The astonishing tale of sexual harassment at Astra USA

But the way in which Astra seemingly conducted its investigation raises questions. For one thing, Bildman got directly involved. Not long after Bell filed her complaint, she says Bildman called her at her hotel. Lars was very concerned about that night,'' Bell recalls. ``He asked me: `Did I feel my job was in jeopardy? Did I feel pressured?''' Bell says that Bildman even told her not to tell Thurston he had called. It was clear, Bell says, that Bildman ``was trying to cover himself.''

At a national sales meeting soon after, Kurz was called out of a meeting and ushered into Bildman's penthouse hotel suite. ``It was very intimidating,'' she recalls, ``just me and Lars.'' During a long discussion, she says Bildman told her he was going to fire somebody else who had vocally pursued a separate harassment complaint. Then, he directed her into another room to meet Yon, the general counsel, and to sign an affidavit about the dinner-and-dancing evening. The affidavit, Kurz says, merely stated that she hadn't been harassed by Bildman himself that evening. ``They were very careful in the questions they asked,'' says Kurz, who felt she had no choice but to sign. ``It was clear they were trying to protect Lars.''

Few women protested such treatment during training. Most were in their mid-20s, and Astra was their first or second job after college. ``People were inexperienced,'' says Ann Marie Nowak, who left in 1991. ``They don't really know what's appropriate or inappropriate in a business setting.''

Still others say they believed complaining would be tantamount to quitting. Just weeks into a new job, most weren't prepared to do so. ``I kept telling myself: `The training is only for two months, and then I'll be out in the field,''' recalls one ex-rep.

Of course, some women who gave top execs the cold shoulder found that their careers did not suffer. And there were others who openly responded to the attention from senior managers. Some were naturally flirtatious and enjoyed the party atmosphere. A few perhaps hoped to improve their careers in the age-old tradition of the casting couch. Inside Astra, these women became known as The Chosen. Long after training was over, they were frequently seen with senior managers at dinners and other corporate functions. Vogel insists that reps who sat with Bildman were chosen ``strictly based on performance.''

But those who thought the harassment would end with training soon found they were mistaken. For each of its two main divisions, Astra held three national sales meetings each year. With Bildman and other top executives typically attending each weeklong meeting, the drunken partying and harassment began anew. ``I'd get my package in the mail, and I'd start feeling sick,'' says Webb.

The gung-ho partying often turned boisterous. At one Fort Lauderdale meeting, dozens of men in tuxedos and women ended up in the hotel swimming pool. Many ended up sleeping on the pool lounge chairs that night. At another meeting, held at the exclusive Sagamore resort in upstate New York in 1991, the partying got so out of control, say several people present, that people threw dishes out the window and burned furnishings in the fireplace. After hotel managers threatened to call the police, the group checked out the next morning. ``Their behavior was unbelievably unprofessional,'' says a hotel official. ``I've never known this to happen with a corporate group.''

At other meetings, much of the late-night action took place at invitation-only parties in managers' suites. Michelle Porter, a former rep who left in 1991, recalls going to one such party in Bildman's quarters. After much eating and drinking, Porter started to leave when everyone else did. Bildman asked her to stay, and he ducked into another room. ``All of a sudden, he came out wearing a robe,'' she recalls. ``I said: `I want to leave.' He grabbed my arm, and said: `I want to talk to you.''' Porter quickly left.

``THIS ONE'S MINE.'' Ed Aarons was another object of many complaints. During one late-night party at a 1993 sales meeting, Webb recalls, Aarons grabbed her by the neck in a corridor, tried to kiss her, and bellowed: ``Hands off. This one's mine.'' Aarons, she says, ``was reeking of alcohol. I kept thinking: `I've got to get away.''' But when she tried to leave, Aarons became belligerent and berated her manager for giving her permission to leave. In his written statement, Aarons denied that he was drunk or that he had tried to kiss Webb or harass her in any way.

Although Astra's parent insists it didn't know about the goings-on at its U.S. subsidiary, many sources say that when Europeans visited from headquarters, they, too, became involved. Lisa D. Hall, a 1992 trainee, recalls that Roadman asked her to come to the bar to entertain visiting execs. ``These were VPs, high-level people,'' says Hall, a black former rep who left in 1994 after twice taking disability leave; the circumstances are under dispute. ``Roadman told me to be friendly to them.'' The Swedes, she says, ``liked black girls.''

Several people also remember a 1994 visit of Andreas Feulner, president of Astra's German subsidiary and a member of the company's executive committee. At one evening function, a former rep says Feulner came up behind her, ``grabbed my butt, and pulled me toward him. He said: `I want you to come sit with me.''' She says she had never met Feulner before. Later that night, after being pressured to have her picture taken with him, former rep Webb claims that Feulner ``tried to put his room passkey into my hand. He told me to wait up there.'' Webb says she refused to take the key. Feulner denies all the allegations: ``I can assure you that I never grabbed any women...on the buttocks,'' he said in a written response, adding that he had also not asked any women to join him in his room or given them his key.

