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Will "Donut" Incident in Sex-Harassment Suit Finally Get Bayer's Attention?

The class action sex discrimination case against Bayer (BAYRY) was once a rather boring affair, filled with dry stuff about disparate pay rates and missed promotions for women with perfect work records. Yesterday it was updated with the kind of narrative sizzle that juries pay attention to: Specifically, what will likely come to be known as the "donut-in-the-elevator" incident, among other gossipy tidbits.

Legally, the claim has a potentially high liability for Bayer because of its boring bits: A similar case against Novartis (NVS) resulted in a $250 million verdict against the company. Novartis lost that case because it went to a jury even though one of the plaintiffs claimed Novartis threatened to fire her after she was raped by one of her customers. The Bayer case now has that kind of drama inside it. Whether Bayer's management, based thousands of miles away in Leverkusen, Germany, fully grasps this is an open question.

Vera Santangelo, a financial specialist in Bayer's consumer care unit claims she was cornered in an elevator while eating a donut by a repeat harasser:

During the elevator ride, Ms. Santangelo could see Defendant Scott eyeing her body and the oblong-shaped donut in her hand. When the elevator reached her floor, she told Defendant Scott to have a nice day. At that point, he grabbed her arm and whispered, "Not as nice of a day as if I could watch that whole donut slide down your throat."
Why don't you just stop taking the elevator?
None of this will be news to Bayer, as Santangelo reported the incident to the company's hotline, its ombudsman, the HR department, the vice president and assistant general counsel, and the former and the current presidents of Bayer's consumer care unit. None of them did anything about it, she alleges:
For example, when she explained to Manager Brachfeld that being in an elevator with Defendant Scott made her uncomfortable, he replied, "Why don't you just stop taking the elevator?"
The Bayer hotline -- for employees to make anonymous complaints about management -- was not particularly hot, according to the suit. When you call it, all that happens is that the voice on the other end asks you to call back in two weeks, Santangelo claims.

In October 2010, months after the $250 million Novartis case made headlines, Bayer published an "Executive News Summary," the suit claims:

... the Executive Committee distributed an article that suggested the superiority of men for management roles. Labeling women "the fairer sex," the article described women as prone to "mood swings," "indecision," and "backstabbing."
The article stated that a majority of men and women polled prefer to work for a male manager because men are "easier to deal with" and "much less likely to have a hidden agenda, suffer mood swings or get involved in office politics."
The article concluded that "women with power are 'loose canons' who often feel threatened by colleagues."
And then there's this weird claim, which has nothing to do wth gender discrimination but is likely to resonate with an American jury:
... in early 2009, Defendant Oelrich called Ms. [Karen] Salomon [Bayer's associate director of market intelligence] into his office and questioned her at length regarding her Jewish heritage and religion. During that meeting, he asked Ms. Salomon, "Why would a Jew like you work for a German company?" Ignoring her confusion and discomfort, he continued by needling her about how her Jewish family felt about her decision to work at Bayer. During this conversation, which lasted approximately 30 minutes, he asked Ms. Salomon to "explain [her]self."
Does the head know what the body is doing?
Bayer denies the claims:
As before, Bayer denies the allegations of gender discrimination and will vigorously defend itself against these claims. Bayer will not comment further on pending litigation, other than to repeat that it is committed strongly to a policy of non-discrimination and equal treatment for all employees."
The suit hints that part of the problem lies in Bayer's management structure. The company was originally German and the corporate HQ remains in Germany even though the largest portion of its business is in the U.S. That separation may have allowed problems in the U.S. to seem distant to the company's senior executives, even though on a revenue basis Bayer is now an American company that has some offices in Germany.

In Europe, liabilities in employment cases tend to be small, with awards coming in at under €1 million. It's not clear that Bayer understands that in the U.S. cases now stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Image by Flickr user mahalie, CC
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