When I first heard about the rather vile tape of Donald Trump engaged in “locker room talk” with former Access Hollywood and suspended Today Show host Billy Bush, my thought was that Bush had experienced what I and many other people I know have experienced in their career: We were stuck in an awkward space with someone who has a lot of power over us and our careers. And we sat there and maybe nodded and laughed along while that person talked or behaved in a thoroughly unacceptable manner.
Billy Bush confirmed that in the past week when he wrote a op-ed for the New York Times that challenged the president’s rather odd assertion that it was not his voice on the tape.
The initial blow out from this tape, as you know, is that Billy Bush lost his job and a big piece of his reputation. Donald Trump went on to become our president and the commander-in-chief of our armed forces.
Let’s leave aside all of the politics for the moment.
And let’s stipulate that men should not sexually harass women and that there are no excuses whatsoever for sexual harassment of any sort. Yes, that’s obvious but I’ve noticed that some of my male counterparts are slow on the uptake and need a lot of educating.
Men harass women because they can. We men have privilege in our society. It is unfortunately not all that uncommon for the fortunate and powerful to take advantage of the less fortunate and less powerful.
Beyond sexual harassment there is the harassment that I described in the opening paragraph of this piece: The taking advantage of another person because you hold power over them. That’s what I wish to address. That is something that I can speak to. It’s what has made me spend some time thinking about what is happening right now with the #MeToo movement and why I think it is a good thing.
Maybe you’ve been in this situation? You’re sitting across the desk from an important buyer or potential client. You know this person well enough. Things seem to be going swimmingly. Then out of the blue the person tells a horrible joke, makes a sexist or racist comment. What do you do? You need to close this deal, right? What are you going to do?
Perhaps you’re at a trade show with a client. This client represents 25% of your business. The representatives of a black owned business walk into the show hall. You’re client stares in their direction. And then proceeds to let out a stream of racist invective that stuns you. It rocks you back on your heels. You never knew this person thought that way and you’ve known them for a long time. What do you do? Can you afford to offend this person and lose 25% of your business in one week? What they just said is horrible! Do you keep silent?
Let’s say you’re new to your trade. You’re traveling far from your home base and out for drinks late one night with some other traveling colleagues and the manager of the company that you’re calling on. The night breaks up and all of the other colleagues decline to drive the over-indulged manager to his home. They laugh when you politely volunteer to drive him. “Watch out” one of your “friends” calls out as you help him into the rental car. Later, in front of his house, his hands wind up all over you and you have to brush him off and kick him out of the car.
The next day you don’t make a sale. Your appointments are canceled. For the next year your calls go unanswered.
Maybe you’re out to dinner with some business associates and the discussion turns to a young CSR at a company you all do business with. The conversation turns to her attractiveness, how much they’d like to have sex with her, and then, of course, to her apparent “bitchiness” because she has turned some them down. You chime in that you actually like her and get along well with her and why would you proposition her? That’s wrong, she has a long time boyfriend – so what is their problem? The table turns cold. You’re not included in the rest of the conversation or any of the meetings the next day.
The scenarios I just played out for you are real enough. They are the stories of people who are more powerful than the other person they are engaging with. Or as the case was with the trade show, presuming that their financial leverage over their business partner meant that they would either agree with their opinions, or keep their mouth shut. In the final story we see a typical example of the pack mentality.
None of these happened in Hollywood, Washington, DC, or in the vaunted halls of high-end publishers or the Fortune 500. The people who precipitated these events were not high-flying wealthy men. They were every day kind of guys. People who live next door or down the street or work one floor over.
When Sarah Silverman asked the question, “Can you love someone who did bad things?”” I understand. How do you keep liking someone who you know has reprehensible views? Has tried to force their will on someone else? In today’s do-it-yourself gig economy of the 21st century, you may have to work for that person. Do you take their money? Do you keep silent?
What if someone you work for gaslights, harasses, overworks, mistreats and ultimately fires a business associate? And you get promoted into their position? Do you take the job? Do you walk out in solidarity? How much do you owe on your mortgage? School loans? Does your kid need insurance?
There are no simple and easy answers to these questions. I dare myself to walk in others shoes. I dare you to walk in mine.
I started this post right after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out. I never finished it in part because of the “heat” of the presidential race but also because I just didn’t know what I wanted to say. I am not sure that I do even now. But I feel like talking about it.
I wish the world were a better place. I wish we could be kinder to each other. I wish people in positions of power and authority, especially people in “business” would spend more time mentoring, teaching, elevating and less time preening, shouting, demanding and failing to understand or acknowledge the humanity of those who cross their paths. I find it sad that they can’t even understand their own humanity.
Author and journalist Daniel Pink wrote:
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
He is right. We need more empathy – in the work place, and in our every day lives.