Thursday, January 22, 2009

No Whistleblower Protection - Part Five of Workplace Psychological Abuse

Note: Parts 1-4 are found on this blog also.

This continues my series on the experience of being the target of a psychologically abusive co-worker or workplace "bully" from Jan, 2004 until Aug, 2006, the last two and a half years I worked in the Respiratory Care Department at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise Idaho. Saint Alphonsus (often called St Als) is a part of the Trinity Health system, headquartered in Novi, Michigan.

The reaction of management at Saint Alphonsus to my reports of abusive treatment that originated initially from a co-worker, but also from management, was not unusual, when compared to other companies who have retaliated against employees reporting unethical or dangerous actions and/or behavior. In The Whistleblower's Survival Guide: Courage Without Martyrdom, author Tom Devine includes a chapter entitled, "What to Expect: Classic Responses to Whistleblowing." This chapter includes several management responses to employees who blow the whistle on behavior by management that endangers employees or customers. Management at Saint Alphonsus responded to me with several of the tactics described in Devine's book.

One response is to "Gag the Employee." Several times I was accused by managers of violating some non-existent confidentiality agreement. Since I had not signed a confidentiality agreement covering the traumatic experience of being the target of a bully for over two and a half years, there was none to violate. Attempts were made by management to censor reports of, or conversations about, the behavior that resulted in my injuries. Those attempts jeopardized staff and patient safety and therefore were inappropriate and potentially harmful to other employees. Attempts to censor me were also a violation of the Trinity Health Organizational Integrity Program, which on Page 19, second column, under the heading "Open Communication," state: "A multi-directional communication process serves everyone in Trinity Health. Information is available and accessible on a timely basis. Everyone takes responsibility to stay informed, provide feedback, and state opinions. People Communicate openly and directly. Active listening and candid speaking are skills used and valued by all. These practices promote norms of freely exchanging ideas in the interest of finding better ways to accomplish goals and sharing different points of views to arrive at constructive agreement" (Bold emphasis mine). The reality at Saint Alphonsus and Trinity Health is that "open communication" is forbidden and those who practice it will probably be terminated, or, as in my experience, retaliated against by management for reporting the internal problems to the public, This is true even though those internal problems are jeopardizing patient, staff, and customer safety.

Another response mentioned in The Whistleblower's Survival Guide is "Institutionalize Conflict-of-Interest." This undoubtedly is a very serious problem at Saint Alphonsus. One manager, whose job description included trying to prevent law suits, assigned himself to investigate a conflict issue between two employees, one who had threatened a lawsuit and one who had not! Obviously he had a vested interest in finding information to placate the employee who threatened to sue, since his annual performance plan and the size of his next pay raise probably depended on preventing law suits.

I attempted to report the unethical behavior I experienced, some of which came from senior management, to the Bioethics Committee, only to find out that the person who co-chaired the Bioethics Committee was one of the same managers who had asked me to just let the bullying behavior from the abusive co-worker "pass over me," and who also ordered me to not talk about about the bullying and the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to other employees. One of the most important treatments for PTSD is encouraging the patient to talk about the trauma that caused the injury, so the manager's orders were medically inappropriate. Asking the Bioethics Committee to investigate the way I had been treated by management was akin to asking them to investigate their own misconduct! I also send a report to the other co-chairperson of the Bioethics Committee, a surgeon whose patient I have been three times. He never responded.

Another way of retaliating against whistleblowers is to "Prevent the Development of a Written Record." This was another tactic used by management at Saint Alphonsus. A manager from Human Resources promised me three times that he would send a written agreement to me and the bully co-worker stating that we would not have to work together anymore, and if our paths crossed we would agree to treat each other with respect. Since the bully was consistently rude and disrespectful toward me, I welcomed that agreement. It never arrived. The same manager also promised me a written report of his investigation. I never received one, even after repeated requests. At one time, when I was accused of violating some kind of confidentiality agreement, I asked the Respiratory Care Department manager if we could just put this "agreement" in writing in order to have a document, stating exactly what was confidential. He acted very surprised by the request, and didn't object, but it never happened. There was never any written agreement or statement of expectations.

When my attorneys acquired a copy of my personnel record it was interesting to note that nowhere in the record is there any information about this two-and-a-half year ordeal of being the target of a workplace bully. There is no mention of the PTSD injury, and no mention of having to consistently work in a toxic environment and under extremely hostile conditions. There is no record of more than a dozen meetings with members of management to try to resolve the problem. There is no record of the multiple attempts I made to try to resolve the problem; of offering to participate in a professionally mediated conflict resolution process with the bully; of offering to use indirect communication via a mediator; of repeatedly going out of my way to make sure patient care was not being compromised by the abusive and impaired co-worker; of trying unsuccessfully to defuse the situation by voluntarily stepping out of my supervisory position and letting someone else supervise instead; of offering to change shifts and permanently quit supervising; of taking the initiative to seek assistance and counsel from an Employee Assistance Program counselor; and also of going to professionals outside of Saint Alphonsus at my own expense to try to resolve the problem. The absence of any information in my personnel record about these extraordinary efforts I made is an powerful example of how silence can be evil, and contribute to harm and injury. It's also interesting to note that when I left the employment of Saint Alphonsus and Trinity Health after 30 years of exemplary service, (exemplary service that was confirmed on Sept.24, 2008, by a member of senior management who said that I had an "outstanding" record), I didn't receive one written or spoken word of thanks or appreciation for my years of service from my immediate supervisor, the Respiratory Care Department Manager.

