An ex-lobbyist has sued pharma giant Eli Lilly, alleging sexual discrimination and harassment, and accusing one executive of ‘sexual self-groping’ during meetings

The logo of Lilly is seen on a wall of the Lilly France company unit, part of the Eli Lilly and Co drugmaker group, in Fegersheim near Strasbourg, France, February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
The logo of Lilly is seen on a wall of the Lilly France company unit, part of the Eli Lilly and Co drugmaker group, in Fegersheim near Strasbourg

  • Former lobbyist Sonya Elling sued Eli Lilly, saying the behavior of high-ranking staff forced her to resign.
  • The lawsuit claimed a senior vice-president at the pharma giant demeaned female employees.
  • An exec also engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior in the office, the lawsuit, filed Friday, said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A former top lobbyist for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly accused a high-ranking executive and another senior manager of engaging in sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against women in its Washington D.C. office, according to a lawsuit filed Friday.

The suit, filed in federal court by in-house lobbyist Sonya Elling, alleges that a Lilly senior vice-president, Leigh Ann Pusey, repeatedly demeaned Elling and other women, and eventually forced Elling to resign. Elling’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for lost pay and alleged reputational and emotional harm.

Pusey, senior vice-president of corporate affairs and communications, was one of CEO Dave Ricks’s first appointments when he took the role in 2017.

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Eli Lilly is the only named defendant in the suit. Pusey did not respond to requests for comment.

A Lilly spokeswoman denied the allegations in the suit.

“Lilly is committed to fostering and promoting a culture of diversity and respect, and a work environment free of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation of any kind,” the spokeswoman said. “We hold all employees accountable to our core values and believe our executives carry an even higher burden in ensuring those values are upheld.”

The lawsuit comes as other allegations of inappropriate or retaliatory actions by Lilly executives against employees at Lilly have surfaced. Last month, Lilly announced that the company’s chief financial officer, Josh Smiley, resigned after Lilly said in a securities filing that he had engaged in “consensual though inappropriate personal communications” with employees. Smiley declined to comment.

Reuters reported earlier this month that a former Lilly human resources manager alleged she had been forced out of her job because she repeatedly raised concerns with executives about manufacturing problems at a New Jersey factory. Lilly told Reuters it has rigorous quality assurance programs in place and welcomes employee feedback.

Elling had worked as an in-house lobbyist for Lilly since 2003, rising to become a senior director in 2005.

Pusey, named to her post in the wake of former president Donald Trump’s election, has worked for several Republican leaders and organizations including the Republican National Committee, according to her online Lilly executive bio.

The suit alleges that Elling and other women were subjected to sexist comments by Pusey and another senior manager, including that they were “nasty,” “b*****s,” “disruptive,” “aggressive,” and “rude.” Pusey regularly mocked Elling’s appearance and that of other women while noticeably treating male employees more favorably, the suit states.

In 2018, according to the suit, another woman lobbyist at Lilly filed an internal complaint against Pusey, alleging that she had created a hostile workplace and made several offensive comments about Elling and others. That lobbyist is not named in the lawsuit.

In May of that year, a Lilly human resources investigator interviewed Elling about the other lobbyist’s complaint, which Elling corroborated, the suit said. Ultimately the investigator found the complaint to have merit, according to the suit.

Exec engaged in “sexual self-groping” during meetings, lawsuit says

After that, the lawsuit said, Pusey began to exclude Elling and others who participated in the complaint investigation from briefings of senior leaders.

In 2019, Pusey hired an executive, Democrat Shawn O’Neail, to directly supervise Elling and other lobbyists, the suit states. O’Neail engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior in the office, including “sexual self-groping,” during meetings with Elling in her office, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges that O’Neail had a history of misogynist and racist conduct at pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, where he had previously worked, and that he once used the N-word to refer to a Black executive at a rival drug company. The company, Pfizer, declined to comment.

O’Neail, who was not named as a defendant in the suit, did not respond to requests for comment. Novartis declined to comment.

O’Neail was brought in to “clean house” by terminating Elling and another employee, the lawsuit said. According to the suit, O’Neail falsely accused Elling of making disparaging statements about Lilly to congressional staff. He eventually put Elling on a job performance improvement plan, according to the suit.

On December 1, 2019, Elling sent a resignation email to top executives, saying she was forced into the decision due to Pusey and O’Neail’s discrimination and retaliation against her, the suit said.

