- the big inings
Scissors could not slice our world into the hundreds millions headlines of salacious behaviors reeking from our steamy human dung heap. In a few moments, on any given day we can learn of media mogul Roger Ailes’ icky secretions, comedian hero Bill Cosby’s trial for the trials through which he mentored his victims, even as we rub sleepy seeds from our eyes at the braggadocio of a glow-worm headlines call POTUS. Hardly old technology as confirming stories of the same order are a daily occurrence at Uber where it investigates, muddles, announces and then muffs the announcement of necessary fixes to its culture, as though you can just write a policy and wave a wand. Testosterone-fueled harassment and discrimination is as alive today as ever. The only change really is that it can now be announced on social media by the very millenials who made Uber great!
Mom was regional sales manager for Prudential back in the day, my wife is a career math professor and between us we have 5 kids, boys and girls, all in the workforce that are able. So it is personal, and naturally its paternal as well, when I am confronted with the fact of the modern workplace lifting historical white male exceptionalism to heights perhaps never before scaled, supercharged by wealth and the weird, if uber persistent, privilege of the well-born. One has to wonder if the relentless propaganda drip — things are gradually getting better, more progressive, the playing field more level, corporate titans may be coming to respect the diverse values and contributions of all employees, men and women, and there may even be a few chips in the glass ceiling – is accurate, or if indeed it has any basis in fact whatsoever? I will argue that little has changed, all protests to the contrary; a fact which saddens me until I am forced to remit the reality of the human race ever being thus.
The atmosphere of examples described above, a soupy fog of power, control and manipulation, we might call misogynistic except for the false implication of a unidirectional pattern, persists in a workplace where employees are powerless to resist or change, leaving little else than to adapt. And adapt they do. Megyn Kelly has settled with Ailes and her career and bank account are doing fine thank you. The nominee for the filibustered Supreme Court seat, the one left vacant by the senate’s refusal to consider the nominee of a black president, so to be accurate we should say the illegitimate replacement nominee Neil Gorsuch, acknowledges he compelled his law students to think up examples from their personal life of the porcine meme of women exploiting work to pay for pregnancy. A fact of his behavioral bias as a teacher, apparently no big deal, hardly a blip on the terrain of modern pedagogy and microagression, that merely greased his path to confirmation. As the President of the country wreaks havoc on a global scale which without exaggeration is terrifying, we have little time to dwell on his smutty personal life. Pussy grabbing simply does not rise to the level of his more perilous transgressions, plus most of what spews from his mouth is an unsubstantiated filibuster anyway.
I have hinted that it is not necessarily only the men who are the bad actors. To be clear neither gender is without fault. Evolution may have created the male as the dominant offending gender and men are rightly considered as first amongst equals as persons of interest. Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman might disagree, but men are by no means uniquely capable of the behaviors which characterize harassment. Harassment may present as sex; it is seldom about sex. It is fundamentally about aggression and the domination, bullying, manipulation, power, greed, control, revenge, selfishness, entitlement, retaliation and all manner of the basest elements of the ugliest sides of our human nature. Unsurprisingly, leaders can be especially adroit in going off road with impunity. We are content to subsidize their capacity for accomplishment with the fawning devotion of the hostage(s).
Full disclosure: My wife, I met at work; my first wife of 30 some years. Nearly everyone I have worked with any length of time met a mate at work. Some met several wives and/or husbands and/or partners there. It is the simple reality of what happens when you employ men and women together for extended periods of time. What world are you living in if you are curious about no one during an entire career? What else is going to occur if not partnerships, collegiality, fraternizing, friendships, affection, attraction and maybe even sex and even – yes, even the occasional committed relationship? Raise your hand if you have never had a connection that had its initial spark in the workplace? Touching, flirting, dating, kissing, massaging, posing, hugging, affairs, even dreaming – it need not be real, the emotion is plenty — marriage too, are human behaviors and actions that manifest under the ever-ticking clock of almost 100,000 waking hours. These are the hours for which the only alibi for our whereabouts is our home away from home, our workplace over the span of 40 years. We are human. We need each other. We want each other. The pressure of performance, yes goals and careers, is the most powerful aphrodisiac, on a first name basis with the endocrine system, its familiar conspirator. Not seeing any hands raised? Ok, we will continue.
Against today’s backdrop, ironically redolent of the prehistory of my career, I recall the interview training protocols under which I was trained, the past a silhouette through the shear of a time when female candidates for production jobs were quizzed on anything — their marital status, what was their transportation, how many kids, even the timing of their last period. Yes, you read that right. Women were probed to determine the precise nature of their menstrual cycle. I mean think about that. What guides the heart to so willingly subscribe to a norm that employers should have free and unfettered access to the intimate details of a woman’s reproductive bequest?
So you will not dissuade me in this lifetime that the workplace is not too often innately aggressive, even hostile; the drive to build shareholder value is not concomitant with the instinctual need for social dominance, to the point of aggressive sexuality; or that leadership is not irrevocably tainted. The brand of today on our generations, really a tattoo for a century of centuries, earned and learned, is the instinctual distrust of leadership; by the the led of course.
Herewith this tender, an embrace of the eternally molten endowment commonly known as work.
