Scandals that aren’t

[Readers will note that my original post on this topic was written on April 27, 2010, when fuller details about Paul Levy’s conduct had yet to become public. The underlying facts are now known and well publicized: Levy had an inappropriate relationship with a female colleague in ways that negatively affected the work of the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital of which he was CEO.

I’ve decided to keep the original post with the updates. I believe his resignation, announced in January 2011, was appropriate. Many other employees would’ve been fired outright for such conduct, and rightly so. I also remain very troubled by the groundswell of mostly anonymous Internet commentary that continually accompanied news reports of this story.]

***

Paul Levy may not be a household name nationally, but within healthcare circles and New England generally, he is well known as the outspoken and forthright CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston.  His blog, Running a Hospital, is his popular platform for commentary about hospital administration and healthcare policy.

Anonymously dropping a dime

Well, it turns out that someone anonymously dropped a dime on Levy concerning an apparent personal lapse or indiscretion, and it was sufficient for the hospital’s board to check it out.  The whole matter resulted in an agreement between Levy and the hospital that his conduct had been inappropriate, but not sufficient for him to lose his job.  Levy himself has issued an apology for his conduct, without specifying what it happened to be.

At least that’s how the story is developing courtesy of the Boston Globe.  And frankly, unless the details pertain more directly to Beth Israel Deaconess as an employer or perhaps Levy’s performance as a boss, I really don’t care to know more about his supposed transgression.

Work and privacy

Levy’s anonymous well-wisher obviously wanted to create difficulty for him.  Levy is a public figure in these parts, and this incident may cause him some discomfort.  Mission accomplished, right?

And how sad if that is the case…You know how I first learned about this story?  I saw that people found this blog by typing in search terms such as “Paul Levy scandal.”  (WordPress’s blog management function allows us to see popular search terms, but NOT the identity of the individual web surfer, I assure you!)  Last year I wrote a blog entry about the hospital’s labor policies, and Levy responded with a perfectly appropriate critique of what I posted.  So when folks started hunting around the Internet for more information about Levy’s personal situation, the search engines picked up my earlier post.

Piling on

Good heavens, we’re seeing one of the most disturbing aspects of the Internet play out before us.  An individual’s personal transgression, which by all accounts must be measured against a strong record of organizational and professional leadership, is translated into a “scandal” in the public eye.  That is very, very wrong.  I may not be in agreement with everything Levy has said or done.  But this story may allow his critics to pile on top unfairly, and mob scenes scare me.

Update: The Boston Globe reports that the Levy situation involved a relationship with a female co-worker.

***

May 3 update: Levy posts an apology on his blog, which includes the text of a memo released by Beth Israel Deaconess announcing that he was censured and fined $50,000 by the board of trustees, while being retained as CEO of the hospital.  Now that the matter appears to have been brought to a close, I’m going paste below my earlier response to one of the comments, as I believe it is equally appropo today:

Nothing I’ve read so far about this situation — though I confess I’m not nearly as well-read about it as others — suggests that it is anything but the kind of messy situation that occurs not-so-rarely in today’s workplace.

So, I’ll stick with my main concern.  You can try to turn this into a case study about employment relations, but based on the online comments I’ve read on both Universal Hub and boston.com, this is yet another instance of too many people who (1) get a kick out of watching the potential downfall or at least embarrassment of a public figure; and (2) get all worked up over the fact that they — as self-appointed judge and jury — haven’t been given all the facts they desire to pass proper judgment.

If this was a particularly compelling story of an office relationship gone bad that teaches us new important lessons about the perils of the contemporary workplace, maybe I’d feel differently.  But really now, this is same old, same old.

May 9 update: Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi takes a harsher view of Levy’s conduct in an op-ed piece:

Strip away the gauze and this is what the world sees: an arrogant CEO who intentionally put the reputation of his institution at risk to support the advancement of a female subordinate with whom he had a personal relationship.

Sept. 1 update: Gideon Gil reports for the Boston Globe that the Massachusetts Attorney General has sent an opinion letter to Beth Israel concluding that because Levy’s transgressions endangered the hospital’s reputation and management, the discipline imposed on him was appropriate and perhaps even necessary.

Jan. 7, 2011 update: Paul Levy submitted his resignation (link to letter, here). Although he does not give this situation as the reason for his departure, it would be surprising if the ongoing public criticism he has continued to field did not play a role in his decision.

7 responses

  1. To quote my grandmother, poised before the icebox in August, “This doesn’t smell right.”

    We don’t know very much about this “lapse,” David, but the more salient question is this: Why do we know anything about it at all?

    This is truly a bizarre and discomfiting chapter in workplace ethics. A public apology for…what? Imagine someone offering you a sincere apology but refusing to tell you what he did wrong.

    The person or persons who squealed to Beth Israel Deacon’s board of directors apparently disclosed their information only to the board. Not to the Globe or Herald.

    Why then release a statement from the board and a corresponding statement from Mr. Levy? Unless, of course, it’s well-known that some members of the board are incapable themselves of discretion?

    This seems only to be inviting young, hungry, investigative reporters to try establishing their reputations.

    So, again…if this was simply an indiscretion, presumably between consenting adults, why make “it” public? Whom does it serve?

    We’re all thinking that this was an affair with a co-worker (who would have to be a subordinate), but if all parties emerged reasonably unscathed, then why bring it to everyone’s attention?

