I walked into the office in Soho in New York feeling lighter and brighter. I smiled at my co-workers, engaged in chat, my body language was more open and relaxed as I sat at the large wooden table that served as my desk in the Loft-like space on Lafayette Street.
He was gone.
One of the senior reporters had left the publication I was working on for another company. He left of his own accord – and I couldn’t have been happier. This was my first professional job. I was trying to find a life in New York, I was working on becoming a better reporter, a tighter writer. What I didn’t expect was to have my body – like the size of my tits – openly commented on by this person every time I got up to use the copy machine.
I had made a mistake a few months earlier. He had invited me to a baseball game. The Yankees v the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium – third row, third base line. (Come on, you would have said yes as well – and I did cheer for the Red Sox the whole time 😉 ) He bought me a beer, he introduced me to his friends, he accompanying me home on the subway. He made a move. If you could call it that. At one end of a lonely subway car, on our way back from the Bronx, he grabbed my breast, and shoved his tongue in my month. I tried to squirm away, which meant his lips only half met mine. I ended up with his saliva running down my chin. I pushed him away. He just stared at me.
As I wiped my face, he mumbled ‘whatever’ under his breath and got off at his stop without another word.
Hell hath no fury like an awkward man who gets rejected by girls. And that fury was allowed to be expressed at the place where I worked. And the place where I started my career. He had a buddy he spoke out loud to.
“I would avoid shirts that button in the front, if I were you.”
“You walk like a man – it’s a good thing your tits are so big – or no one would know.”
It isn’t so much the words – but the sniggering and the laughing I remember. To this day the sound of a certain type of male laugh, usually heard from behind, still makes me cringe.
Everyone knew this guy was a bit of a dick. Everyone in the office knew I went to the baseball game with him. I told no one about the sloppy kiss on the subway.
I got so mad at him one day, I put toothpicks in his chair. He almost hit the ceiling when he went to sit down. The editor-in-chief ran out grinning. ‘Did you put toothpicks in his chair – nice one!’ The editor knew this guy was an asshole. He didn’t realise just how it was affecting me.
After his departure someone commented, ‘Wow, Liz has a personality!’ My demeanour had changed. My confidence was emerging. My writing was improving.
The editor called me into his office. “I’m sorry,” he said “I know he was an asshole. But it was hard to fire someone who was producing such consistently good work.” He looked contrite. I know he felt bad. But he was part of the problem.
Last week there was much on social media and the press about the inner turmoil going on at Uber – everyone’s love/hate taxi hailing app. Accusations of sexual harassment from a former employee (which is not unique to Uber or even a Silicon Valley tech company) resulted in a months-long investigation, which now sees the former unicorn darling without a CEO, COO or CTO.
The thing of it is, toxic cultures aren’t written down in a book or a set of rules or ascribed from on high. Difficult work environments are created by people. Some of these people are allowed to remain – they are not fired, or reprimanded or even confronted – because ‘they are such high performers.’ They are needed to run the business. Never mind that they make that business a horrible place to work at for many around them. And inhibit others from becoming high performers as well.
Whether you are faced with a Mad Men-style, central casting workplace groper, or just someone who refuses to communicate. All us from time to time, have struggled to deal with toxic people. In fact it is a skill that many of us should learn. But I have struggled to learn it – especially when it has been directed at me.
I have a reputation in the industry for being confident, for telling it like it is, for not giving a fuck. I write blogs with bold opinions. I say shit, a lot, on stage and on podcasts. I tell stories that are real and full of failure and mistakes (most of them made by me). One – it isn’t an act – I honestly don’t know how else to behave. And two – I am lucky – what I say and do doesn’t have to go through a PR person or senior management for approval.
But I have been faced with difficult people in the past – who seem to have an immense issue with me personally – and I have failed to handle it. There are many that have dented my resolve, made me doubt my abilities, were the source of many a drunken rant and quiet bathroom cry. From ‘Mr World’s-greatest-expert-on-my-tits 1995’ to the remote founder who never speaks to you face-to-face, but instead sends emails listing all your many mistakes and typos, to the ‘experienced entrepreneur’ who was hired to help you – but instead whispers behind your back, constantly makes himself unavailable and constructs cruel jokes in public – that if you laugh you are complicit and if you get mad you are ’emotional’. The double edged trap that is the hallmark of a master in gas lighting-style manipulation.
I have to say, in the past, I failed to handle these people each and every time. I chose to retreat within myself. Dragging myself out of bed at 5:00 am in order to meet yet another 7:00 am breakfast meeting. Holding onto tears until you are safe in a late night Uber, knowing your husband has a cold gin and tonic waiting for you at home. Keeping your head down, not trying to disrupt the processes, to not be labelled a ‘difficult woman’, to not point a finger at the ‘high performing asshole in the room.’ To be accused of ‘assuming bad intentions’ when there is no hard evidence to cite.
Because everyone else seems to know how to deal with them – except you.
I found myself very much alone in these situations in the past. Deflated – looking around for help or even acknowledgement – and finding nothing. Only later, conversations come out – ‘Yes, me too.’ ‘I understand.’ ‘He was a dick.’ But nothing was done at the time. Because I did not act. Because you feel, somehow, you deserved it.
You weren’t prepared for the sheer volume of problems startups have – that seem to arrive every ten minutes. You did make that typo (on three hours of sleep after a flight to Japan). You went to that baseball game.
The middle of last year I stared straight at one of these people – a person who caused my stutter to come back after 15 years, that saw me begin to pull chunks of my hair out (after I thought I had left that obsessive compulsive disorder in a therapist office in Bethnal Green years ago) – and I laughed at him. He said something to me, as part of a presentation to an audience, which was meant to manipulate me. I thought ‘Wow, this guy either has a widely different memory of 2015 or he’s playing me. What. A. Dick.‘ So I laughed. Both inwardly and outwardly. “Yes, I remember that well,” I smiled in response.
The best advice I was ever given was to realise that the only person you can control in the world is yourself. Assholes will never go away. At 45 I finally feel I have the strength and confidence to deal with these people – so that I don’t let it affect me. Because when I do – I am allowing the assholes to win.
To me the ‘don’t hire assholes’ rule has no exceptions. And I will never be complicit in those exceptions again.