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A new study has linked the rise in anti-Asian online hate speech with President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 rhetoric

trump grifting
President Donald Trump.

  • The Anti-Defamation League said online hate speech aimed at Asian Americans rose last year.
  • Rhetoric from President Donald Trump and other leaders fueled the rise, a study said.
  • ADL saw an “85% increase in anti-Asian sentiment on Twitter” after Trump got COVID-19.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As President Donald Trump and other US officials last year referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” the “Kung Flu,” and other incendiary nicknames, a chorus of commentators warned that their rhetoric would lead to an increase in harassment and hateful speech.

“There is no blame in this,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director at the World Health Organization, when asked about Trump’s language in March 2020.

Now, a newly published study by the Anti-Defamation League has shown that the pandemic corresponded with a rise in hate speech and harassment on social networks aimed at Asian Americans. While it’s difficult to quantify the effects of the president’s comments, the study said some of that rise could be attributed to Trump’s statements.

Online harassment aimed at Asian Americans jumped about six percentage points in 2020 and early 2021, the largest rise for any group of people during the same period, according to a study published this week by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL.)

About 17% of Asian Americans reported “severe” online harassment, up from 11% in the same earlier period, according to the study. In the same time period, online harassment reported by all Americans on social networks dipped about three points.

The survey added to previously published data about the rise of anti-Asian American speech since the start of the pandemic. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco said this month that Trump’s first tweet with the term “China virus” triggered a rise in anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter.

Kung Flu protest sign at rally against violence against Asian Americans
A rally against the rising violence against Asian Americans in Manhattan last week.

The ADL study also linked the rise in anti-Asian American sentiment on social networks and in the real world directly to Trump’s “incendiary rhetoric” about the coronavirus.

“The spike in physical violence against Asian-Americans across the nation was whipped up in large part by bigotry and conspiracy theories that grew online, fanned by national leaders,” including Trump, the study said.

ADL said its researchers saw an “85 percent increase in anti-Asian sentiment on Twitter” after news broke that Trump had COVID-19.

Late last year, Twitter updated its policies around hate speech, saying in part it had developed “longer, more in-depth” training for its internal teams.

ADL said such efforts by tech companies haven’t yet made a difference.

“Although technology companies insist they have taken robust action to address users’ safety and remove harmful content throughout the past year, this report finds scant difference in the number of Americans who experienced online hate and harassment,” said the study released this week.

Since Trump departed office, there’s been an uptick in leaders voicing concern about hate speech and violence toward Asian Americans.

On January 26, a few days after Biden took office, he issued a memo condemning hate speech against Asian Americans. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi said he commended President Joe Biden for taking a stance against xenophobia toward Asian Americans.

“President Trump weaponized racism and xenophobia in 2020 by calling COVID-19 the ‘Kung Flu Virus’ and we are still witnessing increased hate speech and violence as a result,” Krishnamoorthi said.

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Investigations of workplace harassment or sexism claims have intensified under ‘#MeToo scrutiny’ but that doesn’t guarantee they’re legitimate

Empty office coronavirus
  • There is no one standard way to conduct a workplace investigation, experts told Insider.
  • But generally, they must include an impartial investigator who interviews all parties involved, quickly secures all evidence and is able to reach “reasoned” conclusions.
  • The focus on workplace investigations heightened amid the #MeToo movement, urging boards of directors to better screen their companies and nonprofits for issues.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The process is familiar: A complaint or allegation is lodged or publicized. Calls for action are made. The accused party makes a statement and announces plans to launch an investigation.

That was the case earlier this month when McDonald’s announced it would look into sexual harassment claims brought forward by its employees. And when the MLB released a statement saying it would investigate claims of inappropriate behavior by former Cleveland Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway. As well as when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo referred sexual harassment allegations brought against him by multiple women to the state’s attorney general.

These internal and third-party investigations are generally designed to determine the validity of serious allegations in the workplace.

But there are many ways they can be invalidated or illegitimized, according to employment law experts and workplace investigators. Some even say companies and organizations sometimes conduct sham investigations that might amount to nothing more than a PR stunt.

Here’s what we learned:

Most workplace issues don’t get reported because of fear of retaliation.

Oftentimes an investigation is launched when an employee contacts an HR rep or reports an allegation to management. That’s the case for about 90% of employers, according to Jared Pope, HR attorney and founder of Work Shield, an employer strategy company that conducts workplace investigations.

Still, about 75% of workplace issues don’t get reported because of a fear of retaliation or other negative repercussions, Pope told Insider.