Slow Spanish, I struggle to understand even a little, pequito. But tonight or perhaps it is morning, I struggle to gather my senses through this fog in a barrel. All I hear is machine gun Spanish and perhaps the hyperbole is not. Now locked in a back room I hear only silence and the low frequency wobble, wawawawa, of a ceiling fan. Two fleshy bouncer bodyguards escorted me to this office in the back; the sign said office, really. A flesh calendar is on the wall, a bulletin board with what look like hygiene reminders for the girls, more health posters, and boxes of skin-fliers, like Vegas but all in Spanish, strewn everywhere. An old adding machine seems out of place from the industrial age. Mostly I kept my gaze diverted and indirect, secretly spying on the two beefy guys in the corner sharing the same mustache. One stared me down while the other sat chain-smoking from a box of cigarillos.
I could taste the oysters from last night. They were making a comeback but the tequila kept them at bay with a heart back burn. I had no confidence they would not complete the round trip. Drunk with no idea where I was really, puking was all my prayers could summon.
This Manzanillo strip club had not been a good idea. Two thoughts toggled back and forth in my mind. My wife, what would she say? And the new word I had learned this past year, mordidita. Despite the peril of my position, I had not given up. What could I do? I was outnumbered and in restraints in the back of a strip club on just another Sunday evening on just another beach in Mexico. What a trip.
Two days ago, we had been in the city, high up on the altiplano. The monsoon hit hard, appropriately in party mode. The streets flooded in the early evening before the banquet opened. We got a very late start hosting hundreds of employees and spouses at an annual Service Banquet event. In Mexico they do banquets right. The two of us, my boss and me, had flown south of the Rio Bravo to host the event. We got started at least a couple of hours late, so spirits were high when we finally kicked off. My Spanish was good enough for a speech to todos los empleados. So they said.
Nothing is finer than a Mexican banquet. The food’s exquisite, the drink amazing and exotic. Everybody sings along to los baladas romantica. From birth it seems, they know the words and are gleefully happy to sing along. Something you will not find in the north. And then the dancing, all night long for some. Similar to an adult prom, to me.
At that moment the memory of dancing brings on a shudder, an acidic paranoiac early warning signal confirms it as only a dry heave. Relief by degrees.
Oh the dancing. Early on I accepted a few invitations to dance, to be social and because I like to dance. The music had called as well. It was fun. Then I found myself with a girl who followed me out of the hall as I made an exit for a break. In the hallway she approached close. We had only danced the one time to some peppy pop tune. In the hall, up close her fiery eyes met mine, she spoke softly in Spanish. Her hands were all over me in a Siren embrace before security pulled her away and escorted her somewhere out of the hall.
Returning to my table, the general manager apologized and suggested, it seemed he smirked, that I stay close to them the rest of the evening. I was embarrassed and amused; hardly angry, though I doubt my pleas to go easy on her will be heeded. Who knows? Tequila, altitude, music and corporate speeches are a bad combination. The rest of the evening was uneventful. Much later I retired to my room where the headlines blared about forest fires in the west, so it could have been anytime in the last 50 years? They said it was human caused. Who could have done such a deed? Out of control fires in the hot desert are a scary scar to comprehend with the world still heating up.
Later that morning we headed south, skirting the Colima volcanoes making a beeline on the tollway for Manzanillo in one of those black SUV’s with the tinted windows, a getaway vehicle for the general manager. Carlos was his name and it seemed he had planned a classic Mexican getaway for us. His personal security drove us, a good family man named Oscar. He was a slight man and we learned he had two sons ready for college; in the United States? He wondered aloud with us.
Restrained now in the back room of a strip club, the cosmic irony hit me between the eyes. We had kicked out an employee from the dance for groping me. Very possibly she would be fired. Now here I sat, helpless, wondering at my fate. You see I had touched a stripper. Funny how when you are the subject of being touched, the object of the toucher, you call it ‘groped’. Yet when you are doing the touching you guard your 5th amendment rights and refer to your behavior as nothing more than ‘touching’, innocently of course. I was not laughing. Subtleties were useless to me at this moment and none of this would occur to me until much later.
No need for further suspense. Within an hour I was released, maybe only 30 minutes. My crime: putting my arms around a girl as she arranged and then rearranged her cheeks on my lap. It seems my mates were trying to gift me a girl. They thought they were doing me a favor. Not being a strip club guy I had muffed the whole thing. I had no interest in anything more than looking. She was a gift for any man’s eyes. She was drop dead gorgeous; a blonde, curvy goddess that I am sorry I would only meet in a club on this night. I was informed that I had touched, grabbed, groped, perhaps all three in turn? Choose your own terms as it is a long time ago now. Whatever I did with this girl was a very brief incident. The problematic issue between the two of us had been transactional, to distinguish it from the consensual threshold we often wrestle with today. It all occurred before any money changed hands. And I had no desire for any transaction at all! Now here I waited as my friends negotiated la morditita.
If only all harassment charges could be resolved so easily.
