Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston is one of the area’s major health care institutions. It is also, depending on whose opinion you happen to believe, one of Boston’s best or not-so-great employers.
Beth Israel CEO Paul Levy recently attracted kudos from Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen when he gathered his staff and urged them to work together to find ways to avoid layoffs of low-paid support staff:
“I want to run an idea by you that I think is important, and I’d like to get your reaction to it,” Levy began. “I’d like to do what we can to protect the lower-wage earners – the transporters, the housekeepers, the food service people. A lot of these people work really hard, and I don’t want to put an additional burden on them.
“Now, if we protect these workers, it means the rest of us will have to make a bigger sacrifice,” he continued. “It means that others will have to give up more of their salary or benefits.”
He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when Sherman Auditorium erupted in applause. Thunderous, heartfelt, sustained applause.
Cullen’s story has been picked up by the national media, cited as an example of a CEO who empathizes with the rank-and-file worker and who wants to save jobs, even if it means that others take home lower pay.
However, a labor-backed website, “Eye on BI” (http://www.eyeonbi.org/) has not regarded the employment practices of Levy and Beth Israel so charitably:
Beth Israel Deaconess CEO Paul Levy is the only hospital CEO in the Greater Boston Area who has publicly attacked the proposal for a code of conduct guaranteeing that hospital employees would be able to make up their own minds free of intimidation and coercion on the question of whether to join together as a Union.
Can these contrasting views co-exist? As I’ve written several times on this blog, job preservation is one of the most socially responsible practices an employer can adopt during this recession. On the other hand, as I’ve also said, unions are important sources of power and voice for workers.
Levy did the right thing by calling together his employees and asking them how they can save jobs. But a good union also can help to safeguard workers from job losses when times are tough, and advocate for better wages and benefits when times are good, even when the CEO isn’t doing the right thing. Indeed, a union can help to improve the wages of the very “lower-wage earners” that Levy sought to protect.
Levy appears to be the kind of CEO who welcomes input but who doesn’t like to share power. This isn’t meant as a swipe at Levy personally — hey, many of us would prefer to operate that way if in charge — but as our economy has tanked and scandal after scandal has been unearthed, we’ve seen how unchecked power is not a good thing. I hope that more leaders will do what Levy did. However, we should not rely upon the model of the “benevolent leader” to deliver accountability and fairness in our places of employment.