Company man

The business of America is business, and business is killing us

We all know about managers who abuse their subordinates, usually because (I presume some knowledge of my audience here) we have worked for such people. Details among such cases diverge in some respects, but there are similarities, usually having to do with the self-regard of the abusive manager and said manager’s willingness to take their abuse to great heights to sustain that vision of themselves, which sometimes convinces (at least for a time) his superiors that he’s every bit as magnificent as he considers himself, and so gets them to turn a blind eye to his behavior until the whole thing collapses (or, as sometimes happens, he gets away with it).

If you have suffered from this yourself, you may find interesting the complaint from an age and sex discrimination lawsuit against Mt. Sinai Health System’s Arnhold Institute for Global Health (AIGH) and Dr. Prabhjot Singh, director of the System’s Arnhold Institute for Global Health et alia. Disclosure: I’m a friend of someone involved with the case, so feel free to take these descriptions I reproduce from the complaint with a grain of salt. But there are attributes of Singh’s alleged (and we will abandon that word here so as not to impede the narrative, with the understanding these are all allegations) reign of terror that may seem familiar to you working stiffs.

Young and mentored by Mt. Sinai made man Dr. Dennis Charney, as an applicant Singh apparently fudged his credentials, in part by listing citations to make it seem as if he were principal author of papers where he was not. “He came across as unprepared and underqualified,” the complaint says, “a clearly charismatic young man who had not had enough time or experience to qualify him to run the Institute.”

But Charney liked him, and he had also charmed Dr. Kevin Starr, representing the Arnhold family, which had heavily endowed the System and the Institute. Starr, the complaint says, “believed that AIGH needed a brand, a ‘special sauce’ to truly develop and become successful. He told [an executive] that Singh was a visionary, somebody who could use his je ne sais quoi to change the world.” Singh got the gig.

A young arriviste promoted above his station by enamored elders: Is this sounding familiar? It reminded me of Elizabeth Holmes.

The Chair of the Advisory Board, Elizabeth Stern, wanted to get a load of this guy and was instructed to meet him “at the offices of Peter Peterson of the Peterson Institute, where Singh worked as a consultant.” (Red flag!) “He initially gave her the wrong address for the meeting,” the complaint states, “and when she could not find the location, he told her that she should have been able to find the entrance on her own.”

The story continues:

...Singh opened their meeting by saying he was not sure there was much to talk about, which again seemed oddly dismissive.

Singh spent the rest of their hour-long session boasting about himself and his connections. Despite her ten years of experience on the Advisory Board, and her experience as a fundraiser and a philanthropist in public health, Singh often interrupted her and dismissed her opinions...

Stern was eventually forced out. In fact Singh let it be known he considered the entire Board “ladies who lunch” and dissolved it entirely after two meetings.

Singh also had problems with Dr. Holly Atkinson, who directed a human rights program at the Institute. Singh demoted her, proposed to cut her pay by 40%, told her she was on her way out and, it is suggested, sexually harassed her (“Singh touched Atkinson’s upper thigh and said, ‘Let’s do this with empathy’”) before she resigned.

Singh also had problems with the Institute’s Program Manager, Elena Rahona, whom he muscled out by hiring his own COO; in fact, he told Rahona to post to Mt. Sinai’s job board a listing for the COO position, which was “nearly identical to her own.” When she remonstrated with him by telephone, the complaint says, “Singh opened the call brusquely, telling Rahona, ‘I don’t have a lot of time’ followed by ‘Is this about the position? I’m not supposed to have to deal with this.’ Before Rahona had a chance to say anything, he added, ‘I need someone intellectually capable and whom I can trust.’” She too was demoted and resigned.

Singh is portrayed in the complaint as devoted to purging his executive staff of “legacy” employees who almost exclusively turned out to be older women. And he was extremely fond of the new, the cutting-edge, and the expensive. He commissioned big-ticket studies (“By Singh’s own estimate, PopTech would send the Institute a six-figure bill, which Charney approved”); he was “focused on creating a ‘cool’ tech product as a marker of his leadership.” He also wanted to be supported by a “young, cool, Silicon Valley-type ‘band of brothers’” — junior executives devoted to and dependent on him. He wanted to run AIGH “like a Silicon Valley start-up and believed, as is common in that world, that effective enterprises should be run by young men.”

He was also apparently not above inflating his own achievements, as is shown in this account of a meeting with United States Agency for International Development on his ATLAS satellite-assisted health care project:

Later in the fall, the ATLAS [program] team... traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with [program manager and advisor at USAID Jennifer] Fluder. During this meeting, Fluder asked Singh directly: “How many users does ATLAS have?” Singh was flustered at first, because he knew ATLAS had no users — it was not finished. Rather than admit this, he made up an answer and said something like “ATLAS is covering 20% of Guatemala” and “ATLAS has hundreds of users.” Fluder said that she did not see those numbers anywhere in the draft report and asked Singh to include that statistic in the final version.

“The final version of the report,” says the complaint, “contained a number of false statements...”

Like I said, take the complaint how you will; there may be many valid objections to it, including that what it describes is not extraordinary at that level of business — which is rather the point: There’s something super-familiar about the described behaviors — the splashy, push-in entree; the “visionary” shtick; the quick, dismissive deck-clearing and load-in of His Kind of People that is supposed to create the stage for great things which aren’t actually ready, and then lying to cover up for it.

Not to mention the abusive behavior by members of the new “cool” team: telling female subordinates they should wear deodorant and makeup, screaming at them (“his face was bright red, he was fuming, spitting and clenching his fists”), saying shit like “You look slutty today,” etc.

I’ve had mostly good bosses, but I’ve also worked under or adjacent to some scumbags, and the one thing the scumbags all had in common, apart from a thoroughly unwarranted egotism, was their devotion to the system — that is, they may have had no principles, nor even manners, but they were expert in (and almost in love with) the tubes and tunnels and levers of the bureaucracy that sustained the company. Paper warfare, power plays, office politics — these things gave them real joy. You could sense their pleasure at getting out of a meeting with less work to do than they came in with because they’d gotten some other sap to take it on, or stiffing someone out of a raise. And it didn’t matter whether the company benefited from their manipulations of the system or not.

And I won’t belabor it (though the biggest objective correlatives are obvious), but it really seems to me that when we talk about all the problems with this country and its leadership, this is one that no one ever mentions, but which has at least as much to do with our predicament as any other American pathology you care to name.