There was a kid in the next grade up when I was in middle school. We went to the same church, various related social events, and in the summer we worked in the fields. As a twelve year old I had no idea about sex, and no pesky hormones to disrupt my ignorance. Mello was cool, mainly because his sister could drive and she would encourage us to hotbox the car on the way back from wherever we had begged her to take us. Maybe he did not think he was cool enough? He used to come up behind a few of us guys and surprise us by grabbing our junk. It was just your basic annoyance. At first you did not even know how to respond. As the year progressed we mainly avoided him. Later we came into our own when a few of us teamed up to turn the tables and surprise him with a glass of water down his pants. Harmless adolescent boy fun?
At a new school the next year I crossed paths with another guy, older than us but in our same grade. He would do the same thing, almost like they were brothers, this guy and the other punk, Mello. I don’t know how else you learn that behavior? He quit hanging around us after he quit the football team. So nothing ever came of it and we all forgot about it as high school came to play.
I read about similar behaviors now with kids in middle and high school and it still mystifies. Groping like this must be some sort of dominance ritual. There is nothing sexual about it. You are simply doing something gross, inappropriate, and disgusting. As long as one can get away with these acts, they are merely sick signals of the insecure alpha, attempting to make doubt as to who is in control, not relevant.
Learning that aggressive people use sex aggressively to rob others of their dignity and the privacy of their own humanity was a lesson I learned very young. Some people seem to be born touchy, with hands that insist on roaming; some choose boys while others choose girls. Seemingly born to agress, people stunted like this exploit their defect and use it to dominate and lord over others. They may call us ‘friends’, but their behaviors touch us otherwise, often traumatically. Cartman is everywhere.
Years passed and I learned a little more about the whole sex thing. Hormones did their own dominance deal as only they will do. The chemistry was set for me in my early 20’s when a lady on the production line informed her supervisor that she needed to speak with me. I walked the floor every day all day checking on issues in the factory. So her asking to meet with me was not unusual. My ersatz standing office was my clipboard. It was a typical request from an employee that Freddie Zilinski easily obliged. Over his permanent cigarette he informed me of Jeannie’s request. I expected a question about work or inventory or maybe even politics. Reagan was running at the time. No big deal.
Jeannie Mae was her name, the full name she insisted on, and she was an employee in good standing, maybe outspoken? She was not a stranger to me though we had not spoken until that day. Tossing her gloves down, she made a beeline for me as I approached, leaving the line unattended. She was on a mission and production could wait. She seemed serious and asked if we could speak outside. As we walked outside, not 20 paces from the line, she began to speak but interrupted herself to lurchgrab my crotch. I did not see it coming, preoccupied as I was with my clipboard. I leaned away from her, pushing her with my occupied hands, I think. Really I have no idea how I responded to her grope. I probably dropped the clipboard.
Her reaction though, I remember that. She laughed and declared delightedly she just wanted to ‘check for herself’. She was victorious. You might think she had just scored a goal. She had? So much for my being able to read a lady’s intentions. I was probably 23 and she was 30 something, maybe.
We worked there a few more years and enjoyed a good relationship, always professional. She turned me on to Prince, so it was very productive. Thus life began curiously for me in what some may casually refer to as the professional life of a salaried man; a salaried man in the hierarchy, near the bottom, but still a card carrying member of the club. There is no initiation, just the card that invisibly yet definitively affirms your whiteness and presumes your testicles.
One Friday in September, later that year or the next, my birthday was call for a happy hour celebration. At that time in the world Friday was designated happy hour day, occasions were conscripted as needed. Standing in line at the bank over lunch to cash your check, we prepped for the weekend. No automatic deposit and definitely no automatic tellers, plus no Saturday service all worked together to emphasize the need for planning in order to mount the weekend. Big plans, as my future wife was waiting with her parents and a family dinner to celebrate my birthday. I had no family here, family back home was in a faraway funk, so this was a treat.
But not so fast. As I made my exit I had company. Marilyn worked for me as a senior clerk. How a 20-something would qualify to have a 40-something black girl, working for him is a story for another story. Right now Marilyn was climbing into my truck looking for a ride home. And indeed she was not looking looking for wheels. A 1970 F-150 is a fine sex machine, if that is your intention.
My next few minutes were occupied with the scales of temptation as I negotiated an exit or a rain check. Or was it both? I don’t recall. It would do me no good to be late to my birthday dinner on account of a lingering liaison with this older sister I had only now just met. That would be the sister who was sitting on my lap and stroking me with one hand while fumbling with my free hand, offering me her breast. She was very happy and she wanted me to be in on that. Very hungry too as now she was gnawing on my leg, or some other extremity she seemed intent on consuming. Your imagination knows the rest.
Probably on another day it would have been a plan. At least there would not have been other plans. There was a lot of sex then and we could not know otherwise it seemed, as you did not have to look for it. Suffice to say, this is only the tip of the, ahem, iceberg. And more to the point, compared to the actual rodeo of life, mine was mostly sheltered on the idyllic iceberg. Still there were climactic events, so many happy hour stories and all of them real, even if some of the facts have been massaged, or hidden, to suit the memory. It is fair to say that up to this point in my career most of the groping was coming my way. Consensual was not in vogue in those days.
The white male patriarchy is a very generous network, even in a Mexican jail where upon my release I flew to DFW where fate seated me next to Eleanor Clift. She shared the Arizona story she was working on, about the three ladies running Arizona at the time — Napolitano, Bayless, and Hull. Interesting the way life is scheduled. I did not share my Mexico story. Besides, I was skipping Arizona on the return flight, flying to London to do my thing on another continent.
