In a Letter to Employees, Alcon Chief Defends Company's Culture for Women

In a Letter to Employees, Alcon Chief Defends Company Culture for Women
March 25, 2015
By Alex Keown, Breaking News Staff

FORT WORTH, Texas – In the wake of a $110 million gender discrimination lawsuit filed last week against Alcon Laboratories, Inc. , a division of Novartis AG , Jeff George, global head of Alcon, defended the company in an internal letter to employees.

In the letter, George said Alcon “strongly disputes the allegations” and that the company “will vigorously defend ourselves in litigation,” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Wednesday.

“We do not tolerate any form of harassment or discrimination, and these allegations are not a reflection of Alcon’s culture,” George said.

In their lawsuit, the two plaintiffs, Elyse Dickerson and Susan Orr, say the company specifically violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits gender discrimination by employers, and the U.S. Equal Pay Act. Both charge they were paid less than their male counterparts and that the company created a boy’s club atmosphere that created a hostile environment for female employees.

The plaintiffs say women make up less than 15 percent of leadership positions at Alcon. Additionally the lawsuit says male doctors who were viewed as “key opinion makers” were provided prostitutes by the company and many senior male staff repeatedly took younger male colleagues to strip clubs, out for cocktails or to play golf, while women employees were not invited, the Dallas Business Journal reported.

In the letter to employees, George said that Alcon has made progress since 2013 when it introduced some diversity programs designed at increasing the number of women in leadership roles, the Star-Telegram reported. Following the filing of the lawsuit, a spokesperson for parent company Novartis said the company is “deeply committed to equal employment opportunity for all employees and to preventing discrimination.”

In 2010 Novartis was ordered to pay more than $250 million in a separate class action that alleged widespread gender discrimination. At the time the judgment was awarded it was the largest discrimination judgment in U.S. history. Following that judgment, Novartis agreed to implement reforms to prevent further discrimination.

Dickerson, a former global director for Alcon, said she was fired from her position for complaining about inequalities she saw at work. She is seeking $10 million plus a return to her position. Dickerson began working for Alcon in 2002, but said she earned less than her male counterparts, according to the lawsuit.

Although he did not name her specifically, George made a reference to Dickerson in the letter, stating she was fired for “serious violations” of the Novartis Code of Conduct and other internal policies, the paper reported.

Orr is a former research scientist at the company who resigned due to being passed over for promotions. She is seeking $100 million for herself and others as part of a class action lawsuit. Orr, who worked for the company since 1997, said she was “paid less than similarly-situated male employees, who received higher base salaries, higher bonuses, and more stock equity grants.” She left the company in 2014.

Alcon manufactures contact lens solution and other eye care products. Swiss-based Novartis acquired Alcon in 2010 for $51.6 billion.

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