Novartis in Legal Hot Water — Again

Pharmaceutical company Novartis is in hot water– again. Two female employees in the company’s Alcon eye care products division have filed a lawsuit seeking class action status. The women claim routine discrimination against female employees, which denied them equal pay and opportunities for promotion.

There seems to be a pattern developing. Five years ago, Novartis shelled out more than $152 million to settle a gender-discrimination class action lawsuit filed by female sales representatives.

The latest lawsuit seeks $110 million in damages. According to the New York filing, women occupy less than 15 percent of senior management roles at Alcon, which allegedly contributes to the discrimination. Apparently metrics used to assess performance are subjective and tend to work against female employees.

A Novartis spokeswoman said one of the former employees who filed the suit was fired for violating the company’s code of conduct and said Alcon disputes the allegations and will defend itself against litigation.

The spokeswoman could be referring to Elyse Dickerson, a former global director of pharmaceuticals, named in the suit. Dickerson said she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after not receiving promotions. According to the suit, she was later fired while on a medical leave — right before $750,000 in stock grants would have vested.

Ouch.

The other complainant, Susan Orr, former global director for new product and product strategy, also claims she was bypassed for positions. That the jobs went to less qualified male employees, and that she was paid less than her male counterparts. She apparently saw the writing on the wall and resigned.

We’ll be following the story to see how things shake out. But it’s a lesson to companies. It pays to be fair and equitable across the board. If not, you may have to pay one way or the other — with reputation, cash or both.