Since those dreamy days, I have had the opportunity to work with investigators around the world, and more than a few consultants in the field. The territory is not untrammeled. In fact, claims of harassment are so common a career specialty has evolved to investigate various charges of ‘inappropriate’ behavior in the workplace, the grist of mostly bloodless war stories. Having been in the war, winning a few battles, losing some, most ending by decision, now they are headlines to commemorate. It is impossible to not marvel how little has changed despite Moore’s Law?
Even with massive under-reporting, conduct generically termed “sexual harassment’ is so typical most organizations designate their own procedures, their own specialists to investigate rumors of creepy things amiss. Organizations are loathe that misguided behaviors, rumored or real, inflicted by leaders on subordinates become public. Societal complacency, perhaps simply numbness, aids to sweep this reality under our assembled rugs where such secrets ferment into things more potent than underlying facts. Indeed you seldom are able to uncover the true facts of a case. This is corporate pinball. You can never be sure where random ends and manipulation begins.
For instance, the product manager traveling to Asia with a colleague. She would charge that she was harassed, citing examples from various points along the trip. According to her story, he would portray them as being in a relationship in interactions with various parties they met, generally other work colleagues or subcontractors. She claimed he had touched her wrist on the airplane, invited himself to her room, and even gotten her drunk whereupon she would stumble and rip her pants at a work function.
In her telling, he was the classic persistent boss refusing to leave her alone from his continuous unwanted sexual advances. Yet according to the investigator, his version might as well been from a separate reality. He said there was no relationship, desired or otherwise. No touching. No allusions to a hoped for relationship. He was happily married with kids, loyal and faithful by his account, reading from the Apostle Paul on the long airplane trips, no interest in her at all. They were simply professional colleagues pursuing a global product plan.
All was made more curious by the discovery of her desktop password. Iy was ‘Sammie’, presumably an affectionate allusion to the name of the alleged harasser, Sam. It remained a mystery. Finally she was given the option of a settlement in exchange for a few weeks of pay.
Word followed soon of her abrupt departure for the east coast, presumably somewhere with a favorable tax climate, after the settlement. The narrative continued to fill in with details that she was going through a divorce at the time of her complaint. Her complaint had been contrived as an escape from her personal predicament. She succeeded, by her metrics. Her settlement enabled her to get out of a bad relationship on the company’s dime.
Neil Gorsuch might be proud? Love indeed will make people do strange things, innovative even.
- power and the Uni
There were other incidents, some more bizarre. An anecdote from a friend in the field got my attention, as she shared a conference brief for her firm. A conference was a good place to share a troublesome case, an appeal her firm had overseen for a call center organization stubbornly resistant to settlement. The company was desperate to substantiate its innocence; and for good reason as the facts had the fetor of a bait shop, ideal presentation material. It involved a long time employee with good performance. All the information confirmed him to be a good fit for his former role.
Until he claimed he had been groped and harassed by the call center boss! Even with her experience with such claims, my investigator friend made clear as she began her presentation her firm was skeptical, even amused by the fishy sounding claims of the case. The General Manager of the call center, a woman, was accused of physical harassment by this man. He was not her subordinate but this is not unusual for these cases.
It seemed a bogus claim on the surface and adjectives like bizarre, outlandish and incredible flew in response to the facts of this workplace. It was a whopper in fact. For starters, she was gay and made no secret of the fact. He was not.
The case persisted for some time. Surely his claims could not be substantiated? We continued, so many questions and more, to this case?
The facts were curious. The call center boss, tall enough, normally in sharp trousers with a short ginger doo that made her costume. She could be gruff, even shrill, with sharp commands. And she left no question who was boss, using her fiat to lock others’ opinions in the prison of the unnecessary. The workplace was not described as particularly open, the kind with closed meetings and clear, if opaque, boundaries. Experience suggests collaboration and dialogue falter in an environment so vertical and polished. In appearance, it was described as a busy beehive of drones intent on making it through their days keeping heads down. In similar work cultures compliance, not respect, is exacted and practiced assiduously by survivors in quiet obedience.
Still my friend maintained what seemed a skeptical tone as she presented what she and her colleagues discovered in this case now a few years later. She acknowledged our doubt and used it to fuel her presentation. We continued to doubt there would be evidence of the General Manager, even if she might be difficult, harassing this employee, and so far the circumstances did not support it either. Surely this was not a meritorious case?
Her firm concealed its hand, having similar doubts that the case could have a credible basis. So her firm appealed to the plaintiff for a re-telling of his story. He agreed to another deposition, a bit of a surprise giving the risk to him. She said he was willing just to get his side of the story heard. The presentation made a turn to the light. The events she related from his story described a years-long tale that was either true or great fiction. Who to believe?
He described occasions where the boss challenged him and male colleagues to take their shirts off in meetings as practice for marketing displays; what? The workforce was mostly female. Treating males as novelties was apparently a thing. She challenged the guys one time to get on their hands and knees to demonstrate their enthusiasm for an idea of hers. Her ‘my-way or else’ demeanor created an authoritarian culture of compliance with little choice but to relent; placate her, surrender, avoid the scene. People went along to get along, practicing an historical art of survival, corporate style. The roles may change as genders blur, but the behaviors of harassment remain essentially human, genderless and wrong.
