Alyssa Rosenberg: Want to stop sexual harassment? Start with bullies, not hugs and holiday parties

December 16, 2017 GMT

“(Harvey) Weinstein combined a keen eye for promising scripts, directors, and actors with a bullying, even threatening, style of doing business, inspiring both fear and gratitude. ... Many said that they had seen Weinstein’s associates confront and intimidate those who crossed him, and feared that they would be similarly targeted. ... Multiple sources said that Weinstein frequently bragged about planting items in media outlets about those who spoke against him; these sources feared similar retribution.” - “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories,” New Yorker, Oct. 23

“Five of the women spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of (Charlie) Rose’s stature in the industry, his power over their careers or what they described as his volatile temper. ... Soon, (Kyle) Godfrey-Ryan said, he began yelling at her, calling her stupid and incompetent and pathetic. ‘He repeatedly attacked her in front of other people,’ recalled a former producer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ‘He once said that because she hadn’t gotten a college degree she would never amount to anything better than his secretary.’ After the bouts of rage, Godfrey-Ryan said, Rose would often be conciliatory. ‘It would usually entail some version of him also touching me.’” - “Eight women say Charlie Rose sexually harassed them - with nudity, groping and lewd calls,” The Washington Post, Nov. 20


“Many said they had come to fear (Kevin) Friedman, a burly man well over six feet tall, because of his volatile temper and verbal bullying. ‘We had to brace ourselves every time Ken arrived,’ said (Natalie) Saibel, (a former server at the Spotted Pig). (Her account was corroborated by two other employees who were present.) ‘When he wasn’t coming on to us, he was screaming at us.’” - “Ken Friedman, Power Restaurateur, Is Accused of Sexual Harassment,” New York Times, Dec. 12


Producer Harvey Weinstein, TV host Charlie Rose and restaurant owner Kevin Friedman have all been publicly accused of horrifying acts of sexual harassment and in some cases, assault. But that isn’t all that they have in common. A frequent element in many of the past months’ #MeToo stories? The men involved were nasty bullies who berated underlings. They abused their power to create a climate of fear in their workplaces and industries. And apparently, they had no real incentives to keep their formidable tempers in check.

Details like this are enough to suggest that it might be worth treating volcanic outbursts in professional settings as a potential indicator of other boundary-crossing behavior. And they’re also a reminder that really reforming the workplace requires far more than ending the open bar at office holiday parties.


Now, let’s be clear: Mocking someone for their lack of a college education, “(n)ame calling and belittling critiques of show ideas during meetings” (one of the offenses that contributed to “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook’s suspension), and generally-applied PR skulduggery are not in and of themselves sexual harassment. Some observers suggested that the past few months have led to various over-generalizations, among them the conflation of jerkery with sexual misconduct. It’s reasonable to sort out the two sorts of offenses.

At the same time, it’s worth recognizing that bullying and temper tantrums can be used as tools of sexual coercion and as retaliation. And even if this bad behavior isn’t deployed in service of sexual harassment, it’s still rotten conduct and it’s still worth eliminating.

After all, workplace behavior doesn’t have to rise to the level of criminality to make it draining, demoralizing and just plain bad management. How much time did employees of the Weinstein company spend ushering women up to hotel rooms and then dealing with the fallout rather than working on putting together great movies?

For all the myth of the difficult genius, does anyone have any proof that allegedly blowing up at employees made “Charlie Rose,” or the Spotted Pig, or “On Point” (a show on which I’ve been a frequent guest) a better television program, restaurant or radio series? You can shove people toward excellence by making them terrified, but there are additional costs to choosing bullying as a management technique, including lost productivity, high turnover and even higher health care expenses.

People who lament a changing workplace climate have often focused on potentially ambiguous pleasantries, worrying that they can’t hug female co-workers or that their compliments will land afoul. Plenty of those conundrums can be sorted out by good communication and old-fashioned common sense. If we’re serious about stopping sexual harassment and the workplace dynamics that enable them, it’s the bullies who ought to be worried.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a Washington Post columnist.