Bullying behaviors undermined nominee for head of U.S. Veterans Affairs

From the Washington Post

This week White House physician Ronny L. Jackson removed his name from consideration to be the next Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, following allegations of excessive issuing of prescriptions, drunkenness on the job, and creation of abusive work environments. While the former two factors likely played the larger role in undermining the candidacy of President Trump’s nominee to head the veterans affairs department, the vetting of Dr.Jackson’s candidacy revealed an apparent pattern of bullying behaviors directed mainly at subordinates.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs is a presidential cabinet position and requires Senate approval. Pursuant to that process, staffers for the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee investigated Jackson’s background and record. This two-page summary of concerns prepared by committee staffers (screenshot above) included the following allegations, based on interviews of 23 current and former colleagues of Dr. Jackson:

Individuals noted a constant fear of reprisal. Specific examples that would identify the individuals concerned have been provided to Committee staff but are not provided here to protect their identities.

***

Jackson was described as “the most unethical person I have ever worked with”, “flat-out unethical”, “explosive”, “100 percent bad temper”, “toxic”, “abusive”, “volatile”, “incapable of not losing his temper”, “the worst officer I have ever served with”, “despicable”, “dishonest”, as having “screaming tantrums” and “screaming fits”, as someone who would “lose his mind over small things”, “vindictive”, “belittling”, “the worse leader I’ve ever worked for.” Day-to-day environment was like “walking on eggshells.” As Jackson gained power he became “intolerable.” One physician said, “I have no faith in government that someone like Jackson could be end up at VA.” A nurse stated, “this [working at the White House Medical Unit] should have been the highlight of my military career but it was my worst assignment.” Another stated that working at WHMU was the “worst experience of my life.”

***

Jackson was viewed as someone who “would roll over anyone”, “worked his way up on the backs of others”, “was a suck up to those above him and abusive to those below him”, a “kiss up, kick down boss”, “put his needs above everyone else’s.”

Because the report was publicly released by Democratic staff members of the Committee, there’s no doubt that partisan politics are at play here. Nevertheless, the Washington Post reported that it “has independently been told stories of misconduct by Jackson” similar to those in the report, including allegations of on-the-job drunkenness.

Another kiss up, kick down bully

“Kiss up, kick down” types are among the most common of workplace bullies. Another example is John Bolton, President Trump’s recent appointee for National Security Advisor, who is well-known for his volcanic temper and lack of personal restraint. Here’s a snippet from what I wrote about Bolton back in 2005, pursuant to his (successful) nomination as Ambassador to the United Nations:

In recent months, many . . . [bullying] behaviors have been attributed to Bolton by current and former State Department co-workers and contractors. Ex-State Department intelligence chief Carl Ford, a Republican appointee, called Bolton a “serial abuser” of subordinates, adding that he showed a talent for stroking superiors while kicking down underlings.

marginThe most publicized allegations came from Melody Townsel, a woman who worked with Bolton in Moscow under a government contract in 1994. Townsel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton chased her down the halls of a Moscow hotel, threw a tape dispenser at her, made disparaging remarks about her appearance, left threatening letters under her hotel door, and pounded on her door and yelled at her.

marginBolton is said to have pursued the removal of two intelligence analysts simply for disagreeing with him. He sought to have them fired, claiming that their work had deteriorated. Internal agency reviews of the analysts’ work found no merit to the claims. Other reports indicate that Bolton has a talent for shouting down diplomats from other nations and throwing last-minute monkey wrenches into delicate treaty negotiations.

While I happen to believe that President Trump is happy to surround himself with men who conduct themselves similarly, the appointment of workplace bullies to high positions is not limited by political affiliation. For example, several years ago I shared the story of one of President Obama’s ambassadorial selections, Cynthia Stroum:

Businesswoman Cynthia Stroum was appointed U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg after being a key fundraiser for President Obama in 2008. On its own, the Luxembourg gig must be fairly peaceful, but Ambassador Stroum has been stirring up things within the embassy. As reported by Brian Montopoli of CBS News (link here):

It appears that her fundraising abilities did not translate to diplomatic success, however: According to a scathing State Department probe out Thursday (PDF), Stroum was seen by most employees as “aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating.”

. . . Things got so bad, the report says, that staffers asked for transfers to Afghanistan and Iraq due in part to “a climate of acute stress” at the embassy.

One doesn’t have to search hard for the irony that Bolton and Stroum were appointed to diplomatic positions.

In any event, the story of Ronny Jackson suggests that, at the very least, allegations of severe bullying behaviors played a role in the withdrawal of his nomination. From the standpoint of public awareness of workplace bullying and the fact that such behaviors can have negative consequences, I’ll take that incremental progress.

6 responses

  1. There is no effective way to deal with these types of behaviors in a civilian hospital environment. People fear human resources as much. They are known as the KGB of administration. Regulators and recognition programs often see such complaints as employment or legal issues. Often a lone employee complains. Nobody else will come forward. Organizations seem all too glad to look at surveys and no back up from others to draw their conclusions. Such a flawed methodology. When you point this out they refuse to consider anything but their own conventional wisdom. Healthcare is entrenched as any industry. Has the most to loose. Patients die as a result. Self interest prevails. Defies rules of the universe except the good book does reference being “ruled by powers and principalities…hosts of wickedness.” How else can you explain an industry dedicated to saving lives do the opposite. Acting as if it’s the cost of doing business. Patients and staff being collateral damage.

  2. One of the great political lessons that’s there for the learning these days is that survival in the orbit of a bully is an onerous and potentially devastating undertaking. I think it will be heard and understood where it can effect legislative change now that the rich and powerful are feeling the effects.

    Poor Ronny.

    • Martin Niemoller captured it well-

      First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

      Because I was not a Socialist.

      Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

      Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

      Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

      Because I was not a Jew.

      Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

      I see evidence of progress. Men in pink pussy hats, and this!
      https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/25/europe/germany-kippa-protest-intl/index.html

      We’re all in this together.

  3. Can’t help but reflect the cruelty that a bully imposeds on a person – invisible- but painful and cruel. What’s really cruel as in your recent post – the bully goes on unaffected and in the case of Bolton gets a promotion
    Keep writing -your material is appreciated

    • Not hard to imagine the harms outlined in the “toxic workplace” data- but I think it was the unsubstantiated accusation of having wrecked a (surely insured!) car that brought down Ronny’s promotion. He’s back in charge of the medical unit. That’s an indication of how highly valued the workers in that unit are.

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