Doubts thawed as the boss’ style of making public fun of people was exposed. At the time bullying was not a term of art for such maladapted leadership etiquette. Bullying would later come to be known in legal and organizational parlance as an essential color for the palette of the hostile work environment.
Naturally employees were uncomfortable accusing her of bullying. Thus, the organization came inevitably to brand her management style with a soothing elixir of self-preservation. They acquiesced to her boorish behaviors with the mantra, “oh that’s just Susan being Susan”. It’s a form of conscious denial. You know it’s wrong, but it’s too difficult to confront, so you go along.
Her record of bullying included driving overweight, or otherwise unappealing people out of the company with persistent and apparently predictable public belittling, even in large group meetings. She had a strong aversion to disagreement — with her. Numerous senior staff left, with no evidence of performance as cause for their departure. There was evidence of disagreement though; shards of ideas at odds with the boss’ thinking. Apparently she was not the type professionally inclined to turn the other cheek. She learned her ways in the street, perhaps was born dominant.
An example that got my friend’s attention illustrated this boss’ pique, cruel and vengeful really. It involved the treatment of a customer service clerk. Apparently Susan made it her mission to remove the clerk from the organization. So she had the clerk, who was overweight, moved to the front lobby where she was mercilessly parked indefinitely to give her “a better sense of our customers”. The clerk was uncomfortable and inconsolable in her new post, crying for weeks until she quit. She died a few months later. What really broke her heart?
She was crudely memorialized in a meeting later where upon the rollout of the company’s new insurance programs it was announced premiums would not be going up. The General Manager asked for and received an ovation. Classy.
Upon final review of this case, what drove the complainant to emerge from a carapace of his own denial and report his claim of harassment was spontaneous. He simply snapped and confronted her, finally. According to his telling he was sitting for one of her perfunctory meetings, typically choreographed 10-minute affairs. She asked if there was anything else, and he blurted out, unthinking really, that he was uncomfortable with her behaviors towards him, and others, and asked her to stop. She responded, softening it seemed, knowingly and with no denial. Offering a contrite apology, seemingly, she promised she would make things right. She appeared sincere, unaware of any discomfort she had caused. Really, she had heard none of it, acknowledging nothing. She did not ask for examples or even attempt to feign understanding.
Surprised by her apology, he was relieved if taken aback. He let his guard down. The meeting ended. She led him to her door. Here as my friend related, he hesitated, seemingly to catch his breath before continuing. His feeling of being overwhelmed comes rushing back and his story makes a final turn. It seems she let her pen drop as they approached her door. Bending to pick it up she turned to face him, righting herself. Her face wrinkled into a glare, almost jumping into his eyes. She asserted her upper hand and seized his testicles, gropeholding his balls from beneath with her lower hand, in a practiced plan? My friend interrupts our gape-mouthed attention with a special detail. He winced, noticeably. Noted for the record. She controlled him, maintaining pressure as she let loose a swampy low growl, vibrating her malicious threat against creation. She kicked the pen away, and slowly released him, still not quite finished,
“Don’t cross me. You hear. Get back to work. Get us some business.”
She doubled down on her threat. Now she was finished. With him.
My friend’s re-telling belies her insistence they were able to maintain calm at the re-telling of his story. To be sure, there was disbelief, even astonishment. She would often find herself suspending belief at first hearings. Not this time. Still she found this case, involving a woman, or even a man for that matter, behaving this way, breathtaking.
We are all hostage to our own belief systems, our own experiences, and often reality has a tough time breaking through. Still in each retelling as the investigation continued, his story stayed constant. The call center boss’ public persona and the organizational climate he described were largely reinforced in the further course of the investigation. There was a chill in many of the interviews though they could not pinpoint its source. The investigation stalled, looking for a way forward and past this client. For my friend, she admitted in her summary, there remained a shadow over the investigation’s conclusion.
At this point in the re-telling of the story, the victim stopped and sat quietly shaking his head. When asked to proceed, he hesitated before rambling, still affected by the shock of this encounter.
“I didn’t know what to do. I tried to brush her away, but she had me in a death grip. I wanted to push her. I wanted to punch her, but I was in shock, under a spell of sorts. She wouldn’t let go. She blindsided me, and I went into a kind of shock kind of? Finally she let me go. She had this eerie smile, as if she knew she had me beat. I retreated to my desk. The rest of the day I was paralyzed. I had no clue what to do. I doubted my wife would believe me? She beat me. ”
He continued on for a while more, as the shock waves abated again, now many months later.
Later that week he received an email invitation for a follow-up meeting. Such notes were generated automatically for ongoing scheduled meetings. He did not think much of it, except that she included an agenda for this meeting, with just one word.
His stress elevated by degrees as the meeting approached. He described being tense by day, laying awake nights until the next meeting finally came. In the meeting, which would be his last, he was disarmed by her amiable front. She was charming which she could be and the conversation took all kinds of interesting, harmless turns. Were it not for his prior experiences, “delightful” is the word he said he might have used to describe this last meeting. Until she closed it with finality, intended or otherwise,
“You are so much fun to talk to. Such a conversationalist you are. I bet you would be fun to go out on a date with!”
