HR report: Metro Health director accused of gender discrimination

Report: allegations “mostly corroborated and substantiated”

By: and - December 9, 2020 1:29 pm
Metro Nashville Health Department and Lentz Clinic (Photo: Metro Health, Facebook)

Metro Nashville Health Department and Lentz Clinic (Photo: Metro Health, Facebook)

A Human Resources investigation into gender and pregnancy discrimination complaints brought by two women against Metro Public Health Director Dr. Michael Caldwell has recommended Caldwell pursue “professional resources” to address any ongoing discrimination.

The 15-page report by HR officials obtained by Tennessee Lookout concluded the complaints were “mostly corroborated and substantiated.”  The document also noted HR officials do not have authority to fire Dr. Caldwell as public health director — a request made by both women. That is up to the six-member Metro Board of Public Health.

The board is meeting Wednesday evening in “executive session” — a private meeting to discuss the report.

“We as a board are committed to providing a safe and healthy work environment for all of our employees,” board chairman Dr. Alex Jahangir said. “This week the Metro Nashville Human Resources Department concluded a very thorough investigation into the incidents, and we are in the process of reviewing it.”

Instead the HR report recommended Dr. Caldwell seek education, training or other help.

“We recommend Dr. Caldwell pursue professional resources, inside and/or outside of Metro, to properly identify, address and mitigate any ongoing real or perceived discrimination,” the report concluded.

“It is imperative that Dr. Caldwell demonstrates consistent approaches to males and females within his department. We recommend that the Board of Health hold Dr. Caldwell accountable for addressing this behavior in a timely manner.”

Dr. Michael Caldwell, director of Metro Public Health Department (Photo: LinkedIn)

One complaint alleges that Dr. Caldwell sought to terminate a long-serving female employee, who was pregnant, after she challenged him during a phone call about why he was not in the office when an emergency arose. Caldwell later speculated with a male colleague that the woman’s pregnancy was affecting her “emotional stability.”

A second complaint brought by Leslie Waller, an epidemiologist at the department, alleged that changes in the department’s organizational chart “negatively and disproportionately affects women, effectively demoting several women on the ELT (executive leadership team) while leaving the status of men on the ELT relatively or explicitly unchanged.”

Waller also said she and other employees observed “‘frequent and clear disdain for women on weekly calls and in meetings.”

In an email sent to colleagues Wednesday morning, obtained by the Tennessee Lookout, Dr. Caldwell said he was “reviewing this sincerely and take the report seriously.”

“I have been fully cooperative with HR and will continue working with them, the Board of Health and all of you to address the issues and concerns outlined in the report.”

Caldwell also said he had spoken to Metro HR Director Shannon Hall Wednesday morning and “reinforced my strong belief in and commitment to diversity.  I have focused on developing a leadership team that demonstrates my core values.  I will be addressing any deficiencies of unconscious bias and am working to develop a professional and personal work plan guided by HR.

The investigation report highlighted a tense exchange between Caldwell and Health Department Bureau Director Rachel Franklin, a 12-year veteran of the department. According to the report, Franklin and other staffers were left scrambling in early May after Gov. Bill Lee announced a mask covering distribution campaign to be led by local health departments. Franklin and another official called Caldwell, who had set up shop at the Office of Emergency Management away from the health department headquarters. Franklin urged Caldwell to return to the health department offices to figure out how to launch the mask distribution, noting that people were milling outside the building.

“We need you here,” Franklin told Caldwell over the phone that day. “We have things that happen every day that you are not here for, and we need you here.”

According to the HR investigation, “Each of the witnesses stated that Ms. Franklin was expressing a common sentiment amongst the Bureau Directors that Dr. Caldwell’s presence was needed at the Lentz Public Health Center, both generally and in this specific situation, for support.”

The mask distribution began that day, according to the report, successfully distributing over 20,000 masks following less than an hour of preparation. But, witnesses interviewed by the HR department say following the phone exchange, Caldwell wanted Franklin, who was pregnant, fired.

Caldwell was informed by the department’s human resources director that Franklin was a civil service employee, which afforded her employment protections.

“So Dr. Caldwell instructed him, ‘Do what you need to do, even if you need to reassign her to another bureau,’” According to the report. “(Health official Les) Bowron felt uncomfortable with being asked to carry out this request and asked for more time to think through the potential courses of action.

“He said as they were discussing this, Dr. Caldwell said, ‘You know she is pregnant, and I wonder if that isn’t impacting her emotional stability.’ Mr. Bowron replied, ‘Michael, I’m not your attorney, but if I were you, I would never utter those words again because that’s a violation of Title VII.’”

The HR report concluded that although Franklin’s pregnancy was not a motivating factor in Caldwell wanting her fired or reassigned, his comments were “troubling.”

“Dr. Caldwell’s comments about Ms. Franklin’s pregnancy affecting her ‘emotional stability,’ within the same conversation in which he weighed the options of termination or reassignment, opens his comments to reasonable concerns about his rationale for actions related to her employment,” the HR report concludes.

The report also detailed complaints by the two women over Dr. Caldwell’s proposed changes to the health department’s organizational chart, saying it singled out women for demotion.

Caldwell is seeking to remake internal workings of the department — a subject the Board of Health will tackled at a lengthy retreat on Friday. 

Under Caldwell’s proposal, presented to his senior leadership team four months after his altercation with Franklin, Franklin’s role would shift significantly. Franklin, whose area of expertise is public health preparedness, would no longer have that responsibility. 

Other witnesses interviewed by HR officials said “some changes seemed punitive, noting that female employees who had questioned Dr. Caldwell or had expressed resistance to him seemed to be most affected.”

About Franklin specifically, “witnesses gave consistent statements they interpreted the change as punitive.”

“It appears that they’re (the org chart changes) punitive,” said Dr. Gil Wright, III, a senior physician at the health department who spoke to HR investigators. 


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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.