The Leaky Pipeline: Second Edition of What Was HR Thinking??

Happy to be back in the blog saddle once again – it’s been a busy month with billable work, so I just know the economy is on the rebound!

Can’t say the same about Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp.  Just read a Reuters article this morning announcing that a New York jury decided on $250M damages against Novartis on behalf of 5,600 past and present women employees, only two days after finding that a U.S. division discriminated against women in pay, promotion and pregnancy (Velez et al v Novartis Corporation, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 04-09194).

What were they thinking?

 The jury found that Novartis systematically denied promotions, paid less and subjected 5,600 women to discrimination up to and during 2004.  Court papers said that the women made complaints to Novartis’ human resources division, which were routinely ignored.

That scares me.

We know that employee behavior is often the product of the pressures of the organizational culture.  And we know that organizational culture often comes from a history of “that’s always been the way we do  things around here.” 

 Aren’t we, as HR professionals, supposed to be able to think and operate outside the confines of an organizational culture, especially when confronted with policies or acts that are in direct conflict with what we know to be the best thing for the organization and the employees?  I suspect that the Novartis HR folks “knew or should have known” that this discrimination was going on.  They were probably told not to worry about it by the execs or legal reps as the inequities were” justified.”  Or they too, got stuck in the rut of a bad culture and found it easier to walk away than put up a fight.

What does that say about the HR pros?  It says they weren’t behaving strategically and putting a strong case in play to move toward a gender equitable environment.

 HR Executive Online points out that it may be no surprise that women outnumber men two-to-one in HR, but make over 30% less than their male colleagues.  Former SHRM chairman Johnny Taylor says it’s because “the senior HR roles are dominated by men.” 

Kate Sweetman, principal with The RBL Group and former editor at the Harvard Business Review adds that “it’s terribly ironic because HR should play a key role in helping women and organizations make changes if the ‘leaky pipeline’ to leadership is ever to be patched.”  She adds that “HR needs to create the business case and help find practical ways for gender equity to happen all the way to the top. HR has failed if they don’t have it from top to bottom.”

 So, did Novartis HR create a “leaky pipeline” fail in this situation?

 In my opinion, yes, they did.  Now where is HR going to find the duct tape?


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