The fourth of Mr. Devine's list of retaliations used against me by Saint Als is "Rewrite the Issues." To quote the author; "One of the most subtle bureaucratic gambits is to trivialize, grossly exaggerate, or otherwise distort the whistleblower's allegations - and then discredit the employee by rejecting the validity of the resulting "red herring." Both the department manager and the manager from human resources kept trying to distort the issue and claim that it was something other than what it really was. I was reporting deliberate behavior from a co-worker, directed at me because she did not approve of my political and religious beliefs, behavior that was compromising patient care, and causing serious and potentially disabling injury to me. Management kept trying to pretend that this conflict was a personal one, that I was trying to develop or renew a friendship with someone who did not want to be friends. Although I requested that our work schedules be changed so we didn't have to work together any more and our schedules would not overlap, and I had signed letters from an attorney and a counselor requesting that action, management refused to look at the letters and kept falsely accusing me of trying to increase my contact with the abusive co-worker.

Even the punitive psychiatric admission I was subjected to by management at St. Alphonsus for blowing the whistle on their abusive treatment of employees is not that rare a way of businesses retaliating against whistleblowers, as the following quotes confirm. "Even generating an involuntary psychiatric admission or requiring a psychiatric evaluation as a way of retaliating against a whistleblower or discrediting his report is not unusual. When in 1978, Peter James Atherton, nuclear engineer and inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, reported that the electrical cables needed to shut down the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in case of emergency were all located in the same cable tray, therefore making them all vulnerable to destruction in case of fire, he was handcuffed and sent to St. Elizabeth's Hospital for three days of involuntary psychiatric confinement and after being released was fired!" (From Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power, by C. Fred Alford, Pub. 2001 by Cornell Univ. Press, pages 22 and 23).

Here are accounts of two other whistleblowers who also experienced the "punitive psychiatric" retaliation. "Randy Taylor, Chief of Military Police at the Bermuda Naval Air Station, exposed the cover-up of post-Tailhook sexual attacks and misuse of the base as a taxpayer-financed resort (known as "Club Fed") for powerful politicians and military officials. The Navy responded by ordering him to undergo a psychiatric examination, which he passed" (Devine, Page 30). "Within days of protesting payments to reserve troops for not reporting to weekend training assignments, Air Force Sergeant Joseph Taliaferro found himself confined to a mental ward, wearing slippers with Happy Faces on them" (Devine, Page 31). If you are employed by either Saint Alphonsus or Trinity Health you will want to be aware of what happens to their employees when they report unethical behavior by management. You can find out by reading Part Four of my series on Workplace Psychological Abuse.

Another method used by management to retaliate against a whistleblower, and one I also experienced at Saint Alphonsus, is to direct the focus of attention on the person who reported the problem rather than on the problem itself. In his book, The Whistleblower's Survival Guide, Tom Devine writes; "The first commandment of retaliation is to make the whistleblower, instead of his or her message, the issue: obfuscate the dissent by attacking the sources' motives, credibility, professional competence, or virtually anything else that will work to cloud the issue. The point of this tactic is to direct the spotlight at the whistleblower, instead of the alleged misconduct" (Page 28).

This happened to me more than once. I was reporting to management behavior by a co-worker that was directed at me because she did not approve of my political and religious beliefs, behavior that was jeopardizing patient care and causing injury to myself. To this day, January 24, 2009, I've never received a response addressing those three serious issues. Instead I was targeted with a variety of false accusations from the co-worker, accusations repeated by the same members of management who refused to address the real problem. Those accusations bordered on the ridiculous. They included trying to communicate with her about work-related problems (even though our respective job descriptions mandated communication between us). I was even accused of waiting to walk her to her car after work! Note the accusation is not "walking her to her car" since that didn't happen, but only "waiting" or wanting to do that. Of course that accusation, like her other accusations, was false. At least once a week I went to the medical library after work to do some reading. I frequently took the bus to and from work, so when I left my department after work, it was usually alone to go to a destination that none of my co-workers were going to. I never saw any other members of the Respiratory Care Department including the abusive co-worker, at either the medical library, the bus stop, or on the bus.

Those who lived through the 1960s and the Cold War era remember that many people lived in fear of the Soviet Union. The USSR was referred to as the "evil empire," and we were told that Communism was the biggest threat to our country and the world. Citizens of the Soviet Union lived in a totalitarian country where they were under constant supervision, in perpetual fear of the government, and had no freedoms. It's almost unbelievable how much times have changed. The Soviet Union no longer exists and the numerous countries which used to make up the USSR all gained their freedom at the same time without firing a shot. Now we're the ones working under a form of constant totalitarian-like supervision, facing accusations from employers, like the thought police at Saint Alphonsus who think they have the right to accuse people, not of misbehaving, but of simply wanting to do something they shouldn't do, and have never done.

