New Sex-Discrimination Suit for Nu Skin
By Ben Fulton
An August 1994 memorandum recommending Rebecca L. Smith for production supervisor of Nu Skin International's video production department said it all: "She is always there until the job is done. She does not mind standing up to others to get them to perform." Little did the company know how prophetic those words would become. After years of watching what Smith calls "patterns of company-wide discrimination" leveled against her and other female colleagues at Nu Skin, she had finally had enough. While assertive, ambitious men were praised by company management as "go-getters," she says she was branded as uncooperative and pushy.
She contends she watched women with formidable skills and years of experience passed over for promotions, while men of lesser abilities climbed the Nu Skin ladder with ease.
Men under her supervision complained to management about having to take orders from a woman, she says. She alleges she was called a "bitch" during a production shoot. The harassment and retaliation kicked in and her salary suffered, Smith says.
She's not alone in her complaints. On May 1, she and Candus Richards, also an employee with the company's video production department, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for Utah claiming the company discriminates against its female employees, a violation of the Civil Rights Act. At the center of the suit, on file in federal court, is the damning contention that "Nu Skin's male management based promotion and wage decisions on the pervasive Nu Skin corporate philosophy that men needed to provide for families and therefore should receive special consideration."
Uncannily, these allegations have arrived on the heels of one woman's derision of Utah as a place that treats the female sex with the kind of respect usually reserved for doormats. Speaking in Washington, D.C., last month Dr. Phyllis Katz, author of "The Feminist Dollar: The Wise Woman's Buying Guide," told women to stay away from the pretty, great state. According to Katz's research, only 20 percent of state managers in the public sector are held by women, compared with a national figure of 31 percent. Utah's private sector fares better, with 25 percent of managerial positions held by women. Still, it's not as high as the national 29 percent.
Smith has also joined with another former Nu Skin employee, Jennifer Hunt, in a suit over wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
"In that culture they have a difficult time with assertive women, they don't know how to deal with it," Smith said. "Instead of resolving the situation they attack the individual. It's a pervasive mindset that they have a problem with."
It didn't have to be this way. Smith, a former Nu Skin distributor who also performed free-lance video work for the company before becoming an employee three years ago, said she tried working through these problems before phoning an attorney. "I'm a believer, someone who wants to raise the flag and say something good about Nu Skin, but their mistreatment of women cannot continue," she said.
So far, the company has limited any response to a faxed statement defending its commitment to "a fair and positive working environment" for all employees regardless of gender, religion, race, age or cultural background. Nu Skin also maintains it conducted a "careful and exhaustive investigation" into events surrounding the allegations of Smith and other women: "As a result, the company is confident that its treatment of them has been completely fair and impartial."
In fact, allegations of sex-discrimination are a company tradition stretching back to the early '90s. If there's a recurring pattern, it's that trouble starts to brew once a female employee with ambition becomes pregnant. Or so according to Rebecca Hintze, who filed a federal suit against the company in April 1992 claiming that, once pregnant, she found herself passed up for a promotion. However, her case was later rejected by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson.
Jayne Christine Loveless and five other women found considerably more success with a suit in December 1992, claiming wage disparity between the sexes, a hostile work environment, retaliation and the favoring of men when it came time for promotions. Like Hintze, Loveless charged that the company's view of her suddenly changed once she became pregnant. Another woman in the suit alleged she was barred from overseas business travel because her male superiors said she would be ignoring responsibilities to her family at home. That case was settled out-of-court for undisclosed sums in 1993.
Jennifer Hunt, a former employee who's filing with Smith over wage disputes, said she could have filed suit over sex discrimination matters if her statute of limitations hadn't run out. Working in the accounting department during a period of phenomenal growth at Nu Skin, she worked lots of overtime, she says, and frequently asked her administrators about moving into a management position. It might have been a possibility, Hunt, says. If she hadn't become pregnant. "All of a sudden the attention was focused on my pregnancy and not the job I was doing," she said.
Returning from the hospital after giving birth, she found the new management position in accounting filled by a man whose only previous experience was driving a truck. The second time she became pregnant, she said nothing. Having had enough, she quit Nu Skin after six years. "It was typical that when I asserted myself I was quieted," Hunt said.
Canduce Richards, who worked with Smith but quit the company in October of last year to work in Dallas, said she didn't have to be pregnant to see sex-discrimination or receive it. "It's a whole different world when you walk through the doors of Nu Skin. I have never been treated the way I was treated there ever. I felt like my professional experience was completely undermined."
With four years of technical experience in her field, she says she made do with light-weight, menial tasks while men with no qualifications got the best part of assignments. Her professional advice and direction also fell on deaf ears, as men in her department were wary of what they saw as "orders" from women. "There's no room for a woman's ideas or a woman's voice at Nu Skin," she said.
For now, Smith is staying with the company, if only because real change comes from the inside. Any company that doesn't make the best use of talents from both sexes, after all, is only shooting itself in the foot.
"It's worth it just to stand up and say this can't go on," she says.
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