Schadenfreude In Absentia: Bill O'Reilly And Bad Behavior In The Workplace
I didn’t recognize the number when I picked up the receiver on my office phone. If I had, I don’t know that I would have answered, although my morbid curiosity would have probably gotten the best of me. It was my former boss, calling to congratulate me on my new opportunity.
Although this boss wasn’t the worst boss I had ever had, I would count him among the most challenging. Nothing satisfied or pleased him and he delighted in telling me at all times that he “knew better” than me even though I had been doing this kind of specialized work for almost 20 years. The worst day together was when, frustrated with my inability to read his mind, he stormed into my office, slammed the door, and, while poking his finger in my face, yelled that he shouldn’t have to tell me how to do my job. I can still see his angry underbite—even his bottom teeth appeared clenched—and the spittle collecting in the corners of his lips.
Earlier in my career, this kind of yelling paralyzed me. My first boss yelled at me in front of the entire office that I was so stupid, he couldn’t believe my university “gave” me a degree. Another boss took me to lunch and berated me for over one hour as I pretended to eat my salad. Another boss asked me who the fuck I thought I was. Another boss kicked my desk and swept all the papers off of it. Another boss told my colleagues that I was mentally ill. Yelling, having my desk kicked, being cursed at, being questioned about my own personhood, having things swept off my desk, and, even being taken to lunch under false pretenses (to this day, I am afraid of ordering Cobb salads) not only had the effect of making me hyper-vigilant in the workplace, but also had me wondering what the hell was wrong with me that I incited this kind of behavior from supervisors.
This day, I remember that a preternatural calm took over as I walked around my supervisor, opened my office door, and, standing in the doorway, talked half at him and half out into the reception area where several colleagues were standing. I told him, loudly, that he was behaving inappropriately. I continued standing in the doorway, holding the door open, hoping he would take the hint. After staring at me, dumbfounded, he left my office. Shaken, I told a few colleagues what had happened and, after hearing iterations of “that’s just him,” I decided to drop it. Everyone has bad days, I rationalized. The next day, I brought in what amounted to a small boulder from my yard to use as a doorstop. Several months after this exchange, my boss announced unexpectedly that he was leaving.
The real reason for his phone call to me that day a few years ago was not to congratulate me. It was to tell me that I was the reason he left. The story he told me was surprising. After realizing what he had done with the yelling, door slamming, and finger-jabbing, he went into damage-control mode. He caucused with human resources, the head of our department, and others, all of whom told him he handled the situation poorly and that he should avoid me lest I file a complaint against him. Sure enough, a complaint had been filed, but not by me. Rather, by a colleague with exquisite timing who was going through her own issues with him unbeknownst to me. Because of the complaint, and, finding rumor and innuendo so powerful that he felt he could not even discuss the situation with me, he decided to leave, always assuming it was me who filed the complaint.
This is his story, anyway. I have my own, of course, and somewhere between the two is the truth of what really happened. But none of this matters anymore. It was a lifetime ago.
I forgot to mention that all of these situations happened while working for nonprofit organizations. It wasn’t as if I was at Fortune 500 companies well-renowned for widget-making, killer stock options, and six weeks of vacation. At one organization, the lights were kept on, but we struggled to meet payroll every two weeks for almost six months until my colleague in accounting started borrowing money from reserve funds. Legal? Technically, yes. Ethical? No, not for our donors who contributed to reserve funds only. But that boss didn’t care. It was when I brought up the ethics of the situation and offered a solution that he kicked my desk and swept the papers onto the floor.
What happened to Bill O’Reilly felt like schadenfreude in absentia. Initially, I imagined all of these yelling, kicking, teeth clenching supervisors forced to leave my former workplaces. I imagined all of the workplaces I had been in where someone (not me!) rallied a group of oppressed colleagues together and ousted the abusive supervisor. Or that the company I worked for that had an Employee Wellness Hotline had operated as well as it did at Fox and immediately forced an investigation and a series of actions to remove the aggressor. I imagined that I worked in places where safe work policies were upheld, human resources professionals fought for the employees rather than working to save the company from lawsuits, and that sometimes, a modicum of humanity and justice had prevailed.
The office environments in which many of us work are at once simple and complex. We can imagine that in any workplace, seeing bad behavior on display from a colleague or a supervisor—racism, sexism, harassment—would be immediately handled and resolved. We believe that hostile work environments are apparent to all. I contend that the problem is two-fold. We put up with bad behavior because it is pervasive and insidious. On some level, these behaviors become normalized in the workplace. Telling myself it was me, or convincing myself that other people certainly experienced this horrible behavior as well, was what I did to get by and show up to work every day.