Silence. The meeting was over. Her remarks were out of line and in complete denial of the recent history between them, or her role as the leader of the organization. She was playing with him, mocking the very helplessness she was inflicting on him.
He collapsed later at home and was transported to the hospital. The mind is weaker than the body until it finally takes over. Hospitalized briefly, the diagnosis was stress and the manifestations were many, requiring a long convalescence. During his medical leave of absence, he was called from work and terminated. The offending boss, the General Manager, was nowhere to be found in the fact of his termination or his notification. It was simply a perfunctory call from the HR gal. Not an atypical behavior for a serial sex harasser. It almost added credibility to his claim the way the case was so clumsily closed?
He appealed at the time. An investigation was convened with the intent of exonerating her. And she was. Behaviors for which there are no witnesses and in an environment of intimidation are difficult to verify or even explore transparently? No one dared say a word in criticism or illumination of her behaviors. The handful of his claims that had been witnessed went wanting for witnesses willing to speak up. His most egregious claims had occurred in the privacy of her chambers. She held all the cards. His termination was affirmed. His claims would not be substantiated.
The firm’s subsequent investigation of the initial claim and its final denial continued for a while. Nothing further was uncovered. The expression, “He said, she said” describes a group of indignities in life with which one is only able to imagine reconciliation. This case was one such, yet my friend will tell you to this day that her money, in this case, is on the guy. His story rings authentic to her. I don’t know what to think? It’s hard to know who to believe.
Investigations are often just a cover-up by another name. So we will never know.
5. driftwood, seashells, and slugs
I couldn’t believe my ears, though in this quorum of ancient heads trolling a boardroom table, it was probably just me. It went through the ears, if they hear, on the heads of these men like another locker room tissue fight. Decorated in polished marble, festooned by pastels of misshapen fairways and twisted greens, surrounded by overstuffed rocking chairs each custom fit for hemorrhoids, the stage was any conference room in corporate America where the superannuated inheritors of old legacy pretend to debate the merits of going all in, on what really? Fiduciary is five syllables of which one is particularly apt. In this instance, the stumbling block was nothing their canes had not struck casually out of their right of way any number of times before. The sport was in splaying the issue spread eagle across the just waxed and polished marble with a thespian-like machismo only an octogenarian can muster:
“But we can’t afford both. We can only do one or the other. We have to focus.”
The logic was unassailable, and tedious as a top 40 playlist, if they still play? It had been heard since the beginning of time from creepy old men, lately wearing socks with expensive pictures. The comeback was as predictable as it was airy. A dry hole so to speak as the answer blew across the room as a question, not really a question as much as spewing gas, maybe it was just hot air. You were correct. The fart of thought it expressed:
“If you could only fuck one, who would you take? Elle McPherson or Christie Brinkley?”
It was a game they often played, as seasoned midgets of morality these titans of the boardroom represented the interests of shareholders with a tender thoroughness that was almost touching as the expected yet disappointing retort leapt off their tongues, it seemed prematurely, but maybe it was just that it was so practiced their timing was careless:
“That makes it irrelevant. I would fuck’em both.”
The room erupted in laughter and catcalls, and accusations against various manhoods dangling by their short and curly threads. Thespian-like machismo is no substitute for the lost facts of life this crew had exchanged long ago for their neon scorecards, each with their own. Ka-ching.
The vivid imagination of the aged corporate cretins is but a weak defense for such dereliction. So they have in-house counsel, a trump card they keep close to their vest. Such is the fiduciary duty and due diligence of many the venture capitalist, he with the leveraged foot and the bloated ego on the neck of another sold out public company.
We float through the surreal moments of this conversation without blinking. Where would the discussion turn next. It was like being back against the smoking wall out behind the bar where the home crew had assaulted Daryl and me back in the day. We fought our way out. That was not to be the case today or for the next many years. If I had wanted to fight today, I would have been fighting the air.
To some of the addled minds in the room, the vision of two contestants, long-legged icons of the western caricature of Venus waiting eagerly wet in the next room, was cause for a break and perhaps a doctor, or at least a pharmacist. The board was bragging — I’d fuck’em both — of long ago imagined conquests that grew dimmer as sclerotic imaginations shriveled. Indeed one of them complained of chest pains at the break. Who can say the proximate cause was not the cumulative effect of prolonged lechery? There was no company nurse anymore, too expensive. Someone dialed the phone.
Some time back I ran across an old, old friend, Bobby Chacon. He was working the night shift for a subcontract janitorial service. Bobby is dead now, a stray Friday night bullet. At the time we met up again, it had been nearly 20 years since I had worked with Bobby. He had not changed a bit, except for a bit of gray. His flowing black hair down to his shoulders and a flattened yaqui nose gave him a distinguished look that could still intimidate even over his gleaming smile. Bobby supervised a half dozen other janitors to clean the acres and acres of high tech fiefdoms.
We got together for a beer every month or so for a time after that, just to talk about the past. He was doing ok. After he quit boxing he settled down. Partial proof of this were his three wives and 14 niños, a vision of a good life he had forged for himself, especially considering his struggle. Boxing had taken him throughout the southwest. It had not darkened the light in his smile. He was still sharp and always had a ready grin that could light an auditorium. His english was not so good, but his sparkling happiness was still the way I remembered him from our days in the dishroom at the back of the restaurant.
