Annie Dookhan, The Errant Lab Chemist with an Aim to Please

There’s still a lot left to learn about Annie Dookhan, the chemist whose erratic behavior has called thousands of state crime lab samples into question, and what motivated her to act so irrationally, but a 100-page State Police report on the case, as reported in the Globe today, offers at least some clues to her motivations. Interviews with coworkers at the lab depict someone who sounds almost desperate to please people:

According to Hevis [Lleshi, a chemist whom Dookhan trained], Annie Dookhan was always trying to please people. ADAs, cops, bosses, directors … Hevis tried to work at Annie Dookhan’s pace, but [supervisors] told her to “slow down, you can’t work like her, it’s against protocol.”

As the Globe notes, Dookhan padded her resume “to make herself look more impressive.” She took on absurd amounts of case work, which she had to cut corners to complete, but didn’t collect overtime pay. There’s not a lot of obvious benefit, monetary or otherwise, she derived from this, so this impulse to please people seems like a persuasive, if partial, explanation of her motivations.

Dookhan is obviously an exceptional case and a pretty troubled person. But this aim to please is familiar. Peppered throughout recent headlines are examples of people going for what they want in the short term by doing risky things that don’t pay off in the long term. Among the 125 Harvard undergraduates accused of sharing answers on a take-home exam, perhaps there are some who were confused about the rules. But surely there are some who knowingly took on the risk of punishment with hopes of pleasing professors, parents, or future employers. Mitt Romney, eager to please his Republican primary voters, took on a conservative stance he’s having a lot of trouble shedding in the general election. Financial institutions, hoping to make money for their investors and give America the homes they couldn’t afford, approved mortgages they shouldn’t have approved, repackaged and sold off securities, and … well you know the rest.

If there’s something that reading through transcripts of interviews with Dookhan’s coworkers teaches us, it’s to trust our instincts about people. A lot of the people interviewed claim they had serious concerns about her and some even raised their concerns with higher-ups years ago. But maybe the lesson is also to beware the overachiever. And beware our own impulse to please a superior without an eye on the long game.