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Can a top sales rep be a victim of pregnancy, sex discrimination?

You might think it doesn't make much sense for a multinational corporation to discriminate against its top sales representatives, but corporations often make employment law decisions that don't make sense, except from a certain perspective. One of the most successful salespeople at the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., Inc., has just filed a federal class action for gender discrimination, claiming that Merck's policies toward maternity leave and parenting issues forces women to choose between motherhood and success. She is seeking at least $100 million in compensation for women put in that position by Merck.

The woman was hired by Merck in 2004 as a sales rep in Toms River, New Jersey, and she had every success. She won numerous awards and achieving top sales numbers for her district -- until 2009, when she took maternity leave.

When she returned, she was told she had been demoted. While her supervisor did not say taking maternity leave itself was a problem, he did tell her that the timing of her leave had prompted the company’s decision. Furthermore, she was told that she wouldn’t be eligible for the company’s prestigious annual sales award in 2011. Her entire sales group -- even those with lower sales numbers than she -- won the award that year, except for a woman with children and a man too newly hired to qualify.

The top rep looked into Merck’s policies and found that the sales quotas and plans have the effect of punishing women for failing to make sales during maternity leave. Moreover, the policies create a direct incentive for supervisors to discriminate because, when an employee makes no sales for an extended break, such as during maternity leave, Merck’s policies actually reduce the manager’s compensation.

Additionally, one of the rewards for sales success is movement up into top corporate circles where employees build crucial contacts -- and that reward is denied to women who take maternity leave. Finally, she says, when she alerted Merck to the problem she was retaliated against.

If the class action is approved, the woman hopes to obtain compensation for women who work or worked for Merck in 2009 and after. Merck, the world’s third highest-selling pharmaceutical company, had no comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

Source: Philly.com, “Lawsuit alleges Merck discriminates against women,” Associated Press, May 9, 2013

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