‘Embarrassment’ carries high cost

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Norway’s foreign ministry was under criticism this week after newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) detailed how and why the ministry got caught in a costly and embarrassing gender discrimination case in the US. The case involves major names in Norwegian diplomacy, and their decision not to engage in the “dialogue” or negotiations that they otherwise promote has so far cost the state an estimated NOK 35 million in legal fees.

Norwegian employees sent from their Oslo offices here at the foreign ministry (Utenriksdepartementet, UD) to work at Norway's embassies and consulates abroad have much better pay and benefits than workers hired locally. Now UD is facing a rising chorus of discontent from locally employed staff. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway’s foreign ministry (Utenriksdepartementet, UD) opted against settling a gender discrimination complaint from a female employee in the US. It now faces huge legal bills plus her legally upheld compensation claim after losing the case in a US federal court. . PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

On Wednesday DN reported that the foreign ministry never explored the option of settling the lawsuit that was brought by an American woman who discovered more than six years ago that she was being paid USD 30,000 less than a male colleague in a similar job at Norway’s honorary consulate in Minneapolis.

Ellen Ewald, who’d been described by ministry officials as “a star” when first hired in 2008, ultimately sued after her initial inquiries and complaints were ignored by officials at Norway’s embassy in Washington DC. DN reported that when she sent an email to the embassy in September 2009, asking for confirmation of the pay gap, she received no reply. She was also ignored when she wrote again, in October. In November 2009, she sent a copy of her third inquiry to Norway’s ambassador to the US at the time, Wegger Strømmen, who now serves as utenriksråd, the top admnistrative leader at Norway’s foreign ministry. “I was hurt,” she told DN. “I felt ignored and that my concerns were being shoved aside.”

Ambassador irritated
DN reported that Strømmen was also handed a letter from former US Vice President Walter Mondale, who had served as Norway’s general consul, and his successor, honorary consul Gary Gandrud, urging the embassy to address the pay gap between Ewald and her colleague Anders Davidson. Mondale even wrote that the pay difference was unfair and “embarrassing” for a country like Norway that was “known as a leader in the fight for gender equality.” In court, it emerged that Strømmen instead grew irritated. It was Gandrud and Mondale who had first proposed the salary levels, and Strømmen had no budget to increase Ewald’s compensation to Davidson’s level.

Ewald won her case late last year in a US federal court in Minnesota, and now the Norwegian state has been ordered to also cover Ewald’s legal fees, which currently amount to around USD 2.1 million (NOK 15 million). The Norwegian government also must pay its own legal bills in the case, estimated to be at least as much as Ewald’s if not more. That brings the entire cost of the ministry’s refusal to settle the case several years ago to an estimated NOK 35 million. Ewald’s attorney, Sheila Engelmeier, told DN that the ministry was earlier presented with a settlement offer equal to less than 10 percent of that. The ministry refused.

“I think this case should have been settled from the start,” Ingjerd Schou, a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party, commented via social media, noting that “no one managed to stop this craziness. I hope the government can now.” Other MPs have echoed Schou’s remarks, with one state leader calling the entire case “an embarrassment for Norwegian authorities.”

‘Give her the minimum’
Ministry officials still haven’t decided whether to appeal the US federal court verdict, at the risk of running up even higher legal fees. They have had their defeat in the US court under advisement for several months, repeatedly stressing that the court did exonerate them of charges they’d also harassed Ewald. Court documents, however, confirm that Ewald was referred to as “vår venninne” (literally, “our girlfriend”) in an email written by diplomat Johan Vibe, who now serves as Norway’s ambassador to Spain. Ewald had complained about characteristics of herself that she viewed as derogatory or insulting.

Vibe was also cited in court documents as having proposed that, when Ewald was later up for a raise, “we give her the minimum, 0.0% would perhaps provoke her too much?” DN reported that Vibe had also erred in refusing to cover Ewald’s health insurance costs: Ewald did in fact qualify and the ministry not only had to include her in its insurance plan but also refund the premiums Ewald had paid for 18 months, from her time of employment in 2008 until March 2010.

Settlement debate
It was the embassy’s refusal to enter into dialogue with Ewald, and attempt a settlement, that was sparking the most criticism this week. Responsibility for the refusal to settle has been assumed by Bente Angell-Hansen, a career diplomat at the foreign ministry who now serves as Norway’s ambassador to Austria.

“The decision to defend ourselves against claims in an American court was made by me as the top administrative leader in the ministry,” wrote Bente Angell-Hansen in an email to DN. She was still the ministry’s so-called utenriksråd when Ewald’s case came up. Angell-Hansen stressed, as have others in the ministry, that Ewald’s complaints about harassment and derogatory characterization were not upheld by the court. The ministry, which has hundreds of locally employed staffers at embassies and consulates around the world, also feared that settling out of court could set an unwanted precedent.

The decision not to settle, Angell-Hansen wrote to DN, was based on analyses and advice from local attorneys, embassy advisers and the legal department at the ministry. Based on a “collective evaluation,” no settlement was sought,” Angell-Hansen wrote.

Støre says he ‘wasn’t involved’
Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party, who was Norway’s foreign minister when Ewald’s complaint was heading for court, told DN that he wasn’t involved in the decision to let it go to court. He said it was handled by the bureaucratic and administrative leadership, not his political leadership. “The administration and a professionally strong embassy in Washington handled this,” Støre told DN. “I can’t criticize that a case isn’t brought up to the political leadership.”

Støre had been responsible for cost-cutting moves and new priorities he’d introduced after becoming foreign minister in 2005, which themselves led to Ewald’s and Davidson’s employment. DN reported that in 2007, Støre decided to save money by controversially shutting down  the general consulate in Minneapolis, in favour of having consulates in New York, San Francisco and Houston instead. The general consulate, however, was ultimately replaced with an unpaid honorary consul (lawyer Gary Gandrud) and the two paid positions to promote Norwegian interests US.  The new honorary consulate was financed through several Norwegian state agencies and the two jobs as well, with their budget of NOK 1.5 million (around USD 250,000 at the time) for compensation and travel expenses to “be divided equally” between the two positions.

“What I’ve never understood, and still can’t understand, is that no one ever said: ‘Let’s just make things right here,'” Ewald, now age 56, told DN over the weekend. Now she and everyone else involved in the case are waiting to learn to whether there will be another round in court, or whether the ministry will acknowledge defeat, pay its bills and move on. The deadline for filing an appeal has been extended, with DN reporting that both sides are now exploring whether a solution can be reached.

“This case is a reminder of how important it is to operate correctly in relation to labour law,” Anne Kristin Lund, who leads the ministry’s department for competence and resources, told DN. The ministry, she noted, “has employees in more than 100 countries and strives to operate correctly.” She called Ewald’s case “demanding” and claimed it had been “taken seriously the entire time.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund