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Extraordinary Workplace Misconduct: Multitasking … While Performing Surgery

November 23, 2021

In our occasional series of outrageous workplace conduct, the marked increase in remote work during the pandemic has created interesting opportunities for employees to engage in some poorly-considered multi-tasking. One that caught some media attention recently involved a Maryland state legislator who attended several legislative voting sessions remotely (that’s fine – everyone did), from an operating room (um… ok? Not really…), during an actual operation (yikes!), in which she was actually performing major surgery! (You can insert your own reaction here. Mine was NSFW).

The legislator, who is also a board-certified plastic surgeon, attended several legislative committee meetings during the last General Assembly session in a surgical mask, scrubs and hair covering. In one meeting, she testified in support of a bill that she was sponsoring. While testifying, she kept looking off camera. (I’ll note that before this meeting, the Committee Chair asked if she was at work. She said yes, to which he replied, “All right, cool, go for it.” Um…) In another meeting, operating room staff could be seen moving equipment and blood stained towels, even as she voted on several bills. The Baltimore Sun reported on this, and a Maryland doctor, who was (understandably) concerned, filed complaints with both the Maryland Board of Physicians and the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.

The legislator/surgeon initially defended herself by saying that there was no dereliction of duty, and that she had received consent from both patients. The Board’s investigation, however, found no consent in the patient records and, in fact, one patient stated that they did not know of the legislative meeting! In a written 10-page order, the Board found the surgeon “guilty of unprofessional conduct in the practice of medicine in violation” of state law. (Yes, as patients, we clearly don’t want our surgeons doing anything but the surgery while in surgery.) In the end, the delegate/surgeon ended up agreeing to accept a reprimand and $15,000 fine, and was allowed to keep her medical license.

Now, on the legislative side, however, apparently the General Assembly doesn’t mind if their legislators are multi-tasking – including performing major surgery – while doing insignificant and minor things like considering and voting on state laws that affect all of us. As reported by the Baltimore Sun on November 19, 2021, the Ethics Committee found that it “was not presented with evidence that Delegate Hill engaged in conduct that violates the standards of legislative ethics.” (Double yikes!!! I mean, I co-chair the Labor and Employment Committee for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. I see these bills. They are complicated. The issues are complicated. They require the full attention of most people.)

I know some people are good at multi-tasking. I consider myself one of them. But to be honest, there are some things that require my full attention – and I might be able to do them while doing something else at the same time, but truthfully not as well. (That’s my husband in the background, vigorously agreeing with that statement). I feel like making laws and performing surgery are actions that do each require full attention – maybe the legislator/surgeon was performing both admirably, but it’s not a good look.

So for remote employees, not being in the office does mean that they have less oversight and more ability to do non-work activities during, or maybe instead of, their actual work. Now most remote employees aren’t juggling activities with such weight. And some people can accomplish it – or even be more productive than when they’re in the office.  But not everyone is quite so capable or honest – and what can employers do?

Well there are certainly aggressive options like monitoring and surveillance technologies. But many employers feel like that’s too much and creates the wrong environment. So it’s important to establish reasonable standards of performance and productivity – the same standards that would apply in the office – and then hold employees accountable to them. And to do it consistently for all remote employees. And remember, although remote work might have been the only option earlier on in the pandemic, with vaccinations increasing and offices reopening, remote work is now a privilege, not a right. (Except as may be required as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act for employees with disabilities that prevent them from working in the office, of course – different issue). If an employer feels that the remote employee is not being as productive (or honest), they can be required to return to the office!

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