Bobby told me stories that have to be interpreted through the veil of CTE. After all he had been a boxer for nearly 20 years. I had seen what he could do to the unwitting. One evening after our shift at the restaurant we had both scrounged a ride from a friend. As I ran to meet him and our friend, I saw Bobby unwind on a kid near my bike. He laid him out flat, on a single punch. Apparently the kid was trying to cut the lock on my bike. Bobby saw it and ended it. We drove away in an old yellow Chevy Impala, my bike in the trunk, heading for his home down off Tonto and Central — in the 70’s, the land of Impalas. The kid’s body was gone when we came in for our shift the next night.
But Bobbie’s memory seemed fine to me. He had been cleaning offices in organizations like ours and others for several years now. His favorites were the executive offices. He would come across skin magazines in some of their desks. One time he brought me an issue he lifted, the one with Suzanne Somers’ skin shots. No wonder John Ritter died prematurely.
For a time, he would tell me of ‘noises’ coming from one of the executive conference rooms. The one he described conjoined two executives’ offices. He had to clean the mess from a fire in one of their offices following one of the noisier nights. Perhaps an executive session, with a friendly outcome? Apparently good enough to enjoy a cigarette after. Closure and risk taking are sometimes noted as cultural challenges for organizations. Executive communication too. It’s counter-intuitive, but maybe the occasional cigarette is worth consideration?
In another example, I can still hear Bobby’s hilarious pronunciation. Again with the ‘noises’, he peaked through the corner of a blind in one of the offices one evening. He knew what he was looking for, as he had this office on his regular circuit for a couple of years. He could not get through the story without laughing. What cracked him up, as he explained me a few years later, was the nameplate on the door. Bobby said it said ‘Porker’. Laugh. Out. Loud. Even as he embellished with more detail, I could only wonder who the porker he had in mind might be? A penchant for office sex, a tension breaker for some, did not narrow it down.
And the list of liaisons, trysts and buggery could go on as long as there is ink and time. Fishing tournaments, golf tournaments, Las Vegas weekends, Sales circles, awards banquets, late nights, and all manner of corporate team building make a dynamic village. There was a time in corporate life, before women made their official entry into the workforce, where it was the girls who were essential for such things – yes, fishing, golfing, awarding and other tomfoolerie is not as much fun without their assistance, at least not in the 70’s. We can save the prostitution business we interrupted one Thursday evening, payday for the 3rd shift, for another time. Parking lots filled with campers, especially on weekends, more than one might expect for a suburban commuter workforce. And at least a few consultants doubled as gigolos. And the guy who used his corporate housing by the hour?
The world is ever more transparent, to the point of vulgarity. We tire of the crudeness that has become our headline, our social media, our lives. Nothing is sacred. Yet our daughters, our wives, our sisters must live and work and even love in this world. In fairness, our sons, our fathers and our brothers work there as well. We know we are making progress, else our natures would have conceded long ago. Yet how are we better when some remain unable to balance self-restraint with power? When so many in authority are ungoverned by the temperate nature? We can do so much better.
Harassment charges are very hard, nearly impossible to prove. In fact, harassment is occurring in every work place, every social setting that involves human beings. It is the life gift of hormones, self-will, moral black holes and gifts from above conspiring together to exploit opportunities to manipulate the weak for the satisfaction of the superior. The line between insidious harassment and enlightened leadership lurks permanently hidden in the murky blend of complex and specialized skills and personality traits deceptively cast as people skills. If employed for good, people skills are a blessing. Employed for ill, they are a curse against humanity. Leadership must be constantly monitored and assumptions and claims of good intent suspended until and if history can confirm the fruit of the vine.
The answer of course is that most of us are fine. Most of us are better than fine. If we count ourselves among this peaceful paean to progress we will have to lift our voices louder. The insidious corruption of great swathes of leadership driven by desires to dominate a footprint larger than their legitimate competition should be exposed and cut out. Will it happen in our lifetime? We can only shine a light through our behavior. Know yourself. Be true to your family, your loved ones. They are your future as they are our future. Your behavior, your fidelity to what is good for your family and your family’s family paints the future in love’s true colors to cradle virtue for some future humanity. Tomorrow begins with us.
For the abused tomorrow is only an imagined dream. Since abusers are deniers, always – coping at work is deviously similar to the way the spouse cowering in an abusive relationship counts the minutes until their tormentor inevitably goes off, again. Be quiet, stay hidden, and don’t draw attention to your self. Survival habits are practiced in silence.
Fortunately careers are tethered to accomplishment that filter most distractions from our view. Yet this cultural phenomenon is a real threat to the well-being and ultimately livelihoods of the innocent. It is possible you have never heard, observed or felt such aggressive behavior in the workplace? Even if you are neither the abused, and we can hope you are not the abuser either, there are still important ways you can work to change and ultimately improve and preserve the sanctity of professional relationships for you and for others; ultimately improving the future for all, especially our kids? Here are a few thoughts aimed in this constructive direction:
A plan for more work and less sex in the workplace of the future, herewith:
- Acknowledge that harassment is neither about gender, nor sexual orientation, nor is it even about sex. Power is androgynous by nature. Indeed it manipulates gender for its own ends. Such dominance and control is often under the subtle guise of manipulation practiced from an early age. No need to put the qualifier of ‘unwanted’ in front of the crime. If you are subject to these behaviors, you are being bullied. Bullying is harassment. Harassment is wrong. Using one’s position and the power it imputes to get one’s way is wrong in any relationship, but especially in the workplace hierarchy. Take the blinders off and challenge stereotypes and assumptions concerning who the likely suspects may be.