OBSESSION. Webb says she later told her manager about the incident and asked him to file a complaint. He agreed to do so, she says, but ``he told me a lot of people had filed complaints in the past and it hadn't worked.'' She says she never heard another word about her complaint.

Although the obsession with sex was strongest during training and sales meetings, former staffers say its influence spread throughout the culture. Women who were Bildman's favorites would often deal with him directly, say several former male managers, while higher-level male managers rarely talked to the CEO. Others say they didn't dare discipline laggard female reps with links to the top for fear of losing their own jobs. ``If someone in your district is close to Lars, it's hands off,'' alleges one longtime insider who recently left.

Many sources also contend that women who were either physically attractive or close to top managers seemed to get bigger bonuses and do better generally in their careers. Bush, for instance, complains in her EEOC filing that she was fired for poor performance at the same time that another female rep, with worse sales figures, was retained. This rep, Bush alleges, was having an affair with a regional manager. And in her EEOC filing, Webb charges that her roommate during training had an affair with Roadman. The woman later was among the first in her class to be promoted to district manager. Although several reps say the woman was a good performer who may have deserved the promotion, the appearance of favoritism remained.

There were other problems as well. Given the signals from the top, some lower-level male managers allegedly took them as a license to act in a similar manner. After Kim Cote began working in the Boston area in late 1992, her then-manager, Mark Hollands, began traveling in her car as she made her rounds. She claims Hollands would touch her inappropriately and would recount scenes from lurid novels he read, suggesting that Cote ``could fit nicely in this'' scene. Although he praised her performance in person, Cote claims, when she didn't respond, Hollands began criticizing her in written evaluations. When she didn't receive a raise she says she had been promised earlier, Cote says she finally confronted Hollands. According to Cote, Hollands responded: ``You know what I want. I know what you want. What are you going to do about it?'' Cote's reaction: ``I said: `I'm not going to sleep with you.''' In a written statement, Hollands proclaimed his ``absolute and complete denial of those allegations.''

Cote says she protested to Vogel but never heard anything about her complaint again. Vogel agrees that Cote lodged a complaint and says he investigated, following Astra's complaint procedure. After interviewing Hollands and Cote, he says he passed the complaint on to personnel, where Cote's allegation was found to have ``no basis in reality.'' Yet Vogel concedes he only phoned personnel and never filed a written complaint. Nor did he speak to Cote further or follow up. She left the company two months later under conditions that are under dispute. Cote reached a partial settlement with Astra in 1994 and on Apr. 29 filed a follow-up suit against Hollands.

Of course, many other lower-level male managers were appalled by such behavior. The conundrum they faced, however, was what to do. Former rep Mashaan Guy says that if he saw a woman in an awkward situation, for example, he would join the conversation. He also counseled women on how to deflect the attention. But the culture left him so angry he eventually quit. ``A few times, I wanted to deck one of these guys,'' he says. ``I felt powerless and embarrassed as a man.''

Former manager Thurston says he and a small group of male managers frequently discussed the impact harassment was having on morale. In part, they were also worried for their own reputations: They feared that all men at Astra would be tagged as harassers. Finally, Thurston says he approached his boss, Vogel, and told him the harassment was harming the company. But Thurston says the male managers had little ability to force change. ``What you wanted to say was: `Lars, keep your pants on, and we wouldn't have this problem,''' he says. ``But you couldn't do it. It was a totally autocratic company. Whatever Lars said, goes.'' Vogel denies that there is any generalized harassment problem at Astra or that any manager ever spoke to him about it.

With most of the female reps out in the field, there were fewer overt problems at headquarters. But similar attitudes toward women seemed to prevail. One notable example: a glossy calendar distributed through the building in early 1991, called The Astra Glamour Girls. It featured photos of home-office employees in suggestive poses, complete with makeup, fancy clothes, and come-hither looks. Four sources involved, including the photographer who took the pictures, say the calendar was created as a gift for Bildman, though Astra denies that allegation.

STIFLED. Women who objected to Astra's climate soon found their own conduct under scrutiny. About a year after the calendar appeared, one of the women in it, Nanette Corcoran, filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in which she alleged that ``women at Astra have been continually subjected to sexual harassment.'' In response, Astra denied that Corcoran had ever been harassed. Instead, the company attacked Corcoran for what it called ``inappropriate and unprofessional conduct.'' In one incident, Astra stated, ``it was reported to Corcoran's superiors that Corcoran would socialize with various [trainees] following training sessions,'' and that she once had hosted a party at her apartment during which ``there was excessive consumption of alcohol--as a result of which a fight broke out'' between two trainees.

