Many days have passed since the news about CEO Tim Armstrong’s inappropriate and hurtful comments became public knowledge. Opinions have been very consistent on the topic. He was wrong. There has been no rush to assist him with the PR nightmare he created when he assigned blame to “distressed babies” for AOL choosing to change its policies regarding 401(K) benefits for the company. Rightly so. He created the mess. Really, why should anyone help clean it up for him? The “blame” so to speak sits squarely in his lap for his lack of professionalism and good judgement, not to mention his inability to grasp the concept of privacy. This is not his first HR blunder – he was sued in federal court in New York for job discrimination related to an employee who was pregnant with quadruplets in 2005. Apparently this is an area professionally in which he could improve. Perhaps someone will suggest that to him sooner rather than later this time around.
Interestingly, very few questions have been asked about how Tim Armstrong came to have this information in the first place and whether or not he violated HIPAA Privacy Laws when he divulged to the world private medical information related to these two AOL staffers. Although he didn’t publicly disclose the names of the staffers, the information he did release make it possible for others to “figure out” to whom he was referring. If either of those two staffers file a complaint it is possible that a federal investigation could follow to see, if in fact there was a HIPPA violation. HIPPA is designed to do a variety of things for patients and one of those things is to prevent health plans and insurance providers from disclosing information about covered individuals to the employer providing the coverage. Why is this important? This protection prevents employers from taking adverse actions against employees who might have, for example, a sick child. The question remains as to how and why Armstrong received the information about the “distressed babies” in the first place and what exactly, if anything he will be held accountable for going forward. I hope that something is done about this so that the protections that HIPPA is actually supposed to afford patients are upheld.
So there are the nuts and bolts of the issue. And yet, I don’t feel like this is the complete story. I have sat and chewed on this since it happened trying to decide what bothered me the most. To say that I believe what he did was wrong is an understatement. I believe that the two families have the right to be angry. I am impressed with the grace that Deanna Fei exhibited when she accepted Tim Armstrong’s apology. After several days of contemplation I realize that what really bothers me is that this man is incredibly uneducated – and not just uneducated about proper HR policies and human decency. He needs an education related to premature babies. He needs to understand the pain and suffering that families face day after day in the NICU and beyond. He needs a glimpse into the fear that takes up residence in parents’ minds and the guilt that lives in their hearts. This fear and guilt – it isn’t fleeting. It starts as they sit vigil by their baby’s bedside, praying that all the machines and tubes they are hooked up to will make it possible for their child to live another few hours or days. It carries over from the NICU to the home after they have reluctantly left their fragile baby at the hospital for the overnight hours. They lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, praying that the phone doesn’t ring with news that their baby is yet again trying to die and the urgent request that they quickly return to the hospital just in case these are the last moments of their child’s life. It permeates every minute of every day for possibly the rest of their lives.
450,000 babies are born “distressed” each year in this country. That is 1 in 9 that are born to soon. Tim Armstrong is right about one thing – prematurity costs our country a lot of money each year. It costs companies. It costs communities. But most importantly, it costs families, not only financially but emotionally and spiritually as well. And yet what are we really doing about it? Blaming parents who didn’t ask to draw “prematurity card” in the game of life and blaming them for ruining benefits for the rest of the company employees does not remotely begin to solve anything. The mightiest nation in the world, with a ridiculously high rate of prematurity and that’s the best we can do?
That is certainly not the best we can do. So I asked myself – can we make a difference, perhaps one CEO at a time? I believe we can. It is time to open the doors of the NICUs across this country and ask that CEOs step outside of their boardrooms and look at this issue – not on the companies’ financial reports and not on the news. A real look – a face to face look with prematurity that will make them truly uncomfortable. Our industry leaders and innovators need to have the great opportunity to see and experience firsthand the fragile world of the NICU. A trip to their local NICU. Meetings with hospital administrators, NICU staff, and most importantly NICU parents. Spending a day, walking beside a parent to see what “distressed babies” really cost. This real look at the cost of “distressed babies” might result in them stepping up to support research, education programs and parent support programs in their local communities that will change the landscape of prematurity instead of sitting in boardrooms bemoaning the company’s bottom line because inconveniently they have the employee who had a “distressed baby”.
Asking those in leadership positions of our country’s most successful companies to pay attention to their employees and the American consumer that has made them successful is not too much to ask. Those employees and the American consumer happen to be parents to the 1 in 9 babies born prematurely each year in the United States. Asking CEOs to stop for a day, step outside of their boardrooms and visit the world where life is being grown inside a tiny plastic box is not a punishment but merely a reality check. Seeing the world where parents cling to hope that their babies’ fragile lives will stabilize and that at the end of long months in the NICU they will be able to leave and go home with a healthy baby in their arms and find some type of new normal is an opportunity for them. This isn’t asking too much…it is simply asking that our CEOs take their rightful place in making a difference in the world. It is asking that they look at ways the companies under their management can make an impact on a problem that isn’t just one that affects a company’s bottom line but one that affects real people, real babies and the communities in which we live.
Starting tomorrow I will be making a list of all the CEOs in my local community. They should all visit the local NICUs in my community. I will make personal invitations to each of them to step outside of the boardroom and step into the NICU. Will you consider doing the same thing in your community? Will you help make a difference for premature babies and their families, one CEO at a time? Perhaps if we do we will keep HR departments all over the country from dealing with this type of PR nightmare in the future and as a result, benefit families and premature babies with better medical care, prenatal programs, parent education and support because our CEOs saw the great need and stepped up to the plate to make a difference.
Join me, starting tomorrow in making a difference – one CEO at a time.
Based in Fort Worth, NICU Helping Hands offers parent support and education to families both locally and nationally. Married to a neonatologist and mother of four boys, she is passionate about caring for families with premature infants and equipping them for the journey through the NICU and beyond. For more information on how NICU Helping Hands can help empower those in your community, or if you are in need of support or services, please contact Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org