On the heels of CFO scandal, former Eli Lilly exec alleges intercourse discrimination, harassment in bombshell lawsuit
Eli Lilly faced a high-profile personnel scandal last month when CFO Josh Smiley departed under a cloud of “inappropriate” communication with employees. However, a sex discrimination lawsuit by a former in-house lobbyist exposes a whole new controversy – and offers an alleged glimpse into the culture of a key team.
Sonya Elling, a longtime biopharmaceutical lobbyist who worked on Lilly’s government affairs, sued the company for mistreatment by her superiors for being a woman.
The lawsuit alleges that Elling was once considered a “powerhouse” in biopharmaceutical government affairs, but that her reputation has been “irreparably” damaged by her experience with Lilly.
The allegations paint a picture of a dysfunctional workplace where several women were abused by their superiors – women and men – and eventually evicted.
During Elling’s tenure at the company, her first- and second-level managers called her “mean,” “nasty,” “disturbing,” “rude,” “aggressive”, and a “slut” depending on the suit. They did this because she is a “strong, assertive woman” who does not “conform to traditional gender stereotypes,” the suit reads.
Managers also mocked her looks, attributing their “professional success solely to their physical appearance, despite their outstanding qualifications and job performance,” the lawsuit says.
A Lilly spokeswoman said the company is “committed to promoting and promoting a culture of diversity and respect and a work environment that is free from discrimination, harassment or retaliation of any kind.”
“We hold all employees accountable for our core values and believe that our leaders have an even greater burden to uphold these values,” she added. “Lilly strongly denies the allegations in the lawsuit and will vigorously defend herself against these unfounded allegations.”
Managers allegedly banned Elling from important meetings, belittled her internally and externally, and invented “bogus reasons” to put her on a performance improvement plan, her suit says. A manager “put his crotch at eye level” and grabbed him during meetings, the suit claims.
Eventually the company fired her.
RELATED: Eli Lilly, CFO, resigns – giving up more than $ 24 million in cash and equity – after investigation finds “inappropriate” behavior
Elling joined Lilly in 2003 as a director on the federal government affairs team. In 2005 she became a Senior Director. She didn’t complain about her first decade with Lilly; In fact, the suit says their prior 2019 track record was “pristine”.
Leigh Ann Pusey
In 2017, Lilly Leigh named Ann Pusey senior vice president of corporate affairs.
“Since Ms. Pusey began her tenure at Lilly, she has regularly ridiculed and belittled Ms. Elling and other colleagues,” the lawsuit says, “both within the company and with external stakeholders.”
Pusey called Elling and another employee a “slut” and said Elling couldn’t work with members of Congress because she was “not a cute, young thing,” the suit said.
Lilly’s new SVP also commented on the weight and fashion choices of female colleagues, the suit reads, and “showed a noticeable preference for male colleagues”.
But the situation was not as bad then as it would be, the lawsuit claims. Elling initially reported directly to Joseph Kelley, Lilly’s now former Vice President for Global Government and International Corporate Affairs. Kelley “protected” her and a colleague “from the harsher discriminatory and retaliatory measures that Ms. Pusey tried to take against them,” the lawsuit said.
When Kelley retired in 2019, the company hired Shawn O’Neail as line manager for Elling, and the new CEO openly said he was “hired to clean the house” according to the lawsuit. Eventually, he invented reasons to involve Elling and another employee in performance improvement plans. both eventually left the drug maker, the lawsuit said.
During meetings with Elling and another employee, O’Neail made “sexually aggressive gestures” according to the complaint.
O’Neail told a representative from the PhRMA trade group in the biopharmaceutical industry that he had joined Lilly to create a “clean house,” which was damaging Elling’s reputation, the lawsuit said. During meetings with Elling, O’Neail did not offer job feedback but worked to collect “political information” before firing her, the suit says.
Elling only named Eli Lilly as a defendant in her suit – and decided against naming executives.
She is suing Eli Lilly under the Civil Rights Act, seeking reimbursement, prepayment, emotional distress, reputational damages, and more. She sued Lilly in federal court in Washington, DC.
Aside from her own exit from the drug maker, Elling said several other women have left the company because of their treatment.
The suit follows the high profile exit of Lilly CFO Josh Smiley from the company. Last month, Lilly said Smiley would lose $ 24 million in cash and equity after an investigation found “consensual but inappropriate personal communications between Mr. Smiley and certain Lilly employees.”