Thursday, February 19, 2009

Central Character In My Termination Bails Out At UAB

The human-resources director who played a central role in my unlawful termination at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) has left her position.

Cheryl E.H. Locke became vice president for human resources and chief human resources officer at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. Her appointment was effective October 20, 2008.

Locke, a graduate of Brown University, had been chief human resources officer at UAB since January 2005. She played a critical role in my termination, overseeing the grievance process and its aftermath. Apparently the whole time that was going on, in July 2008, Locke was looking for a way to exit UAB. She found it at Wake Forest.

Exactly how important is Locke to my journey into HR purgatory? Consider:

* She oversaw my my grievance process, and the day after the hearing in my case, summoned me for a meeting in her office;

* She informed me that the grievance committee, consisting of three fellow UAB employees, had found that I should not have been terminated. (I've been told by more than one Birmingham lawyer that they had never heard of a UAB grievance committee voting to overturn a termination.) But Locke added several caveats: I would have to return to work with two written warnings in my file; I would have to return to an unspecified position other than the one I previously held; I would have to agree to quit blogging. (I'm not making this last one up, folks; when asked to confirm the blogging proviso in writing, Locke backed down and said she meant I would have to blog on my own time. I politely informed her that the IT guy who testified at my grievance hearing confirmed that I had been blogging on my own time all along.)

* When I informed Locke that I could not accept her proposed terms, she refused to negotiate and went against her own committee by upholding my termination. (Why did I reject her proposal? One, I sat through the entire grievance hearing, and there was not a shred of evidence to support discipline of any kind, much less two written warnings. Two, an employee who receives three written warnings in an 18-month period of time is automatically fired, so Locke's proposal was a bad-faith effort to set me up to be fired again; Three, I was not going to give up a job I had earned and performed well, according to UAB's own records, when there was zero evidence that I should have been disciplined at all.)

* In a letter dated July 18, 2008, Locke exhibited a remarkable capacity for pretzel logic as she explained her reasons for upholding a termination that her own committee had found was wrongful. By the way, when I asked to see a copy of the committee's written report, Locke refused. I still haven't seen it.

* In another stunning display of pretzel logic, UAB President Carol Garrison also upheld my termination, and I reported on that in a post dated October 15, 2008. Now we discover that, at the time of that post, Cheryl E.H. Locke had already "left the building" at UAB.

Here's what I will always remember about my interaction with Cheryl E.H. Locke (other than wondering what the heck E.H. stands for): When she made her proposal that I return to some unspecified "other" job, she told me, "My staff and I are fully committed to making sure that you have a positive experience in this new position."

How committed was Locke? So committed that she apparently was looking for another job at the time she spoke those words.

And how about this for timing? A little more than a month after my last meeting with Locke, I began to notice something curious when I checked my blog statistics: A lot of people were finding my blog by keying in the words "Cheryl E.H. Locke." And I could tell that quite a few of them were coming from servers at Wake Forest University.

"I wonder if she's looking for another job," I remember thinking to myself. In fact, I considered posting about what I was seeing on my blog statistics, but I decided against it. Turns out blog statistics don't lie: Cheryl E.H. Locke was looking for a way out of UAB at the same time she was making me a bad-faith offer to return.

Why did Cheryl Locke leave UAB? Well, I can only speculate about that, but this much is clear: She appears to have taken a career step backward, and that's not something folks usually do if they like the work environment they are in.

As Wake Forest's own press release states, Locke was head of the entire HR enchilada at UAB--the university, the hospital, the works. At Wake Forest, she leads the HR function for just the medical center.

Wake Forest is a prestigious place, but as a private institution, it is significantly smaller--in terms of student enrollment and number of employees--than UAB. And in terms of prestige, UAB takes a back seat to very few biomedical research centers; it certainly does not take a back seat to Wake Forest.

Cheryl Locke might have all kinds of professional and personal reasons for leaving UAB and heading to Tobacco Road. But here is my perspective:

Locke and I worked in the same building for three-plus years--in fact I was just one floor above her--but I never laid eyes on her until I was summoned to her office regarding my grievance hearing. That doesn't mean anything, other than being something I find curious. I'm pretty good at paying attention to my surroundings and recognizing faces, and I thought I would recognize most people who worked in the UAB Administration Building. For example, I used to chat on the elevators with Locke's predecessor, Susan Barber McWilliams, all the time; she was a familiar face. But I had never seen Locke until I was called into her office.

Like most folks, I don't bat .1000 when it comes to judging people. But aside from her inexplicable ruling regarding my termination, I had a generally favorable impression of Cheryl Locke.

She seemed smart and pleasant, and I had the impression that she wasn't real comfortable with what she was being forced to do in my situation. (By the way, Locke let me know that she shared progressive views similar to those that I express on my blog, another sign to me that she's probably a pretty good person.) From where I sat, it seemed Locke knew that what she was saying didn't make a lick of sense--and I think that bothered her.

In other words, Cheryl Locke showed signs of having a conscience, and that's something I didn't see a lot in my last few months at UAB.

The bottom line? I'm convinced Cheryl Locke was being forced by higher ups to screw around with me. And my case apparently was not the only one where that happened. A lawsuit filed by veteran UAB faculty member Rosalia Scripa alleges that Locke made curious and perhaps unethical statements to her--again, possibly at the urging of higher ups.

Locke came to UAB with powerful credentials--an Ivy League education, experience at major health-care institutions in Boston, Jacksonville, and the Washington, D.C., area. Someone like that usually values her reputation. And I'm guessing that Cheryl Locke felt her reputation in the HR field would be tarnished forever if she stayed much longer under a corrupt administration at UAB.

I hope Locke finds more pleasant working conditions at Wake Forest, and I'm guessing she did. Ironically, she apparently was hired by Doug Edgeton, who used to work at UAB. I interviewed Doug many times before he left for Wake Forest, and he always seemed to be a thoroughly genuine, decent, and competent individual.

Working for him should be much more pleasant than working for Carol Garrison and the corrupt "Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" at UAB.

Based on the number of Wake Forest people who apparently read about Locke on my blog, I'm guessing she had to answer some interesting questions about her time at UAB.

In fact, I bet Locke and Edgeton have had some interesting conversations about the cesspool UAB has become--and how glad both of them probably are to be out of there. This is one Legal Schnauzer who would have enjoyed being a fly on the wall for that conversation.

Only one downside I can see for Cheryl Locke. Given the number of HR-related lawsuits piling up from her short time at UAB, I'm guessing she will be making a number of return trips to Birmingham for pleasant activities such as depositions. Or perhaps multiple lawyers from Birmingham will be visiting her at Wake Forest. I'm sure that would be fun, too.

Who will get stuck with the bills for these legal services? Probably the tax payers of Alabama. Do you think UAB's leaders give a rip about that? I doubt it.


Anonymous said...

"When I informed Locke that I could not except her proposed terms, she refused to negotiate and went against her own committee by upholding my termination." "Except"???? Come on, Schnauz. That's the kind of mistake I would expect from one of the right-wing extremists out to get you, not from a journalist with your experience.

legalschnauzer said...

You are right. A major screwup on my part. Mea culpa, and I willa changa.