Mark Ames in his book "Going Postal" reports on how far this kind of abuse by management can go, when he tells the account of a post office employee in San Diego who was the target of excessive harassment by management. The harassment included, "telling him by written memo that he was to go to the bathroom on his own time and not on the post office's time and having a supervisor stand outside of his house during his lunch break, watching him through his kitchen window, clocking him when he ate lunch at home with his wife" (Page 75). I doubt that Saint Alphonsus and Trinity Health have gone to such extremes, but in light of this Orwellian accusation against me which was an attempt to assess, condemn, and regulate my thoughts, it's definitely the direction they are headed. Ames also points out in his book that the average American workplace is "more Soviet than what the Soviets ever created," (Page 107) and "Even American slaves generally weren't fenced in and guarded by security" (Page 107).
Of course directing the spotlight at the whistleblower, rather than at the problem reported by the whistleblower, contributed to the "punitive psychiatric admission" I was subjected to which I wrote about in Part Four.

The context of the longer historical report I wrote and distributed after leaving St. Alphonsus was concern for the health and safety of people at Saint Alphonsus and in the community. I established that theme in the first paragraph of the report and re-emphasized, repeated, or reinforced it on the average of once a page for the duration of the report. Management claimed, in the report, that I had threatened to harm myself or others. To do that they had to rip what I wrote out of context and of course, the only reason for doing that is to intentionally misrepresent what I wrote. The concern that I reported was never addressed. The effect of directing the attention toward the whistleblower rather than the problem s/he reported, is not only to create stress and uncertainty for the whistleblower, but to also undermines his or her credibility.

One knowledgeable whistleblower writes: "They will sacrifice the individual" before admitting they made a mistake. "The image of the organization is so important that they'll destroy your life and career first" (Devine, Page 34).

In light of the Zogby Poll (See Part Three) it's probable that the bullying and whistleblower retaliation I experienced at the hands of Saint Alphonsus and Trinity Health is also a problem at other health care facilities, as well as at other businesses and corporations. Workplace psychological abuse is, according to the polls, at epidemic levels in the United States. I'm telling the account of what happened to me, because it's necessary for people who have experienced it to talk, write, and communicate about their experiences and thereby raise awareness, before anything will be done to address this public health menace. My experience took place at a Trinity Health facility, St Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, in Boise, Idaho, so that's what I'm writing about. In spite of their record, Trinity Health and St Alphonsus, as "Christian" health care providers, are in a position where they could grab this problem by the horns and quickly get it under control. With a little work and minimal expense they could establish a policy that specifically prohibits bullying, and provides a means of addressing the problem. There are excellent examples available in the literature on the topic. They could mandate professionally mediated conflict resolution processes to resolve conflicts before anyone is injured. They could educate the staff, especially managers and supervisors, on bullying or workplace psychological abuse. They could demonstrate accountability toward those who have been injured, and do it simply by following and enforcing their own existing Standards of Conduct (Trinity Health) which say "Treat others with honesty, respect, and dignity," and "Communicate with others in a clear, open, and honest manner." The Standards of Conduct also say; "Most importantly, you're responsible for speaking up about behavior or actions that may be inconsistent with the Standards of Conduct." That's exactly what St. Alphonsus retaliated against me for doing! The St Alphonsus Customer Service Standards include "Treat each person and co-worker as you would want to be treated," "Treat each person as if he or she is the most important person in our facility," and "Listen thoughtfully and empathetically to others and respond appropriately and politely."

The cost of these efforts would be probably far less than the annual cost of replacing employees who are bullied and injured on the job, many who, after leaving, either take legal action against their employer, or at the very least spread the message that Saint Alphonsus and Trinity Health are not safe and healthy places of employment. Steps taken by St Als and Trinity Health to address this problem would display leadership and advanced healing in a currently neglected area of human health. It would also be an example of progressive caring management, not just to the medical field, but to all business. Unfortunately this has not yet happened.

I certainly agree and identify with the following comment from another whistleblower. "Suffering through whistleblower retaliation teaches you a lot about your own strengths and weaknesses, about what really matters in life, about who your friends are, and about what human beings are capable of doing to each other in even the most civilized settings. It is a life-altering experience" (Devine. Page 44). One of the facts confirmed by my experience is that currently there is NO whistleblower protection available at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, or from Trinity Health. We know there are safety and health hazards caused by the bullying and psychological abuse, but this lack of whistleblower protection represents an additional safety hazard to patients, visitors, and staff at those facilities, as well as to the communities served by those institutions.

Leonard Nolt

Coming next -
Part Six - Workplace Psychological Abuse, or Bullying: A Definition.
to be followed by
Part Seven - Is Psychological Abuse or Bullying Really that Harmful?