A Parting Shot

July 19, 2013

Here's a cautionary tale about burning bridges in the small diagnostic imaging community.

A radiologist of my acquaintance had an interaction with a former employer. It wasn't a feel-good, heartwarming experience. Not "Gosh, we miss you," or "Can we please work together again?" No, this was more of a parting shot - stretching the definition about as far as it can go, since their actual parting had been many months prior.

It was also unusual in that there hadn't been any open hostilities beforehand. About the most unfriendly thing between them had been a sort of mutual determination that continuing to work together was not going to happen in a way that met everyone's needs. There had been more than a little lip service given to keeping things friendly; not "burning bridges," as the employer had put it.

I'll spare you the ugly details (for brevity, and because it's generally not a good idea to commit such things to writing in the setting of potential legal action), but it seems that the former employer finally found a reason - a financial one, at the ex-employee's expense - to burn those bridges. You might imagine that it would take a hefty price tag to ransom one's honor and an otherwise good professional contact. In this instance, you'd be correct if your definition of "hefty" was pretty forgiving - the sort of sum that might turn a college student's head, but hardly those accustomed to six-figure incomes.

Perhaps the former employer had fallen on severely hard times, and desperately needed every penny he could grasp. Perhaps he had just been feeling vindictive ever since the employee had dared to leave, and finally found a way to exact some petty revenge. Perhaps he genuinely thought he had it coming to him, or at least convinced himself of that rather than acknowledge his baser motivations.

Whatever the reasoning, the effects were the same: Goodwill was sold, and for a very low price tag at that. Such intangible assets are not easily apportioned; you can't reliably predict how much of a negative impact you'll have when you speak or act against someone. You might, for instance, calculate that the individual will let your offense roll off his back or at most be annoyed with you for the short term. Unaware of your game plan, he might nevertheless consider your move to be a betrayal of the highest order, and develop a borderline pathological need to balance the scales.

Even if there are no financial ways to retaliate, an enemy in the small world of healthcare, and the even-smaller world of diagnostic imaging, is an unpredictable liability. It might manifest months or years later, in ways so indirect that you won't even know when unfortunate events in your world are the results of a vendetta you created. If there's ever a legal issue - med-mal or otherwise - in which the two of you are involved, a hostile peer in the courtroom can be far more damaging to your case than one who is neutral, let alone friendly. At the very least, people (including your adversary) talk - and a lot of organizations and individuals might thus have a negative impression of you before you even encounter them.

Similarly, an ally in our small world can be a priceless commodity. You can never have enough good references, and it's always helpful to have contacts out there in venues other than your own who can tell you what's going on in their neck of the woods. Sometimes they can provide you invaluable intel on events which might ultimately impact you, giving you a chance to prepare. Heck, just having one more friend in the world is reason enough.

But you feel your cause is just. Or your ego demands that you get in that last little dig. Maybe you even do a little homework, making sure that there's no tangible way that your adversary-to-be can possibly get back at you. Time to fire at will?

By all means, proceed … just hope that you have considered all of the angles.