Sometimes, a culture forms around someone “too big to fail” in the form of a supervisor, colleague, or personality like Bill O’Reilly, creating an aura of normalization. These people are allowed to build reputations for their unprofessionalism, oppression, and cruelness. We hear refrains of “oh, that’s just him,” or “you know how she is,” or, “he’s just joking” any time we try to call attention to their unethical and/or illegal behavior to other colleagues, other persons of authority, and even departments of human resources, equity, or access. The people in our workplaces who are supposed to uphold these rules, regulations, and laws, are more than willing to look the other way for the sake of profits. They fail time and time again to uphold the rights of the aggrieved, the harassed, and the abused even though the law is on our side.
But we also put up with bad behavior because we have bills to pay and limited choices and options. As we become more aware of diminishing job opportunities and the unequal distribution of wealth in this country, as we take on more debt for the reasons of education and day-to-day living expenses such as food and shelter, we can no longer deny that capitalism is oppressive. No one is “getting ahead” anymore except those who game the system and keep others down. It is in this dollar-as-the-only-measure-of-worth culture that Bill O’Reilly thrived. Over the course of 20 years at Fox, he was the leading personality—ratings and dollars earned—for the network. Because of this, Fox paid out two sexual harassment settlements for O’Reilly amounting to $3 million. O’Reilly paid out three on his own amounting to $10 million. These five women are just the ones we know about. How many more signed non-disclosure agreements? How many more incidents of harassment went unreported? We are about to find out as a new series of complaints comes forward, two from the employee hotline at Fox that actually worked.
My only surprise in this is that Fox let O’Reilly go. Many articles claim the ratings for O’Reilly’s show, The Factor, have not been affected even with the news of more harassment cases on the horizon and with O’Reilly on “vacation.” The truth of the matter is as long as the ratings prevail and the network continues to make money, it doesn’t really matter who is in the pundit chair.
The boss who had me choking on my Cobb salad was of similar worth to the organization for which we worked. The head of our nonprofit called me to his office shortly after hearing that I had resigned. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him and for our organization and hated the idea of leaving, but the work situation had become untenable. We sat across from each other and he asked me what happened. After listening to several of my complaints, he steepled his hands under his chin. This is a problem, he confided. For a moment, I felt hopeful. I waited for him to ask me to stay and to promise to get rid of her. Instead, he shared that it was more cost-effective to turn over 50% of the staff every year than to fire my direct supervisor. He ran the numbers, he assured me. But he was sorry that I was leaving.
When it was announced that O’Reilly was “let go,” my moment of schadenfreude was short-lived. As soon as I started reading more articles about his situation and writing this essay, reality hit me. Although I have twenty-some years of workplace stories to tell, every time I sit down to write them, I re-experience individual workplace traumas. My stomach knots when I think about all of these situations and, even while I am compelled to write this essay, I wonder if I dare post it anywhere. It will go and die on my blog because every time I open myself up to reliving the door-slamming and clenched teeth, I open myself up to retreaded advice from well-meaning people who assure me that it’s time to move on, or that my life is so much better now, or that I could have handled it differently, or still, after all these years, that so-and-so couldn’t have been all that bad.
I left every workplace where I was treated poorly. Mentally, I was better for it, but not financially. My work history is checkered with not being vested in retirement accounts, taking pay cuts, and losing opportunities because I appeared to be a “job-hopper.” Many of us stay in workplaces because we don’t have the resources, financially or emotionally, to fight or to leave. We believe it is somehow easier to sustain repeated blows to our ego because we have bills to pay or only two more years before we are able to take our retirement accounts with us. The cost of leaving means taking a hit to our bank accounts and starting again somewhere else, hoping that this time, we’ll get a raise or be vested in the company retirement fund.
Capitalism rewards bad behavior in the workplace despite the impact this behavior has on employees and office culture. I learned the painful way from someone whom I admired that it is often more cost effective to replace staff than it is to replace higher-ups in organizations. In the workplace, what is the measure of one person’s complaint? It is superseded by the profitability of another employee who contributes more to the short-term bottom line. Fox took a chance on O’Reilly all right—the corporate culture enabled him to harass people in his workplace before public sentiment, and advertising dollars, prevailed. The numbers have been run. If only we could determine if it really is more cost-effective to normalize unethical and illegal conduct in the workplace.