    I would guess that the board is concerned to protect themselves, just in case more details do indeed come to light. Which means that the public’s perception may well prove that this was more than a peccadillo and may indeed have involved a more serious breach of workplace ethics. Or even law. Is there an injured party, here, and, if so, how serious is the injury?

    You know, if Mr. Clinton had said, “Yes, I did have sex with that young woman. Several other women, besides. That’s how I roll,” then we could have avoided a year-long, national nightmare and having our fine rinsables displayed shamelessly before the international court of opinion. He would have lost some support, but he would have gained some, as well. Mine, for example. Points for stepping up and owning who you are.

    In all honesty, only the completely disinterested will let this most recent incident go. So…what did you do, Mr. Levy? You don’t have to mention names or sordid details, if there are any. Just tell us why you’re apologizing and what we’re forgiving, and the overwhelming majority of us will awaken, tomorrow, to a new day…and get on with the business of living in these zany times.

    Otherwise, we’ll be rooting around in the icebox for months to come, trying to locate the source of that elusive, errant odor.

  2. For whatever reason, they (BID and Levy) thought they had to get out in front of this story. But I’m more disturbed by the blood-smelling sense of entitlement to the details that some are exhibiting in public postings.

  3. So, now, according to the latest Globe article, it turns out that Mr. Levy was involved in an extra-curricular relationship. Big surprise. But, frankly, only the theologically impaired and maliciously vindictive care whether he was having an affair. Ho hum. Let’s get on with the business of living our lives.

    But…wait! A severance package? One that the board of directors may insist that he repay to the medical center?

    One of two things is true, here, David. Either it was a legitimate financial arrangement, paid to a loyal employee for her years of dedicated service. Or it wasn’t.

    If not, was it hush money? A gift to a lover at the medical center’s expense? This ought to be fairly easy and straightforward to discern.

    So it’s not far-fetched to say that the injured parties here may be, ultimately, the patients served by the medical center–the folks whose quality care is determined, in part, by the funds available for legitimate expenses, whether staff salaries, radiology equipment, or bulk-rate tongue depressors.

    If there is an apology appropriate to the injury, here, it may not be, “Sorry, I had a lapse in judgment,” but rather, “Sorry, I stole money from you…and may, as a result, have adversely affected the quality of patient care.”

    Complicated business, this workplace ethics stuff.

    Lest we try and condemn the defendant in a single breath, however, let us attend to the evidence as it emerges. It may well turn out that the severance package in question was well-deserved and completely legitimate. If so, the board is out-of-line in asking Mr. Levy to repay it. And also out-of-line to ask him to forgo annual bonuses, just because he had an affair. Whose own personal history among the members of the board can withstand the scrutiny of young, hungry investigative reporters? (Blood-sniffing, entitled minds want to know.)

    But the verdict on Mr. Levy’s judgment is, as far as the press has been able to determine, still out.

    I hate to say it, but, if not for the prurient interests of a few entitled blood-sniffers, David, we probably wouldn’t know that the simple story of a lapse in judgment may turn out to be much more complicated.

  4. Nothing I’ve read so far about this situation — though I confess I’m not nearly as well-read about it as others — suggests that it is anything but the kind of messy situation that occurs not-so-rarely in today’s workplace.

    So, I’ll stick with my main concern. You can try to turn this into a case study about employment relations, but based on the online comments I’ve read on both Universal Hub and boston.com, this is yet another instance of too many people who (1) get a kick out of watching the potential downfall or at least embarrassment of a public figure; and (2) get all worked up over the fact that they — as self-appointed judge and jury — haven’t been given all the facts they desire to pass proper judgment.

    If this was a particularly compelling story of an office relationship gone bad that teaches us new important lessons about the perils of the contemporary workplace, maybe I’d feel differently. But really now, this is same old, same old.

  5. Paul Levy’s behavior with regard to his subordinate was unethical and immoral because it involved the hospital, his employer. By giving his lover a severance package, he stole from BIDMC. He has long skirted workplace ethics, but this time he went too far and he should be gone. He has lost his credibility – witness the resignations of Chester Black and Pat Ryan – and he is a poor representative of a once eminent hospital. Unfortunately, while a patient at BIDMC, I had to deal with his cruelty and this after having recently survived a bout of breast cancer. To learn more about my story, log onto http://www.tvyourhealthcare.org.

  6. So, David, you didn’t take my previous posts seriously. Are you taking Pulitzer Prize-winning Joan Venocchi’s editorial in the Sunday Globe/boston.com seriously?

    This is not simply a matter of a private individual trying to have a discreet affair. This affects us all.

    This sort of arrogance among our public and private institutions’ leadership is ultimately what will bring us all down–just like Caligula’s Rome.

    • Joan Vennochi’s column makes some good points and I added a mention of and link to it to my original post.

      I happen to share much alarm about the state of leadership in this city, state, and country. However — and perhaps I’m jaded — when viewed against the pantheon of ethical lapses, thuggery, and corruption that too often characterizes how business is conducted in this town, the Levy situation doesn’t press my buttons as much as it does yours.

      At the very least, I’m equally concerned about the state of public discourse, in that too many people hide behind the anonymity provided by the Internet to relentlessly dump on people whose actions subject them to public scrutiny. In fact, that may be one reason why the state of leadership is what it is: Good people decide to opt out, recognizing (correctly) that their transgressions or weaknesses, real and imagined, will become fodder for the haters.

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