The primary basis for employee job satisfaction is your personal relationship with your manager. Next is importance is your personal relationship with coworkers and the people that report to you. Only then do broad personnel practices come into play. As Sue Shellenbarger, a Wall Street Journal columnist, noted, "Regardless of the policies on the books, your company is only as family-friendly as your immediate boss, or the department where you work"

This is why a company listed as one of Working Mother magazine's "100 Best Company's Working Mother's" list could be cited by a federal court for sex discrimination against women. On May 20 a federal jury awarded $250 million to a group of current and former women employees who sued pharmaceutical giant Novartis, AG for sexual discrimination. Novartis attorneys quickly announced they would appeal the verdict.

The women involved were pharmaceutical sales personnel; laboratory staff personnel do not appear to be involved in the suit. Nevertheless, the verdict holds lessons for laboratory managers.

As Shellenbarger wrote, "All it takes is one boss–or a negative workplace culture in one division–to turn family-friendly policies into an embarrassing lie." Novartis' policies such as child care discounts, backup child care plans and ten weeks paid maternity leave were not proof against charges of discrimination and harassment.

Motives don't matter

Lab managers should not rely on only corporate policies forbidding gender discrimination. They should examine their own behavior and actions to be sure they are free of gender bias. Also, innocent actions could be interpreted as gender bias. For example, when interviewing candidates, female or male, for employment, laboratory managers should not ask questions about their marital status, plans to have children, and other factors not directly related to job performance. Some of these questions are actually illegal in the U.S.

Foreign-born lab managers should not allow workplace practices and attitudes of their homeland culture influence their U.S. workplace behavior to the point where they violate laws or discriminate against certain groups of employees. I once had a foreign-born coworker, a Ph.D. chemist, decide to return to her home country. She set up an employment interviews and flew to Europe. She came back with her mind completely changed as a result of some of the questions she was asked. At least at this firm it was clear that her career as a researcher at the firms she interviewed with would be limited because of her gender. In the particular country involved, all the questions she was asked were quite legal but the gender-related ones would have been illegal in the U.S. More than years later, this chemist is still working in the U.S.

ironically, some discriminatory behavior could actually be related to misguided attempts by managers to be considerate. I have observed cases when lab managers, out of a misguided sense of consideration, tried to force women to use all their maternity leave when they wanted to return to work. Another thought he was being considerate when he gave a coveted promotion to someone else and not a working mother thinking that the frequent business travel required would be a strain on her family life. The employee has to make this decision; a lab manager can't make it for her. In other cases, I have seen lab managers argue against given a woman employee a high performance rating or a coveted promotion because she did use all her maternity leave saying that this reduced their contribution to the company.