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Opinion Biden adviser resigns over reports of workplace bullying. He should have been immediately fired.

Eric Lander in January 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Eric Lander, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, resigned on Monday after reports that he had engaged in a pattern of egregious workplace bullying ignited ferocious backlash. It never should have come to that.

On the day President Biden was sworn into office, he addressed the White House staff:

He did not say he would merely warn bullies on his staff or slap their wrists. He promised to fire them. Indeed, early on in the administration, TJ Ducklo was forced to resign as deputy White House press secretary after he threatened to “destroy” a Politico reporter for making hay over his relationship with an Axios reporter.

It was therefore striking and frankly inexplicable that Lander, who was responsible for supervising numerous employees, was not fired immediately after an investigation confirmed he was responsible for widespread bullying, harassment and degrading conduct. His conduct explicitly violated the White House’s Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy, which bars “repeated behavior that a reasonable individual would find disrespectful, intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive.”

Earlier on Monday, Rachel Wallace, Lander’s former general counsel, described the quintessential boss from hell to Politico, claiming he “retaliated against staff for speaking out and asking questions by calling them names, disparaging them, embarrassing them in front of their peers, laughing at them, shunning them, taking away their duties, and replacing them or driving them out of the agency.”

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki tried her best at Monday’s news briefing to deflect questions as to why Lander had not been fired. True, the investigation was a result of the executive order. Yes, no one condoned the conduct. And sure, Lander had apologized earlier in the day.

Nevertheless, refusing to fire someone found to have engaged in such egregious conduct that makes the president look insincere and indifferent was tone deaf, to put it mildly. The president and whoever recommended that Lander remain in place thankfully rethought the decision.

Putting on my old employment lawyer hat, I am familiar with decisions about appropriate employee discipline. The severity of the conduct, the number of victims and the rank of the offender must all be considered. But any private workplace with policies similar to the White House’s would have fired, suspended or stripped supervisory duties from someone who behaved as Lander did.

The danger in not acting to punish Lander was threefold. First, it told other employees that equally or slightly less egregious misconduct won’t get them fired. It’s would have been a green light for other bullies. Second, it provided a powerful disincentive for employees to come forward with complaints. If employees think that even the worst offenders will not be fired, they will be far more likely to suffer in silence or simply leave. Third, Biden is no ordinary chief executive. He ran on the promise to restore the soul of the nation. His personal reputation rests on his empathy and personal decency. Allowing a manager this toxic to remain in office besmirched his reputation.

This error was entirely unnecessary. There are plenty of respected scientists who do not behave like schoolyard bullies. Lander was eminently replaceable, so refusing to remove him from his position came off as petulant and misplaced favoritism. It was beneath the dignity of this president and was rightly corrected with Lander’s resignation — but only after exposing an embarrassing lapse in judgment.

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