washingtonpost.com
Ethics at Work

By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 24, 2008 11:36 AM

I was hired to develop an international business development department at a public hospital in Broward County, Fla., to compete with other international outfits in South Florida. My area of expertise is international business development with over 15 years of experience in the field, at the time, and a master's degree in public administration. At first, I was impressed by the organization, everything looked perfect on the surface, but two weeks into the job, the person who was supposed to guide me into the health system casually claimed to be "my boss" in front of the CFO, who was the actual boss of both of us. Surprised, he answered, "Is that so?" and from that day forward, she became my "boss."

At the time I did not mind, since my only concern was to advance in getting the huge task at hand done. Since this girl had been working in the hospital for many years, advancing from secretary to financial director, I believed having her on board in this project would be helpful. The problem was her lack of experience in the realm of business; she had been the prot?g?e of the CFO and was not qualified to direct the job I was hired to do, due to lack of degrees and experience, compounded by her inappropriate relationship with the CFO, which was common knowledge in the hospital.

I engaged in an arduous pursuit of building a department single-handed, encountering inaccuracies and internal problems that "my boss" would either deny or hide under the rug, making the execution of my job increasingly difficult. Every time I approached HR with complaints about "my boss's" unreasonable requests, the HR officer would say something like, "Oh dear, it is really difficult to work under these circumstances┬┐ my recommendation is to look for other positions in the system -- have you checked?" Instead of facing the problems of incompetence and addressing the undue abuse of power, HR chose to look in the opposite direction.

After three years of service, with distinction and bonuses, "my boss" was given a promotion to another hospital, and before leaving her position as "director of the International Program," although I created every step of the IBD Program from conception of business plan to execution, she made sure I was not considered for her position. I applied for the position, but another person was hired and I was expected to train the new person. When I complained to HR again about not been considered for the position. I was forced to resign.

This is a public hospital with enormous internal ethical problems, but they manage to appear good on paper, using unethical techniques such as announcing "surprise state inspections" two weeks ahead of time, and cleaning house before inspectors show up. Was I wronged by HR? I lost my match benefits for having to leave before the allotted time. What is the solution? Should the public get involved in suggesting to hire an ombudsman, to unearth existing problems in their operations and hiring practices? As a responsible citizen, I would like to know how to pursue this conscientiously.

You were wronged by HR, you were wronged by the CFO, and you were wronged by your ostensible boss. You became the casualty of an inappropriate workplace relationship, compounded by an ineffective HR response. If, in fact, your boss was selected for her job based upon her romantic involvement with the CFO, then what happened to you might qualify as reverse sex discrimination (suffering a job detriment because another employee's romantic relationship with a supervisor secures more favorable treatment). In any event, HR should have been able to flag this issue, and they should have immediately conducted an investigation to determine what, exactly, was going on.

Even assuming that your boss was hired under entirely legitimate circumstances, it sounds like her management of you left something to be desired. This is a trickier issue for HR departments to handle, as they must determine based upon limited data whether the problems in the supervisor-subordinate relationship derive from a conflict of personalities and styles or from one or the other party's underperformance. Usually, a number of different factors contribute to the situation, and an astute HR professional will be able to resolve the interpersonal conflict while at the same time addressing any underlying performance problems. In your case, although HR was empathetic, they basically chose to avoid the real issue.

If the administration of this hospital is, in fact, corrupt, then the response of your HR department is not surprising. Under such circumstances, who in their right mind would want to become involved in unearthing an inappropriate relationship between the CFO and one of his direct reports, while at the same time calling that direct report's management style and ethics into question? This does not excuse HR's failure to act, but it may help to explain it.

But your question really is what you, as a concerned citizen, should be doing to seek a resolution to the hospital's ethical issues. First, if you believe that your treatment and ultimate termination was a product of reverse sex discrimination, you can pursue the matter with your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission field office or your state's human rights agency. They will gather additional information from you about the circumstances of your employment and they will determine whether the matter is worth investigating. Second, you can write to members of your state and federal legislatures, and you can write to the editors of your local papers. I can also imagine that certain watchdog organizations may be keenly interested in hearing your story.

One word of caution: As you pursue your cause, share only information that is absolutely beyond dispute, being very careful not to needlessly disparage your former boss or the CFO. If you disseminate damaging information about these individuals that can be proven false, and if they suffer harm as a result, you run the risk of facing a defamation claim. The only possible exception to this caveat is for information which you disclose to an EEO enforcement agency.

Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail hradvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered. The information contained in this column is not intended to be legal advice.

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