A few years ago I remember having a conversation with an HR person at the movie studio where I worked. Two executives names came up during the discussion and I remember saying how horrible, demeaning and inappropriate they could be. The HR woman’s response was simply “yes, but they make money for the company.” Apparently, that made it all okay.
One of those executives I was speaking about happened to be a woman. For the sake of this story I will call her Barb. She ran a department and had an office near mine. Barb was like a box of chocolates — everyday you just never knew what you were gonna get. While extremely smart and oftentimes funny, she also had a hot temper. Her screaming and yelling was common throughout the suite so much so that while I was on phone calls I would oftentimes be asked by the caller — ‘What the hell is going on over there?! Is someone being murdered?!’ One guy even asked if I was watching a horror film. “No,” I said. “I’m living in one.”
I did have a button that I could press to close my door which I did use many times when the screaming became too loud. I know a lot of attention has been raised to the fact that Matt Lauer had a button that he could press to close his office door without getting up. One report even labeled it as “nefarious.” At least at the company I worked at, it was commonplace in executives offices, men and women alike. I think most of us used it when a confidential call or meeting was happening or in my case when it was too loud outside my door. It’s not nefarious, just lazy.
One day while I was at my desk, I heard Barb ranting. By that time, her outbursts became regular background noise, like hearing a freight train roll through town — you just went about your business while the building shook around you. This time though a few things made me stop and pause. Barb was talking to a few subordinates about someone else who was not there. She was screaming “I will F@&#ING KILL him! I will take him and STAB the F@&#ING SH#% out of him!” This was said several times over, replacing STAB with other ways to murder the person including BEAT, STRANGLE and BLUDGEON.
After hearing this go on for about twenty minutes, I popped my head out of my office and with a smile said, “hey Barb, could you come down here for a sec, please?” She made her way down, steam blowing out of her ears, as I closed the door after her.
“Hey, I just want to tell you as a friend, that you can’t threaten to kill someone. The studio frowns upon it.” I told her about another executive in a different division who a few years earlier had said to her assistant, ‘if it doesn’t get there on time I’ve got a bullet with your name on it!’ This was said in earshot of other employees and within an hour that executive was escorted to her car by security and the entire town knew about it within two hours. A threat is a threat and she was immediately terminated.
As I told Barb the story, her face reddened and her stance became stiff — her arms locked straight down with fists clenched. I was trying to be the “friend” “looking out for her” telling her to tone it down. I don’t remember if she thanked me or acknowledged any appreciation, but she left a few moments later. The next day one of her executives came and told me that Barb was worried I might go to HR and rat her out. I reassured her that that was not my intent, it was only to give her warning that if someone else heard it, she could be fired.
I was complicit in allowing people like Barb to fester.
So now, as #MeToo plays on, I find myself thinking more about the bullying behavior that placed those men in positions where they could take it even further. To begin with, it’s the bullying behavior that WE allowed. These people were lauded and labeled geniuses, marketing wizards, powerful interviewers, movie moguls, and stars. It didn’t matter that they treated anyone they perceived as a subordinate like scum or were canoodling with anyone in a skirt. Because they brought in money, a blind eye and deaf ear were turned to any egregious behavior. They were untouchable.
As I always say, everything comes back to money. These men were paid obscene salaries because they were bringing in even more cash for their companies through advertisers, box office dollars and awards. They were held high on a pedestal and given constant praise. We ALL allowed it, regardless of how horrific we or others around us were treated. It was the unspoken “it’s okay, he’s allowed.”
I can’t tell you how many times I was verbally abused or humiliated by an executive, filmmaker, agent, or publicist. It’s part of the Hollywood culture. If you are allowed to bully and no ones stops or calls you out on that behavior, then you continue to push the envelope. It’s like The Blob. As written in Wikipedia: The storyline concerns a growing, corrosive, alien amoeboid entity that devours and dissolves citizens in a small community growing larger, redder, and more aggressive each time it does so, eventually becoming larger than a building — or Harvey Weinstein. Okay I added that last part, but you get the point — he kept pushing the envelope until his bullying turned to assault. He could do anything he wanted and he knew it.
Now since the first stories came out about Harvey, and the Weinstein Effect began to blow across the land, companies and comrades alike were saying “We had no idea!” Of course they knew, they just turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. Everyone at NBC heard the rumors about Matt, and usually where there’s smoke there’s definitely fire (and apparently there was a LOT of smoke!). Everyone that ever worked at Miramax, The Weinstein Company or in Hollywood in general knew what a deplorable human being Harvey was. These companies realize now that these behaviors are NOT appropriate and shouldn’t be ignored or deemed permissible because the person is abusing his authority.