“Members of management teams have an obligation to ensure that employee complaints are taken seriously and properly investigated to bring a halt to misconduct and apply appropriate remedies,” said Natalie Ivey CEO of HR development firm Results Performance Consulting and author of “How to Conduct Internal Investigations.”

Other times, investigations sprout after allegations arise in media reports, such as Insider’s report that found top male leadership at United Way had engaged in misogyny for decades.

“It’s a toss-up,” Pope told Insider. “Most issues don’t get reported due to fear and those that get covered in the media are those that were once raised to a supervisor, manager, or HR (human resources), but not acted upon or dealt with appropriately in a prompt and reasonable manner.”

Just “a fraction” of companies actually follow up on anonymous allegations, said Juliette Gust, president of Ethics Suite, a workplace misconduct reporting channel.

The goal of all investigations is to determine the credibility of misconduct claims. But credibility is hard to quantify and depends on a lot of factors like how public and exhaustive the results are, according to experts who spoke with Insider. And the investigation’s credibility also depends on whether companies and organizations take allegations seriously as soon as they are disclosed.

Additionally, employers and third-party investigators can often employ different protocols, leading to inconsistency in how investigations are carried out.

There is no one way to conduct an investigation.

But experts generally agree that a valid investigation must meet the following parameters:

  • There must be a known system in place that employees feel able to use to come forward with any allegations.
  • Investigators must quickly collect and preserve any physical and digital evidence that pertains to any allegations.
  • Investigators are expected to interview all complainant(s), witnesses, and subjects.
  • After collecting evidence, investigators must analyze it and reach reasoned conclusions.
  • The investigator must be impartial and well-trained.

“While there are no nation-wide codified standard practices governing how internal workplace investigations are conducted, there are standard practices,” said workplace investigator Lorene Schaefer.

Such standards often derive from guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that investigates workplace sex discrimination and retaliation.

For publicly traded companies, the Justice Department has a document outlining the steps to carry out a proper investigation, Gust of Ethics Suite said. Private companies, however, don’t have a single method to turn to. And variables like geographic areas and type of entities can also alter the course of an investigation and its results.

“So while there are some standards for preparation, collection and analysis of evidence, reaching conclusions and presenting findings – there are going to be some differences in how investigations are conducted even within different parts of the same organization because of those variables,” Ivey told Insider.

There’s an argument in favor of enforcing set standards to conduct an investigation. Pope, for example, said a standard “by which to judge others” would be helpful and a solid step in allowing “employee’s voices to be heard” more efficiently.

Gust told Insider she believes it would “not be realistic to expect all organizations to adhere to the same codified set standard for investigations.” Different organizations and companies, she said, have different resources and skillsets, which complicates the notion of a set standard across the board.

Ivey said it’s far more important that a well-trained investigator handles the case than it is for there to be a codified system in place.

Without well-trained investigators who are able to remain impartial, collect documents effectively, and analyze evidence, the results of an investigation might not be complete or present an accurate portrayal of internal affairs.

In the event that an investigation is carried out unjustly or without adhering to these general standards, afflicted parties can often seek recourse in state and federal courts, Schaefer said.

The ‘#MeToo scrutiny’ intensified workplace probes.

According to Schaefer, boards of directors across the country felt “intense scrutiny” resulting from the #MeToo movement, which galvanized a culture of speaking out against sexual abuse and misconduct.

The “scrutiny” came as investors alleged “Board of Directors were aware of executives’ alleged harassment and misconduct and failed to take action or disclose it,” Schaefer said. In nonprofits, the same pressure ramped up.

In turn, boards of directors began to more heavily question whether they provide sufficient oversight “to mitigate and manage claims of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, retaliation,” she said.

“This #MeToo scrutiny of boards of directors and their response to the #MeToo movement is not going away,” Schaefer said. “If anything, I predict the spotlight of scrutiny is going to get brighter and more intense with more investor/donor activism.”

A 2020 report published by the National Women’s Law Center and the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund found that 72% of people who experienced harassment in the workplace were retaliated against when they spoke up. Of the people surveyed who reported the harassment, nearly two in five said their perpetrators had not been held accountable.

United Way in February released the results of an investigation into allegations of misogyny and retaliation from former employees.

Three women who spoke up about sexual harassment said they faced retaliation for doing so in a November report from HuffPost, and more former employees came forward to Insider in December with allegations that the nonprofit’s culture of misogyny spanned decades.

United Way CEO Brian Gallagher.
United Way CEO Brian Gallagher.

