My Boss Is Torturing a Colleague: What Can I Do?

Last Updated Aug 27, 2009 7:32 PM EDT

Dear Stanley,

In the hospital where I work, a co-worker became pregnant after 15 years of trying. She lost the baby early in the pregnancy and called the boss to say she would be out for a while. Instead of telling the employee how sorry she was, the boss asked when she would return to work. When the employee returned, our boss pulled her from her previous position and put her in Labor and Delivery. This has to be the most insensitive act I've ever witnessed. Is there anything that can be done about this?


Grossed Out

Dear Grossed Out,

There's an old joke that I'm going to clean up for this austere and family-oriented business destination. It goes like this:

Q: Why does a dog lick itself?

A: Because it can.

Sometimes I think this is a thoroughly accurate assessment of the way management works. Why would a person behave the way your hospital bosses have done in this case? Because they can. Here are the things they can do:

  1. They can be insensitive, because there is no punishment for that sin in most workplaces, in fact depending on the nature of ultra-senior management it may actually be encouraged as a sign of strength;
  2. They can assign and reassign people at will, without any thought for the personal implications involved, in the name of Productivity and Efficiency;
  3. They can, if they feel like it, get their jollies off by screwing with people's heads the way their bosses screw with theirs.
Those are only a few of the things that management can do, and does, because in most organizations they will get away with it. By the way, I'm assuming there is no personal animus against the employee here, because that is most probably the case. These bosses don't need to hate an employee in order to torture him or her. It's just what they can do. And so they do.

We can pretty much discount the formal complaint procedures here, too, because the losers who did this don't have "think about the emotions of a vulnerable human being" as part of their job descriptions. You're in a hospital, the cold, hard center of uncaring in most cases. I don't need to tell you that; you work there. When I was in the hospital a few years ago, I saw a group of interns, nurses and residents working with a crash cart over my then-roommate, who was semi-comatose. He had choked on a fish bone and was seizing all over the place. The team was clearly having a very good time. Laughing. Joking. Making sexy jokes about their upcoming weekend. Every now and then they'd get the paddles out and jolt his heart. After a while, they wheeled the guy out. I never saw him again.

Sure, there are loving, caring, sensitive people in hospitals. I'm not sure many of them are bosses there, though. Another story: When my mother was in her 70s, she had osteoporosis and arthritis in her back. Being the energetic, do-it-yourself kind of person she was, she tried to raise a window in her house that had been stuck for several decades. In so doing, she broke a couple of vertibrae and could not move. We took her to the hospital. They discussed several options and stablized her. The next day I got a call. "Your mother is being released today," they said. "When would you like to come and get her?" I observed with some heat that she couldn't walk and that nobody had addressed that issue. "Well," said the thoughtful voice at the other end of the line, "She's being released. When will you be picking her up?" Fortunately, I can be very nasty when I want to and I work for a very public company, so I called the president of the hospital, who was shocked! -- shocked, I tell you! - at such insensitivity and lack of caring. She was released several days later, after she had been diagnosed, treated to the best of their ability, and arrangements had been made for her longer-term care. She was out of care in three months, by the way, and walked around just fine for another ten years. But I tremble to think what would have happened had the kind of bureaucrats who hurt your colleague had their way with her.

What to do? If you care about your friend, I'd say to go to this department head in private and ask whether she had considered the personal implications of heractions. It's possible, believe it or not, that she hasn't. You may take a gentle, perplexed tone, rather than an accusatory one. "I'm sure you haven't considered this, Betty," you may say, "but have you thought about how working in that department makes Edna feel?" "Feel?!" Betty will reply, "We're not about feelings here. You leave your feelings at the door!" To which you may reply, "I know, Betty, you're the boss here, but I wonder if you could give it some thought. I'd like to think you're that kind of person." Who knows. You may appeal to some softer side of the putz. Particularly if you shoot the arrow near her high opinion of herself.