Demean Machine

Owner of health-food chain accused of disparaging female employees

Marketing consultant Marty Baird didn't know what to expect when he interviewed for a job at Hi-Health Supermart Corporation in 1996.

Mainly, he wasn't sure if Sy Chalpin, the founder and president of the Arizona-based health food store chain, would want him as a consultant or a full-time employee.

But he was definitely surprised when, during the interview, Chalpin complained that Hi-Health was a slow-moving company because he had a woman running the merchandising department.

Hi-Health employs about 400 workers, most of them women.
Paolo Vescia
Hi-Health employs about 400 workers, most of them women.

Perhaps more surprising, Jill Lansdale, the merchandising manager, was sitting right there.

"I've been working with her for several months now and she really thinks and moves very slowly," Chalpin told Baird, according to records in the lawsuit Lansdale filed against Chalpin and Hi-Health a few months later. "Mostly I know she can't help it. She's handicapped because of her gender."

Lansdale was fired by Chalpin in June 1997, about seven months after she went to work for him. She says she was terminated because she complained about his constant put-downs and obnoxious remarks about women.

He says she wasn't doing her job very well, that she was falling short of marketing goals and not communicating well with her staff.

This week, in an unusual sexual harassment trial, a federal jury is being asked to decide if cutting remarks, stupid sexist jokes and lame comments about women allegedly made by Chalpin created a "hostile working environment" in violation of federal civil rights law, a situation that ultimately resulted in Lansdale losing her job.

Lansdale is seeking at least $8 million in damages from Hi-Health.

Nearly a decade after Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas raised public consciousness about what it's not okay to do or say in the workplace, you wouldn't expect to hear the kinds of remarks that Jill Lansdale and other Hi-Health employees say Sy Chalpin often made in front of his staff.

Those include, according to court records:

• "Men are smarter than women."

• "Women are slower than men."

• "Speaking of butts, I've noticed that yours is getting smaller."

• "You're blonde, you're a woman, what would you know anyway?"

Lansdale says that in April 1997, about two months before she was fired, Chalpin told her: "If you can get more advertising money by lying, then I expect you to do so. Do your delicate little ears hear me? If we don't agree on this, then we need to part company. I didn't hire a female [general merchandising manager] so we could be squeamish about lying."

Lansdale is supported by testimony from four other women and the former human resources director of Hi-Health, all of whom described similar comments and behavior by Chalpin. Two other men have testified in depositions that Chalpin continues to behave the same way, even since the lawsuit was filed and trial is about to begin.

"People would be outraged if someone made these comments about blacks or Mexicans or Jews," says Lansdale's attorney, Steve Montoya. "They can't say it about women, either."

Chalpin's attorney, Larry Katz, wouldn't comment on the case, saying it's unethical to talk about the litigation when the jury is about to be picked.

But in an October 30, 1998, deposition, Chalpin at first denied he'd made any untoward remarks. "The accusations that she has made against me and the company are totally . . . are lies," he said.

Later in the examination, however, the 69-year-old Chalpin conceded he may have said a few things here and there. But, he contended, he was only kidding.

Some jokes or remarks were made "to make a point more often than not, to break a tension," Chalpin told Montoya.

"Do you think those jokes are funny?" Montoya asked.

"Not necessarily," Chalpin replied.

Chalpin said at the time that he was continuing to say the same kinds of things around the office because, "I do not believe that they are inappropriate, offensive, illegal, unprofessional."

His lawyers reiterate that position in legal papers filed in the case. "There is a critical legal distinction between an abusive, hostile employment environment and one in which periodic petty indignities and misguided comments cause minor irritation and annoyance -- which all employees experience at work at one time or another," Katz wrote in a motion asking that the case be dismissed.

He called Chalpin's remarks "efforts at levity from a boss whose sense of humor may . . . need fine tuning."

Still, Lansdale and other Hi-Health employees have said that Chalpin sometimes made women cry with his comments.

For instance, Chalpin once introduced one of his buyers to a new employee saying, "She's a female. She'll never be a senior buyer," according to court records. That woman was so embarrassed by the remark, she testified in a deposition, that she burst into tears when recounting it to a colleague.

Chalpin founded Hi-Health in the early 1970s. He has built it into 36 stores with 400 employees, most of them women. He runs the corporation, but his son and daughter are part owners, he said in his deposition. Chalpin originally was a defendant in the suit, but was dropped; the case against his company is continuing in U.S. District Court before Judge Roger Strand.

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