When CEO Tim Armstrong blamed “distressed babies” for proposed benefit cuts at AOL, here’s what he didn’t mention: While a sales executive at Google in 2005, he was the subject of a lawsuit by a former employee, Christina Elwell, who alleged he demoted and fired her because she could not travel during her high-risk pregnancy with quadruplets.
Elwell went to work for Google’s sales force in 2000, and in 2003 was promoted to national sales director, a position in which she managed the North American sales force. She worked from the company’s New York office. Her boss was Armstrong, then Google’s vice president for national sales. According to Elwell’s complaint, before her pregnancy, he praised her in a meeting as having made a “significant contribution” to Google’s preparations for its initial public offering.
In April 2004, four months before that IPO, Elwell told Armstrong she was pregnant with quadruplets and would not be able to travel by plane due to complications. He was concerned, but she reassured him she was eager to resume travel after giving birth. In May, Elwell miscarried two of her four fetuses. A few weeks later, Armstrong allegedly called her into his office and showed her an organizational chart in which her position would be eliminated and she would be demoted to the operations department, with no management responsibilities. He allegedly told colleagues he was moving Elwell because she could not travel.
Elwell proposed that she instead take a position as East Coast sales director, in which she would be able to travel by train and car. Armstrong rejected that idea and filled the job with a male employee whom Elwell had recently hired. Then, on June 4, 2004, Armstrong allegedly called Elwell into his office and told her she was a “HR nightmare” because she had talked with colleagues about her concerns regarding her pregnancy and employment status at Google. The following day, he called her at home and fired her, saying he had “a gut feeling” it was the right thing to do, in part because she had “spoken to others” about the situation. (Remember when Armstrong impulsively fired a guy in the midst of a conference call last year, with 1,000 employees listening in?)
Google determined Elwell had been improperly fired and rehired her in a low-level operations position, in which she claims she was given work comparable to that of a summer intern. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She subsequently lost a third quadruplet and delivered one baby. After her maternity leave, Elwell went back to Google in January 2005, but when she learned she would not be able to return to her former position on the sales force, she left the company.
It all sort of puts into perspective Sheryl Sandberg’s cheery anecdote about lobbying Google for “pregnancy parking” at its California headquarters, doesn’t it?
In 2006 a federal judge moved Elwell’s suit into arbitration. Her attorney met with Google’s lawyers in 2007 to discuss a possible settlement, but the company’s lawyer allegedly responded, “These people are not settlers.”
Sources with knowledge of the case say the parties did eventually reach a settlement via arbitration, which was fairly financially advantageous to Elwell, and which the parties are barred from discussing publicly. AOL senior vice president for corporate communications Peter Land says, "We can’t comment on the lawsuit because it had nothing to do with us." The company points out that Working Mother Magazine has named it a top 100 company for working moms.
A woman who answered the phone at Elwell’s Manhattan home told me she was not in and took a message. Leah Schloss, director of marketing at Elwell’s law firm, Sullivan & Worcester LLP, says, “We are not able to discuss this case.” I have also reached out to Google. I will update this piece when and if I hear from additional sources.