S.F. woman sues cosmetics firm for religious, age bias

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A former sales manager of a major cosmetics firm has sued the company, alleging discrimination on the basis of age and Jewish heritage.

San Francisco resident Elysa Yanowitz, 53, says she left Cosmair Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of L'Oreal, after a hostile work environment made her physically ill. Yanowitz says that in addition to being targeted for her age and religion, she was intimidated for not firing a female employee whom male executives did not find sufficiently attractive.

"It was extremely stressful and devastating for her," said Herbert Yanowitz, the plaintiff's husband and attorney. "She had worked for the company for 17 years as an extraordinarily loyal and productive employee, and the idea that they had turned on her was just devastating."

Elysa Yanowitz was first employed in 1981 by Warner Cosmetics, which later was acquired by Cosmair. In 1986, she was promoted to a regional sales manager for the designer fragrance division, working out of an office in San Francisco.

Despite winning the company's regional manager of the year award in 1997, she alleges that she found herself harassed for not terminating the female employee and for contradicting a top executive over the launch of a fragrance.

According to the suit, two top company officials orchestrated a campaign to intimidate her by falsely criticizing her performance.

She also says that company officials encouraged two account executives to spread "distorted and inaccurate" information about her.

Cosmair Inc. told the media it cannot comment on pending litigation.

The suit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court last week, paints an unflattering picture of some company officials.

One high-level executive accused of harassing Yanowitz is labeled in the suit as an abusive, alcoholic anti-Semite. According to the complaint filed with the court, he once told another Jewish employee that as a youth he hated Jews because they got extra time off from school for Jewish holidays.

Another time, at a dinner celebrating the launch of a cologne, the same executive allegedly told a young female employee who recently had her hair straightened that he preferred curls on his pillow.

According to the suit, Cosmair's anti-Semitic tendencies were chronicled in the book "Bitter Scent" and there are no Jews presently in middle or upper management of Cosmair's designer fragrance division.

L'Oreal, the largest fragrance and cosmetic firm in the world, has come under fire from the Jewish community in the past.

In 1995, American affiliates of the company agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle an investigation into its alleged compliance with the Arab boycott of Israel.

The same year, a former vice chairman of the company was accused of being a Nazi propagandist. His wartime writings included the assertion that Jews were "hypocritical pharisees…their race has been forever sullied."

Herbert Yanowitz, a founding member of the Bay Area Council of Jewish Rescue and Renewal, said his wife had seen a pattern in her division "of very competent Jewish women being pushed out in one way or another."

"It's always in somebody's mind, 'Am I next? And when is my day coming?'" he said. "She sensed there was this anti-Semitic overtone."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.