This puts the human resources folks in a conundrum of sorts. We are supposed to think HR is there to help the employee when in fact it is in place to solely protect the company. HR is like a double agent – you think you are talking to someone on your side that you trust, when in reality they are taking information and handing it across enemy lines. This is the reason most people don’t go to HR when something happens in the first place. They feel they are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are afraid of losing their jobs.
There’s a familiarity which also develops over the years in many offices. Sometimes you see colleagues more than your own family, spending long hours together during late nights, lengthy business trips and in close quarters. It’s in this familiarity where employees eventually cross the line.
I remember about 15 years ago my boss at the time had just come back from having breast reduction surgery. I’ll call her Tina. She was very open about EVERYTHING. I knew when Tina and her husband (I’ll call John) had sex and where they liked to do it (the walk-in closet floor). Tina told us that John was having a vasectomy because as she said “if we ever get divorced I don’t want him having kids with another woman.” She even told me about how he needed to “ice his balls” after the procedure.
A few days after she got back from her surgery, Tina called me into her office. As I sat across from her, she lifted her shirt exposing a bruised, stitched and swollen purple breast asking “does this look infected?” Holding myself back from projectile vomiting, I told her “yes, you need to see a doctor.”
John had been labeled a “wunderkind” in our company as someone who made great deals and brought in lots of money. Tina enjoyed his success and thought she was untouchable. I remember thinking after seeing the Frankenboob “who would ever believe this, and what could they do?” I decided to go to an HR person in another part of the company.
During the discussion, the HR woman recognized my bosses last name and asked me if she was related to John. “Yes, John’s her husband,” I said. “Oh, well, I think you just need to let this play out,” she said. “I mean, there’s not much that you can do.” She told me what I already knew. If I pressed the issue, then I would be the one fired or laid off.
A few years later, we were at a movie convention in Vegas where Tina got drunk, stuck her tongue down a producers throat (he didn’t mind), and was whooping it up like she was at a Jimmy Buffet concert. I remember getting into a car to escort one of our senior execs back to the private plane. As soon as the car doors closed he said “what the hells up with Tina?! Someone needs to cut her off at the bar.”
I worked for Tina for 6 years, 5 months and 23 days. In the end, when her husband had turned a deal or two in the wrong direction and lost favor, her antics were less tolerated. She was laid off a few months after that convention. They say what goes around eventually comes around, but I had spent many of those years job hunting and very unhappy. Oh and Tina and John did eventually get divorced.
The studio had a mandatory Understanding & Avoiding Sexual Harassment Class that each employee had to complete every two years. It was a 3 hour course given by one of the studio lawyers (truly scintillating…). A few days after the class you would receive a certificate of completion to prove you finished this requirement. One of my bosses (I’ll call him Tom) taped his certificate to his lampshade and any time he said something off color would point to the paper and say “I’m covered because I completed the class!”
Once at an event Tom came over to me and buttoned the last button on my shirt closest to my crotch saying something like “oh your shirt was open down there and it bothered me. I took the class so this is okay!” I was taken aback and didn’t know what to say. I always come up with great responses two days later, but even then couldn’t think of anything that would have worked in that situation. It was a creepy, isolated, inappropriate moment…on a daily basis I was more offended by his cheesy mustache and cheap, two-toned suits. Again, I was not in a position that I felt I could say anything without hurting my career. A woman I worked with had filed a sexual harassment suit against her boss. The company quickly “fixed” the problem by giving the assistant $75,000 and asked her to sign a non-disclosure agreement. She took her $75K and never worked in the industry again.
So how do you go to HR knowing you’ll probably end up losing your job? I think it’s like rolling a boulder uphill, it’s going to take a very long time for HR to be trusted by employees if they are not weeding out the bullies and harassers too.
In the meantime, we have to treat bullies like we do terrorists. If you see something, say something. The more people who speak up, the more likely the company will have to do something about them. Strength in numbers. As civilized human beings it’s our responsibility to call out egregious behavior so The Blob doesn’t become more aggressive, grow and fester.
We have to take a step back and be less familiar with our coworkers — I know, easier said than done. But clipping your toe nails, showing your surgical scars, combing your mustache, publicly picking your nose, taking your magazines and coffee to the bathroom should not be done in the office (yes, I’ve witnessed them all). What your significant other reluctantly deems permissible at home isn’t necessarily acceptable in the office.
Here’s the big one to avoid…gentlemen, under no circumstances should you ever pull out your junk in front of anyone in the office. No one needs to see it or watch you play with it. Put It Away!
And finally, men and women alike should not date or sleep with anyone that is a direct report or considered a subordinate. Learn to live by the saying “Don’t Shit Where You Eat.” If you find that too harsh, then try the more polite version, “Don’t Make Honey Where You Make Your Money.”
If you enjoyed this post, please check out my book, Think Before You Ink and Other Cautionary Tales on Amazon!