Court documents describe inappropriate behavior by MSL execs

NEW YORK: Court documents filed in the class action lawsuit against MSLGroup and parent Publicis Groupe describe senior male executives at the firm behaving in a derogatory manner towards female employees.

NEW YORK: Court documents filed in the class action lawsuit against MSLGroup and parent Publicis Groupe describe senior male executives at the firm behaving in a derogatory manner towards female employees.

The documents, filed in US District Court in the Southern District of New York, accuse MSL Americas president Jim Tsokanos and Washington MD Neil Dhillon of offensive remarks and behavior directed at female employees.

Tsokanos “regularly made comments about the appearance of his female subordinates” during conference calls and meetings, and made multiple inappropriate remarks “of a sexual nature,” the document says.

In 2003, a female employee filed a written complaint against Tsokanos threatening to take legal action, according to court documents filed in February.

“To go a day without the head of our office staring at my chest in an inappropriate manner…just doesn't happen,” the employee stated.

Tsokanos allegedly said he “need[ed] a big swinging dick to lead the Midwest” while searching for someone to head the Midwest region, a position filled by Joel Curran, SVP and MD for the Midwest, in May 2008. He is also accused of verbally attacking two female SVPs during a meeting in 2010, having a “hostile” attitude towards working mothers with young children; and telling former MSL EVP Wendy Lund in 2009 that he was “imagining her in a porn movie.” Lund is now the CEO of WPP Group firm GCI Health.

The document says Dhillon made it clear to plaintiff Heather Pierce, a working mother, that she would not be offered opportunities within the agency comparable to those offered to male colleagues. In 2008, Dhillon allegedly “stripped down to his boxer shorts and groped several female employees” at a holiday party at his home.

In 2011, a female account supervisor complained to MSL's human resources department after an unnamed male VP told her “she needed to get her big girl panties on” to complete an assignment. That same year, another female employee filed a complaint stating that an unnamed male SVP said “she could not advance because she had a sign on her head that said “I want to get married.'”

“We will continue to defend vigorously against all the plaintiffs' claims and look forward to persuading the court to dismiss them just as the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] dismissed them in 2010,” an MSLGroup spokesperson said in a statement. “MSLGroup always has been and remains an organization committed to equal opportunity for women and all employees in the workplace. MSLGroup stands firm knowing it did nothing wrong, and as the case proceeds, it will show that the case has no merit.”

Monique da Silva, a former healthcare director at MSLGroup, filed the $100 million class action suit in February 2011 seeking to represent women who worked at MSLGroup from 2008 until the date of judgment.

It alleged that MSL and the holding company paid female professionals less; did not promote female PR pros at the same rate as male counterparts; and conducted discriminatory demotions, terminations, and reassignments for female staffers during the agency's 2009 reorganization. It also alleges that da Silva and other female employees were wrongfully terminated after returning from maternity leave and that Tsokanos and MSL CEO Olivier Fleurot created leadership teams consisting of nearly all male executives. 

In April, MaryEllen O'Donohue, Laurie Mayers, Heather Pierce, and Katherine Wilkins were added as plaintiffs to the suit.

A US District Court judge ruled June 29 that the plaintiffs had presented enough evidence of widespread gender pay discrimination to invite other women to join the class action suit. Once other potential plaintiffs are notified, a process that can take several months, MSL and Publicis can still try to decertify the suit by arguing there was no widespread discrimination before a possible trial. Both sides will meet in a court conference on July 20.

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