriate comments would he make?
A. I don't remember specific words but it was dirty jokes, as well as comments about my breasts or my figure.
Q. And how often would Mr. Hansen make these inappropriate comments?
A. Usually during a ride-along and always at district meetings or national sales meetings, any time the whole team was together.
Unfortunately for his employer, Hansen also sent those dirty jokes in emails to his colleagues:
September 5, 2003
To: district managers
From: Jim Hansen, district manager

What doesn't belong on this list? Meat, eggs, wife, blow job?

Answer: You can beat your meat, eggs, or wife, but you can't beat a blow job.

When Ryan became pregnant Hansen asked HR if Ryan could be fired for not keeping up with paperwork regarding the number of drug samples she had given out to doctors. Hansen sent a list of doctors to HR for whom Ryan had not provided the proper paperwork:
April 10, 2003
From: Jim Hansen, district manager
To: Adrienne Fudge, director of HR

I can generate more on this list if needed. Just wondering how much more you would like to see. Obviously looking to fire this person. She is 6 months pregnant, too, just to let you know.

Ten days prior to Ryan going on disability after giving birth, Hansen tried again:
April 15th, 2003
From: Jim Hansen, district manager
To: Bob Kaplan, regional director

Obviously looking for the okay to terminate.

He didn't get it, and so contacted HR later in June:
June 27, 2003
From: Jim Hansen, district manager
To: Adrienne Fudge, director of HR

Adrienne, here is a note from Raelene Ryan. Please advise. As you are aware, she is going to be terminated for falsification once the baby is delivered. As we discussed, we will continue to pay her maternity leave, however, she will be terminated so I can fill the position. Thanks --

Ryan gave birth to a daughter, Ashley, on July 1, 2003. On the same day, Hansen sent an email to his staff saying that Ryan will be terminated for falsifying sample forms. later that month he wrote to HR:
July 23rd, 2003
From: Jim Hansen, district manager
To: Adrienne Fudge, director HR; and Dan Duhart, regional manager

Adrienne, I just received, via e-mail, Raelene Ryan's request for unpaid family leave once her maternity leave runs out. By using the 12 weeks of unpaid leave and her remaining vacation, she would return to work on December 8. I have still not heard back from you regarding our conversation two weeks ago. We have to settle this problem. It is getting out of hand. Please advise.

The "problem" did indeed get out of hand, and Novartis now owes its female reps the better part of $300 million. Hansen, meanwhile, went to Boehringer Ingelheim. Fudge later became a sales rep at Novartis and, according to this testimony, signed a separate discrimination settlement with the company.


Image by Flickr user mahalie, CC 2.0
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