- Analytics have broken many a business conundrum and revealed countless insights regarding customer behavior, quality systems, product performance and numerous other business matters. Human Resources has largely been left in the breech though, leaving the workforce exposed to a wild west of boorishness and gaucherie inflicted from above in the darkness of the modern distributed workplace. The only light that shines in today’s workplace is data and it is past time to stop ‘shining on’ the employees. Why similar rigor is not employed on behalf of the employee experience as that which is applied to the customers and shareholders and even equipment is a question that exposes the priorities of modern life. Constant monitoring of data can illuminate warning signs and trouble spots. Where is turnover occurring and what are the patterns? Are employee complaints an issue and where and when is this occurring? Technology today enables us to monitor the pulse of the organization real time. When will we begin? Failure to adequately track morale and assess workplace concerns, read this leadership, in today’s world is willful negligence. The plaintiff’s bar is standing by.
- Get your leadership right. Even without tackling your workplace data insufficiencies a robust process for selection, training and renewal of leadership is vital. Develop a leadership competency profile and ruthlessly select, train and appraise leadership against these competencies. Be ruthless in your expectations. One thing Jack Welch got right is that you must expect both results and integrity from your leaders. There can be no one legged leaders. It begins at the top. You know this. Look in the mirror.
- The rigor required of these first few points will stress test your organization’s governance? Is your board capable and prepared to exercise the necessary due diligence and fiduciary duty? Are they trained and fluent in the standards of conduct expected of all employees in a safe and respectful work environment? Is the board diverse? Is it independent? Do they lead by example? Where does the board obtain information about the culture of the workplace over which they have responsibility? How do they appraise the quality of leadership? The health of the culture?
- Feelings are facts. Signals of discontent and dysfunction can come from many sources, some more objective than others. There are so many resources available today that can detect the health of a workforce beyond the traditional methods. Social media can add an additional layer of context to the hard data produced internally by the organization. The smart organization will find a way to make constructive use of social media to better understand its many stakeholders. Use it to supplement and build out a more complete picture.
- Build a cultural roadmap describing the ideals to which your organization aspires. Identify competencies and training that aligns with performing up to these ideals. Tell people what is important and expected in terms of norms and values. Hold yourself accountable to staying true to them. Use the cultural roadmap to give constant visibility to what is important to your organization. It is the soft stuff that is hard, right? There will be resistance for sure. It is difficult for the trusting to doubt those who cannot be. Be vigilant and more ruthless than the abusers.
- Let’s all get our language right. The words we use in everyday conversation that stereotype, demean, and hurt seem to multiply by the day. Civility may be degrading in society and this may make it difficult to enforce high standards in the workplace. Still there is every reason to hold every employee to the highest level of respect and courtesy in their day-to-day dealings with co-workers, and especially subordinates. Words like ‘b____’ and worse have no place in the workplace. The ‘B’ word has become androgenized as a term, adopting both subject and verb form as it has memorialized abusive relationships between superiors and the subordinates they think they own. Profanity and coarseness undermine expectations of decency and civility in society. Take a stand and expect more in your workplace.
- Finally, lighten up. Encourage people to remember that we are people. And we need each other. That is what organizations are all about, ideally forming a second family giving support, encouragement and healthy collaboration for the greater good and the individual. So encourage people to not take everything so seriously. Let people know that honesty makes up for many sins. People make mistakes and often times are misunderstood. Make room for second chances and forgiveness.
- One last puzzle. The anecdotes described herein reflect all manner of interaction, youthful explorations, seemingly unjust abuses, the harmless consensual surrender of better judgment, and various combinations of age, position, gender and sexual orientation. The puzzle is in how to hold two inherently opposing views. The first being that evidence suggests that some people are prone to such misbehavior; habits which become serialized when enabled by power. At the same time, due process is required to understand the context and facts of a case. Where there’s smoke, there is likely fire, but it may be a controlled burn. So be careful out there.
Consent is oftentimes today’s headline. At the end of the day though you realize that some people are just born touchy. Inappropriate behavior, sometimes encouraged and reinforced by the defective culture, becomes habit. Respecting that, you understand intent is as important as consent, perhaps more so. Still it’s worth developing some protective filters as a first line of defense for your feelings.
And it is always wise to plan accordingly for those one-on-ones? Given the soup of the day perhaps we should all start wearing a cup or appropriately defensive undergear until we’re sure it’s safe? A sort of ankle bracelet until we can dependably demonstrate appropriate adult behaviors.
My utopian dream is that one day some higher power will charm the planet in a creative culture of caring that realizes each of our full potential and happiness. Until then, private fires of power will ever burn and many will continue to be burned. We set these fires when we stole the angels and they will never go out while we live. This is how Samson lost his locks. A different scissors than we imagined.