In an early meeting, after X had moved me to a more favorable position in closer proximity, I asked X how I could help, what X needed from me? X gave me a long, leering toothy smile and drawled, “now that would depend”, lingering on the final syllable in a tease. I shrugged and asked X what that meant, and X replied, “it depends on what you can do for me”, with the emphasis on the “you” and, of course, the “me”. My stomach tightened. I left our meeting, my worry a knot that would not release for some time.
The first occurrence at this firm, happened during a meeting with half a dozen people preparing for a conference. X pops in and volunteers a response to a quick summary of the meeting, “just have them take their shirts off”. Of course, the two of us to whom X referred were taken aback, but X laughed it off in a practiced, “just kidding” kind of way. So went my introduction to X in an actual work setting. It would not bode well. Just “X being X” is a crutch on which this organization relies to explain away X’s boorish behaviors. What few appreciated or understood, it was really “X being Z”. Yes, the perverse reality that there were two of them, a good one and the other one, went undetected by some. Yet all shared the implicit understanding that survival required obeisance to both, and a learned indifference. Still there were those doomed to suffer X’s harassment in public humiliations, contrived putdowns, and even private abasement for the special occasion. The performance and tenure of many talented people went unfulfilled. Yet behaviors that would easily have earned opprobrium in the daylight of due diligence were ignored and masked as invisible by the handful of those in authority, with the obligation, to act.
To be sure, following the “take their shirts off” comment, X was revealed to be the glib, charismatic, facile, bullying organizational head infamous in workplaces large and small. There were the random droppings of pornography on desks accompanied by doltish exclamations “whoa will you look at that”, and similar juvenile chatter. X was the ringleader in distributing materials around the office for cheap jokes and daft innuendo. Familiar references were used as X called out cues to tokens of past prurience. It was a game. Who can say if this was appropriate for work? Is that the point, if the prime intention is to cause discomfort? No one escapes the sinister fallout of an office cretin, especially one inhabiting the corner.
And these were my concerns as X arranged to have me as a direct report. It was calculated ostensibly to give X a closer perspective, but if there was any question, after all the new arrangement did jump two levels of management, it’s real intent would be clear soon enough. The first meeting under the new gambit removed any doubt. The behaviors escalated, uninhibited in the privacy of X’s corner office. No matter where I would sit, X would move me or find a way to creep closer. Each meeting came replete with staged positioning to enable X to edge closer, brushing against me, draping an arm around me, standing close as I sat, forcing me to contort just to look up, to make space. It could not possibly have been a simple matter of different tolerances for personal space as it came replete with X’s spray of syrupy innuendo like “bring that in here”, “what a dream you are”, “what a sexy voice”, or “hmmm, so sexy” as X appraised my entrance.
I would come to learn such behavior is characteristic of the abuser, a form of grooming. Abusive personalities gradually normalize inappropriate behavior and condition subordinates to accept the aberrant as standard. This form of deviancy can apparently negotiate corporate hiring processes and board oversight with ease. In this case, the harassing behaviors continued wherever opportunity presented. The pattern was practiced outside X’s office, in ill-timed hallway passages, wherever X could get away with it. X’s invasions of personal space were the physical manifestation of X’s verbal teases. Attempts to put space between us were futile. X was too skilled a predator. And X was the boss.
It all culminated in a final one on one. After a sleepless night, typical on the eve of an X meeting, the last one began in the normal fashion. We engaged in small talk about some trivial topic, as X maneuvered a chair to be closer before suddenly blurting, “wow, you’re a fun conversationalist, you’re really fun”. I froze, wondering what I had said. There was hardly time to register discomfort, before X continued, “you would be fun to go out on a date with, would you go out with me?” X quickly pulled up, but continued, “no I can’t say that, but you must be something special on a date”. I went numb. I don’t recall how I responded to the expectant maw of this would-be summons. We were finished though. X took the lead and turned away, retreating back to the desk, the meeting over. I walked away, shaken. These behaviors, careening out of control as they had until this moment, were now in their denouement. Termination would come within weeks.
Stripped of pronouns and gender, the perversion and predation persist. Or as it’s known at the top, power; the capacity to control, manipulate, and ultimately humiliate are only a few of the odious perquisites of position power, specifically abuse of that power. Ironically it is weakness that drives a few to yield to their base appetites – perhaps to bring relief to secret affliction, to feed a personal addiction, to indulge an inner barrenness. Any of these appear sufficient as catalysts for the leader’s transformation to corrupt monster; one capable of making sport of the socialization of victims forced to submit to the leader’s own gratuitous dominance. Thousands of threads over time tell of the malign effect of enablers who look the other way, deluded in the complacency of cowardice. Their silence, a red carpet on which the powerful are free to flaunt their abuse to their world.
What to do? Who will believe? How to make it stop? And if you knew and did nothing? Nothing? How could you? Why?
Now what? Forgive? Forget? Heal?
I will let you know.