Doctor’s LEWD workplace antics place storied medical school in limelight

Photo from InSapphoWeTrust on the Flickr Creative Commons.

Yale medical school has found itself at the centre of a sexual workplace bullying controversy

‘Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’ –or, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

That French expression perfectly encapsulates the futility felt by anti-workplace bullying advocates who see the same narratives play out in the news, time and time again.

In these stories a witness or target of bullying will get the courage to make an accusation to authorities, they will be belittled, harassed or discredited by their tormentor and often the very institution they work for. But inevitably the truth of these accusations are exposed by the media or co-workers.

After the public knows about a scandal there isn’t much that an institution can do except try to right their wrongs, promise reform publicly and hope the whole thing eventually goes away. But more often than not the underlying cultural problems remain and nothing changes.

One can’t help but notice this narrative play out again when reading a recent New York Times article by Tamar Lewin titled Seven Allege Harassment by Yale Doctor at Clinic.

The Doctor is Out

Nephrology professor Dr. Rex L. Mahnensmith, who had over 20 years experience at Yale Medical School, was removed last year after a number of sexual harassment complaints. At the time he was the Director at a New Haven Dialysis Clinic.

Two new federal cases have been brought against Dr. Mahnensmith from his time at Yale; a year after the school likely had thought the problem was behind them. The case involves seven present and former employees of the dialysis center Mahnensmith worked at, including a social worker, nurses and a dietitian.

This also came just one year after a sexual harassment scandal involving the Head of Cardiology at the same school. Leading many to question the type of culture that exists within the upper echelons of the Yale medical community.

For his part, Dr. Mahnensmith is the subject of sexual misconduct allegations dating as far back as a decade ago and as recent as 2013. The accusations largely involve the doctor sexually assaulting his coworkers by pressing his erect penis against them, giving unwanted massages or restraining and mimicking sex with female co-workers.

The New York Times article quotes Jennifer Zito, the lawyer for six of the plaintiffs, as saying the behaviour had been “going on for years” and that the “staff were just told to try and work around him.”

This is very typical behaviour for a bully who feels entitled to take liberties with the people who work for him. It is also the by-product of the failure of both Yale and the clinic to create a positive workplace culture through fair and transparent rules that apply equally to everyone.

The complaint filed in court states that the clinic was “intent to keep Dr. Mahnensmith happy to protect its contracts with Yale,” because the contract with Yale provided the clinic with financial gains and status in the medical community.

The Fallout

As recently as even two decades ago Dr. Mahnensmith likely would have been able to continue in his position indefinitely as both a doctor and as a workplace sexual harassment bully. The clinic would have kept their mouth shut because they benefited from the Yale contract and Yale would have protected Dr. Mahnensmith from accusations because their reputation as en elite medical school was on the line.

But things have changed. As the New York Times article points out:

“Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who teaches at Harvard Law School, said universities that might have looked the other way when confronted with such accusations were ‘all of a sudden finding that there’s a realistic risk of losing funding if they don’t take complaints seriously.’”

Yale does not want to have their brand associated with workplace sexual harassment, and they definitely do not want their university to be thrown in with the likes of Penn State’s former beloved football coach, the University of North Carolina’s purposeful underreporting, Weslyan University’s “Rape Factory,” or Dalhousie University’s Misogynistic Facebook group.

Alumni and corporate donors, who are crucial to the livelihood of any post secondary institution, simply do not want to be associated with schools that are plagued with scandals.

So, now faced with financial repercussions for not rooting out sexual offenders and bullies from their staff, Universities are much quicker to address these problems.

After publicly claiming to take the issue of workplace bullying seriously, and vowing to deal with the very real issue of sexual assault and gender inequity on campus, these universities hope that the damage to their reputation has been limited.

But guess what? Making bold public declarations and weeding out the worst apples from your broken workplace is never going to address the underlying problems in your institution. Universities need to undertake substantive and cultural changes if they really want to solve this problem –and you can’t do that with a press release.

Otherwise, as is the case with Yale, a school will always be subject to more and more lawsuits, media exposes and negative public backlash.

It’s true that, ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same.’ But cultural change isn’t ‘a thing,’ it’s a social movement. And, if we’re ever going to move past misogyny, harassment and workplace bullying we need to move past these tired and reactive narratives and establish comprehensive proactive solutions.