Inside the Explosive Sex Discrimination Case Targeting Publicis PR Chief Jim Tsokanos

Jim TsokanosMSLGroup’s Jim Tsokanos.

Photo: MLSGroup

The sex discrimination lawsuit filed against Publicis Groupe and its PR arm, MSLGroup, is filled with juicy gossip about how pay is allegedly set at the network and the attitude of U.S. president Jim Tsokanos toward his female underlings.

  • Download a copy of the suit here.

The allegations should be taken with a pinch of salt—the plaintiffs are all former MSL employees seeking more money from the company. But if their allegations are true, they could prove hugely damaging to Publicis: They claim, among other things, that Tsokanos was promoted to U.S. chief of MSL despite two complaints against him by female staff and an “inappropriate” habit of taking “young female employees out for drinks frequently.”

A spokesperson for MSL told us:

We will continue to defend vigorously against all the plaintiffs’ claims and we look forward to persuading the court to dismiss them, just as the Equal Opportunities Commission dismissed them in 2010. MSLGroup has always been and remains an organisation committed to women and all employees in the workplace.”

That being said, the allegations will make riveting reading for any woman employed in an American PR agency. Generally, PR agencies in the U.S. are staffed mostly by women.

At MSL specifically, a recent ruling by a federal court has just paved the way for legal letters to be sent to 100 to 200 female vice presidents and senior vice presidents, asking them if they want to join the suit against their employer. A win could be lucrative for these women: Some of them claim they were paid $100,000 less than their male counterparts.

The case was filed by Monique da Silva Moore and Maryellen O’Donohue, both former svp/directors of MSL’s healthcare group, and four other ex-MSL execs: Laurie Mayers, Heather Pierce, Katherine Wilkinson, and Zaneta Hubbard.

Broadly, they claim that 70 per cent of Publicis’ 45,000 PR executives worldwide are women, but females occupy only 15 per cent of the “leadership” positions.

Some of their claims are potentially most damaging to Tsokanos. The suit states (emphases added):

In 2002, a female PR professional submitted a written complaint against President Tsokanos …  In 2003, another female PR professional employee submitted a written complaint against President Tsokanos …

The suit is redacted, so it’s not clear what those complaints were about. It continues:

Despite ongoing inappropriate conduct and complaints, Tsokanos was promoted to Executive Vice President and Managing Director of the Company’s largest office in New York and ultimately to President of the Americas. In his new role, Tsokanos continues to make comments about the appearance of female employees often discussing their “looks” in front of other employees and during meetings. He is also known to take young female employees out for drinks frequently. Human Resources has never taken any action to end President Tsokanos’ ongoing inappropriate conduct.

In 2008, President Tsokanos proudly announced to many in the company that he “need[ed] a big swinging dick to lead the Midwest” while searching for a candidate to fill the head position for the Midwest region. The comment was widely circulated around the company. Tsokanos later hired a male, Joel Curran, for the Midwest Regional President position, while demoting two female Directors, Nancy Brennan and Kelly Kolhagen, working in the same region.

In 2009, President Tsokanos made sexist comments about former Executive Vice President Wendy Lund, including stating to other employees during well-attended meetings that he was “imagining her in a porn movie.” Human Resources again did nothing.

Tsokanos hired Neil Dhillon as Managing Director of the Washington D.C. office in 2008. Soon after his hire, Dhillon held a work-related holiday party at his home for employees from MSL’s Washington, D.C. office. At the party, Dhillon stripped down to his boxer shorts and groped several female employees. As both Rita Masini, Chief of Human Resources and Tara Lillien, Senior Vice President of Human Resources told Plaintiffs time and time again, “That’s just Jim. You know how he is.”

The complaint isn’t just a collection of anecdotes. It also contains some unfortunate stats about the number of women in management positions in Publicis and MSL. Including:

  • There are no female members of Publicis’ five-member Management Board.
  • Only two women are members of Publicis’ 13-member Executive Board.
  • Only one female sits on Tsokanos’ six-member MSL leadership team in the U.S.

The suit makes similar claims of MSL worldwide CEO Olivier Fleurot’s management team. Of the seven executives in his top two layers of management, none are women, the suit claims. “Publicis’s glass ceiling might as well be a cement wall,” the suit says.

The suit also alleges that senior female employees at MSL who become pregnant do so at their peril. Among the anecdotal evidence for this, the suit alleges, “Defendants terminated a Vice President at MSL in the San Francisco office, Heather Wadia, while she was on maternity leave, effective the day she was scheduled to return from maternity leave in September 2009.”

More negative headlines seem set to emerge for Publicis. The section of the suit devoted to describing differing pay rates for MSL executives—who are mentioned by name—is heavily redacted. It covers the period during Publicis’ infamous 2008-2011 recessionary pay freeze.


  • CLASS ACTION: Publicis PR Pays Women $100K Less Than Men

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