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Aaron Martin, the Chief Digital Officer at Providence St. Joseph Health. (GeekWire FIle Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The head of Providence St. Joseph Health’s digital innovation group, Aaron Martin, invited Reddit users on Friday to “Ask Me Anything” — and they didn’t hold back.

Commenters quickly pushed Martin, a former Amazon executive, to answer questions about layoffs inside the group and what they described as a culture of sexism and bullying. Providence representatives, responding afterward to GeekWire’s inquiry, confirmed job cuts and outlined steps the group is taking to improve its overall culture and boost diversity in technical roles.

Martin is the chief digital officer at Providence St. Joseph Health and managing general partner of Providence Ventures, which oversees $300 million as the investment arm of the Renton, Wash.-based healthcare provider. The 200-person digital innovation group, including about 60 engineers, builds technology to improve the way patients access and receive care.

Martin was not personally accused of any wrongdoing during the Reddit AMA session. In an interview with GeekWire afterward, he took responsibility for hiring employees who caused problems and have since been let go. He pledged to continue improving the group’s culture.

Martin acknowledged that he was surprised by the direction of the AMA session. The idea was to hear from technologists and entrepreneurs in healthcare, and he did field questions along those lines — explaining, for example, what healthcare companies can do to engage patients between visits, how chatbots can help people find care, and efforts to improve primary care.

But many Reddit users focused on internal issues at the digital innovation group, or DIG, starting with recent layoffs.

Sara Vaezy, chief digital strategy and business development officer at Providence St. Joseph Health. (Providence Photo)

Responding to GeekWire’s inquiry, Providence confirmed that 12 people were let go last November and additional nine were laid off in January. Sara Vaezy, chief digital strategy and business development officer at Providence, cited business reasons for the two rounds of layoffs.

In addition to the layoffs, the division performed a broader reorganization early last year. Martin, who previously built Amazon’s self-publishing and print-on-demand business for Kindle North America, said on Reddit that the Providence group “restructured our product design team to move to a more full stack design model which is generally used in the tech industry.”

Reddit users also described a culture of sexism and bullying that made for an emotional and unsustainable work environment for female employees.

Those assertions were reiterated by one former longtime employee, who asked to remain anonymous. The former employee told GeekWire that the recent layoffs were seen by some as related to the cultural problems that plagued the group.

“Women were not valued. Their opinions were not valued,” the former employee said, adding that the culture described on Reddit was unique to the DIG group and not endemic to Providence as a whole, which the former employee called “a wonderful company.”

The not-for-profit Catholic healthcare provider is the nation’s third-largest health system and was founded by nuns more than 150 years ago. Overall, Providence St. Joseph Health was ranked the eighth-best employer for women in the nation by Forbes last year.

Martin told GeekWire that he believes the digital group’s cultural problems were exacerbated by the stress of innovating in healthcare, as well as the natural friction that arises when combining employees from different teams and organizational backgrounds. The group includes healthcare veterans as well as engineers from large tech firms and startups.

“We had a lot of stressed-out people,” he said.

Providence’s human resources team, after interviewing 30 employees to investigate complaints a year ago, found no evidence of discrimination but unearthed what Martin described as an “unacceptable culture” within the group. The company said it dismissed some members of the product and engineering teams who had caused problems.

Providence said that DIG has taken actions in the past year that included:

  • Forming a senior leadership team that is half female;
  • Creating a diversity and inclusion plan that addresses hiring practices, which the group is beginning to execute;
  • Instituting a compensation review process to ensure pay is consistent with regard to experience and roles;
  • Creating a set of “cultural norms” to standardize what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior;
  • Fostering a “Women in DIG” group to provide mentorship and networking opportunities for female employees.

Saying that “tech and venture capital invite a toxic culture of sexism and misogyny,” one Reddit user asked Martin how he manages such a culture in a nonprofit healthcare company.

Martin responded, “We believe we’re the oldest continuously operating organization in the US founded by women. 1/2 of our senior management team are women. 1/2 of my team (which is technical) are women. women make 90% of health care decisions. It’s critical that we build/innovate for their needs. My team has made a big effort in recruiting women in tech and it’s an area I’m personally passionate about.”

In another instance, Martin wrote that he was “pained” to hear about an employee who felt mistreated. “We, like every other tech org, are focusing on our culture continuously. It’s a balance of focus on delivering on mission and making sure we treat everyone with respect.”

One anonymous user, who said she was a former engineer at DIG, responded to another commenter who recalled hearing someone crying in the women’s bathroom.

“I was a female software engineer at DIG; it was probably me [crying]. God knows there weren’t many of us. I had an extraordinarily hard time at DIG; it was absolutely miserable. When I told my manager that having such a confrontational environment was counterproductive, I was told I was too sensitive. After several attempts to surface the issues, I gave up and found another job. High turnover isn’t just caused by market forces.”

The company says it is focused on hiring more women in tech roles. “About 15% of our engineers are female which is about the industry average. This of course isn’t anywhere good enough,” Martin wrote on Reddit.

Vaezy said later, “It takes some time for change to work its way into the DNA of an organization. And that’s what we’re working through now.” She added that the group wants to create an environment where women will want to work.

A recent internal employee survey showed that engagement had not improved from the previous year, Vaezy said. However, half of the employees responded that significant action had been taken by the company based on prior surveys. Slightly less than 20 percent said such action hadn’t been taken, and around 30 percent were neutral.

Martin said he’s committed to continuing the cultural changes in the Providence digital unit. Instituting new leadership, he said, is only “the first step on a long, long road to build a great culture.”

Editor’s Note: Providence St. Joseph Health is a past sponsor of GeekWire podcasts and events.

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