The investigation carried out by a third-party law firm at the behest of United Way Worldwide found “the employment decisions made with respect to the three employees at issue were found to be based on legitimate, non-discriminatory, and non-retaliatory reasons.”

Neither United Way nor Proskauer Rose, the law firm that conducted the investigation, returned requests for comment asking whether the investigation hit the standards outlined by these experts.

Shortly after its release, United Way’s CEO Brian Gallagher resigned. But the women who had come forward with the allegations to Insider said they were never contacted to participate in the internal investigation.

That could be for several reasons, investigators said. An organization might deliberately choose not to contact former employees because they “may be in an adversarial position against the company,” Gust said.

It could also just be a public relations stunt, Pope said.

Workplace investigations that do not contact complainants generally have little merit and are “suspicious,” Merrick Rossein, an employment-law consultant and professor at the CUNY School of Law, told Insider.

“If the people who made the complaints have not been interviewed by this third party, then you can say there was no real investigation,” Rossein added.

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Facebook is building an instagram app for kids under 13, led by the former head of YouTube Kids

Instagram app
The log of the Instagram app on a smartphone.

  • Facebook is building an Instagram app for kids under 13, BuzzFeed News reported Thursday.
  • The project will be led by Pavni Diwanji, who previously led YouTube’s kid-focused products.
  • Facebook has faced backlash over the safety and mental health impacts of such products.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Facebook-owned Instagram is planning to build a version of its app targeted specifically toward children under 13, BuzzFeed News reported Thursday.

“We have identified youth work as a priority for Instagram and have added it to our H1 priority list, Instagram vice president of product Vishal Shah said in an internal memo, according to BuzzFeed.

“We will be building a new youth pillar within the Community Product Group to focus on two things: (a) accelerating our integrity and privacy work to ensure the safest possible experience for teens and (b) building a version of Instagram that allows people under the age of 13 to safely use Instagram for the first time,” Shah added, according to BuzzFeed.

Currently, Instagram policies prohibit children under 13 from using the app, though a parent or manager can manage an account on their behalf.

BuzzFeed News reported the kid-focused version will be overseen by Instagram head Adam Mosseri and led by Pavni Diwanji, a Facebook vice president who previously led YouTube Kids and other child-focused products at the Google subsidiary.

“Increasingly kids are asking their parents if they can join apps that help them keep up with their friends. Right now there aren’t many options for parents, so we’re working on building additional products – like we did with Messenger Kids – that are suitable for kids, managed by parents,” a Facebook spokesperson told Insider in a statement.

We’re exploring bringing a parent-controlled experience to Instagram to help kids keep up with their friends, discover new hobbies and interests, and more,” they added.

But Facebook’s push to draw young children into its app ecosystem is likely to draw scrutiny given its track record on privacy, preventing abuse and harassment, and scandals involving its Messenger Kids app.

BuzzFeed’s report comes just days after Instagram published a blog post introducing new child safety features, including AI-powered tools to guess users’ ages – despite acknowledging “verifying people’s age online is complex and something many in our industry are grappling with.”

Facebook’s stepped-up efforts to protect children follow years of reports that rampant bullying, child sex abuse material, and child exploitation exists on its platform, and some research suggests the problem may be getting worse.

A November report by the UK-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found Instagram was the most widely used platform in child grooming cases in the early months of the pandemic, being used in 37% of cases, up from 29% in the past three years. The US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said in 2020, Facebook and its family of apps reported 20.3 million instances of possible child abuse on their platforms.

Facebook said in January that its AI systems “proactively” catch 99% of child exploitation content before it’s reported by users or researchers – however, that number doesn’t account for content that goes unreported.

In 2019, a privacy flaw in Facebook’s Messenger Kids app also allowed thousands of children to enter chats with strangers, and Facebook secretly built an app that paid teens to give it extensive access to their phone and internet usage data, before Apple forced Facebook to shutter the app for violating its App Store policies.

That same year, the Federal Trade Commission hit Facebook with a $5 billion fine over privacy violations – though privacy advocates have argued that it did little to prevent Facebook from scooping up user data.

Other tech platforms have had missteps as well when it comes to protecting children’s privacy online. Google reached a $170 million settlement with the FTC to settle allegations that YouTube illegally collected kids’ data without their parents consent. In September, a British researcher filed a $3 billion lawsuit against YouTube, alleging it illegally showed “addictive” content at children under the age of 13 and harvested their data for targeted ads.

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