Indeed, there is ample evidence that people who brought harassment complaints found their careers stifled or became targets for dismissal. At a September, 1991, sales meeting, a Boston-area rep named Maura Lynch called an informal meeting of female reps to discuss ways to improve Astra's hostile environment. Top management soon found out about the meeting, and Lynch, who had been a rep for several years, suddenly came under a microscope. According to people close to Lynch, her manager began making surprise visits and finding fault with small things. By December, he said she had to leave. She hired a lawyer to file a complaint with the MCAD, but Astra quickly settled. She, too, signed a confidentiality clause. The women's group never met again.

SABOTAGE SCHEME. Perhaps the most serious case of alleged retaliation resulted from an incident in late 1993 involving a young trainee, Laura Moore. According to people familiar with the situation, Moore claimed that Roadman approached her in the hotel bar one night and asked her to go to another bar. Afraid to refuse, she dragged two male friends along. Roadman was allegedly all over her in the car on the way back from the bar. After she returned to her room well after midnight, Moore told friends, Roadman knocked on the door and talked his way in. Although she repeatedly asked him to leave, he allegedly pinned her against the wall and kissed her. He also allegedly asked her to sleep with him. Roadman ``was lucky the cops weren't called,'' says one person familiar with the episode.

Moore finally got Roadman out of her room and immediately called the manager in her soon-to-be-assigned territory, Jennifer Price. An experienced manager hired from outside Astra, Price agreed to pursue the complaint aggressively. Once again, Bildman got involved in the inquiries. One of those he quizzed was Kurz, a friend and fellow trainee of Moore's. ``Lars was telling me...he was concerned that Jennifer Price had a scheme to sabotage people in the company,'' Kurz claims. ``Lars told me he was planning to fire Jennifer.''

Not long afterward, Price was fired. The official reason: poor performance. Convinced she was fired in retaliation, Price threatened to sue. The company quickly settled in return for Price's silence. Astra refused to discuss allegations concerning Price.

In the past 18 months, Astra has toned down its rambunctious culture. Now, sales reps are issued a limited number of drink tickets at meetings, and recent training courses have been quieter. But heavy drinking remains a staple--and the old Astra shows through when the liquor flows, as last June's incident with Zortman demonstrated.

Moreover, until Bildman's forced suspension, Astra continued to deny it had any problems. At the initial interview with BUSINESS WEEK, Yon paraded out a host of mostly low-level female staffers. Their stories, told in the presence of three Astra legal representatives and two outside public-relations executives, flatly contradicted those told to BUSINESS WEEK by numerous independent sources. Those efforts appeared to be part of a much broader strategy to discredit the BUSINESS WEEK article and those who've raised allegations of harassment. Indeed, after Astra executives became aware of the investigation in mid-January, the company asked female sales reps to sign a letter denying they had seen or experienced any harassment. Ostensibly a grassroots effort organized by loyal female sales managers, insiders say many employees believe the action originated from a panicky executive suite. Most women signed; some feared they would lose their jobs if they didn't.

Although many of the women subjected to the worst of Astra's harassment have left the company, some remain scarred by their experiences. Leaving Astra abruptly has often made finding another job hard. Prospective employers always ask why they left. ``It's difficult, because you want to tell them what happened at Astra but you don't know if they'll understand,'' says Kurz. At one interview, Kurz says, she told the female interviewer some of her story. ``You could tell by the look on her face,'' says Kurz. ``She was thinking: `Scandal, stay away from us.''' Many others say they lie about the reasons they left in order to get a job.

Some claim they still suffer from psychological trauma. Former rep Yvonne Stokes says the combination of extreme stress and sexual harassment got so bad that she started crying one day in front of a doctor she had called on as a sales rep. He referred her to a psychiatrist. Still taking antidepressant drugs, she says: ``I just want to be me again. I look back and say: `How could I have let this company do this to me?' ''

Webb claims Astra turned her from a happy-go-lucky and deeply religious young woman into an emotional basket case. She says the toll from 21/2 years of harassment was so bad that her hair started to fall out, she was often sick to her stomach, and she started to scratch her back and chest until the skin was raw. Her doctor ordered her to go on disability leave last May, and she is still under psychiatric care.

Nearly a year after going on leave, Webb's perceptions of normal, everyday events are still warped by her Astra experience. A regular in her church choir, Webb says: ``There's something wrong when I think the people in my church are hugging me wrong.'' And at a recent job interview, she says the male interviewer asked her a perfectly innocent question: Was she willing to travel? But Webb says her instinctive reaction was: ``He wants to get me into a hotel room.'' The happiest day of her life, Webb says, came when Astra finally fired her a few months ago. Now preparing a lawsuit, she vows: ``If I have to lose every penny I have, I'll do it to show them that what they do isn't right.''

By Mark Maremont With Jane A. Sasseen in New York


Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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