Is verbal abuse ok at the workplace?

Posted: January 2, 2015 in journalism, journalist, Media
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On second thoughts, I should have retitled this ‘what’s the boss got to do with it?’

I read a quote recently by former president APJ Abdul Kalam that said, ‘Love your job, but don’t love your company, because you may not know when your company stops loving you.” I don’t completely agree with that, because sometimes a good company or a considerate boss can make you go that extra yard.

It was very flattering when an ex-boss told me he’d take me back because I had stuck to my ethics, when I had worked there. He told me I was one of the very few who knew what some of his managers were up to, and instead of joining them, preferred to walk out. Some years later he called me home and said he owed me an apology. I ca,’t possibly get a boss to apologise when they make a mistake, but when one says so, himself….! I haven’t met too many owners, editors or CEOs who have had the humility to accept they had erred and to apologise for it. He’s the only one.

That was valuable experience to my learning curve, and from the time I was 16, having seen and worked in a lot of places, I guess, I’ve seen a few managers – good and bad. But, honesty is not something that all of them appreciate,  even if they make a show of welcoming “frank and honest opinions”. My mother always used to say that people who tell you, “be frank with me about everything including me” are the first ones who’ll come after you with a hatchet if you ‘be frank and honest’ about them! I’ve had bosses telling me to point their errors whenever they make them. You can guess the rest. Stupid me!

There was another guy I worked for in Delhi for a year or so. He shut the company because his weekly medical bills crippled him to such an extent that it sometimes exceeding our weekly printing budget. He could have asked me to go. Instead, he told me to freelance and do what I loved to do – write – and said he would pay my salary till I got another job. I am eternally grateful to that man for his graciousness and generosity, because had he asked me to go that day, five of us would have been on the street, homeless.

These are some managers who you remember for all the right reasons. And then there are those you don’t want to remember at all! I read some time back that two well-known journalists of a national newspaper had resigned. Nothing new, it happens all the time. Two more left a fortnight before that for their own reasons. What I read with interest in the first case was that one of them cited ‘verbal abuse’ as a reason for his resignation. Some months back a news anchor tried to commit suicide alleging harassment from her bosses and top management. I feel sorry for the lady in question, and I can’t even imagine the kind of pressure she might have been under, but what she did was a bit extreme because one should never give any boss that satisfaction.

Two of my ex-bosses in respective organisations once told me that my juniors had complained that I used the F word once too often.  In the first case, the boss laughed and said, “Go easy on them.” She mistakenly thought I was using it against them. I came out and announced that I apologised to everyone for my language, but it wasn’t personal.  I must not have looked one bit contrite after my apology, because there was laughter from the people around.

In the second instance, I asked my juniors if I had ever abused them using the F word. They were surprised because none of them had complained. They said they had no problems with it, because they knew I wasn’t making it personal. It then became a bit of a joke and some of the reporters would say “Sir, please say the word once. The way you say it, it sounds like a compliment not a swear word. Dil ko sukoon milta hain!” (it gives relief to the heart!)

I’ve been accused of a lot else, like berating (NEVER ABUSING) reporters and subs for submitting bad copy, and I am sure they see the wisdom in that now! There were a few tears and then we would go out for a coffee and sort things out. Of course, there are always exceptions. As seniors, one pushes the juniors often to see how far they can be pushed. The brilliant ones survive, the rest make up the average bunch. It is a case of the kitchen and the heat. That’s life. Oh and I’ve made mistakes too, plenty of them, which I’ve paid for in cash and kind, because as an HoD, at the end of the day is responsible for everything that goes wrong.

I remember my senior Joseph Pinto telling some of us once that if anyone made really silly mistakes, “he would “hang the bastard out of the window by his legs!” Last year, I was at a condolence meeting for a former colleague and a senior journalist, and during some of the eulogies a couple of senior journalists mentioned how their seniors would berate them for messing up their copies. That is how they improved in journalism and reached the positions they are in today. I was flattered when they mentioned my name along with the others, because after all these years, it felt nice to be remembered by some of your juniors for the right reasons.

An ex-student tweeted to me some time back that verbal abuse is very common in media houses. She is right, it not common just in media houses but everywhere. In some places it is in-your-face and in others it is more subtle but just as vicious. And that is because managements do not care to act against errant managers, until his/her actions or he/she jeopardises their interests. I have nothing against an occasional ticking off. It doesn’t kill anyone. All seniors lose their cool at some time or the other. With the kind of pressure they are under from the top, it is understandable.

A former student told me how her boss screamed at her over the phone for something that wasn’t even her fault: Bhenc**d, why the f*** did you do this?” He was profusely apologetic to her the minute she walked into the office because he had discovered that it was not her fault after all! Never mind the fact that he got her gender mixed up! However, when I hear of bosses who say they are proud of verbally using their juniors, because that is the way they get work done, I pity them. It shows their inability and incompetence to lead a team.

I have watched the trauma-hit faces of the youngsters around me when bosses without even the slightest provocation have started screaming at them. Juniors then start to treat the job as a sufferance they have to endure because it pays the bills and not something they love to do. And more and more, I have begun to believe that if you do not treat people with respect they will not give you any respect.

Someone has rightly said that if you want to find an unhappy employee look to his boss. This link should make interesting reading. Why such experienced people, who are in positions of power for their talent and abilities (I presume), should behave in such a bizarre fashion is something I can never fathom.  A boss who thinks he has the right to verbally abuse his or her staff, is fit to be admitted to a psychiatric ward instead of the high chair he or she occupies in the corporate world.

I know of a colleague who quit her job, because the boss who was twice her age, went after her so hard that she fled. This was not a case of verbal abuse but one of extreme harassment. This kid just knew more about the job they were working on, and it was making the boss look inept. She told me the whole story one evening on chat and It horrified me that such a senior person could be so insecure about a job and so vindictive. And they were friends. Then there were these two kids who worked for national publications, who were got after by their immediate superiors. Once others noticed that they were taking it quietly, they too joined in, till one of them got frustrated and quit.

So what brings out the sadistic streak in some bosses?  Is it some frustration from the time they were trainees and were bullied by their bosses or are they just doing this to hide their inadequacies as managers, or are they mentally unfit to take the responsibility given to them?  I know ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ but verbally abusing colleagues and juniors is proof that they are undeserving of the crown – whatever they or the management might think. Even I once had a junior politely telling me, “Why don’t you f**k off?” because I was standing behind her correcting her as she edited her copy.

I was taken aback for a second and then we started laughing. But then she was something special and she has proved it over the years by becoming one of the finest journalists this profession has produced. And we’ve remained good friends these past 25 years. We always want to emulate our seniors and believe that one day we would like to walk in their shoes. Would I ever want to walk in the shoes of someone who believes that swearing at his or her staff  is the way to get work done? This blog is my answer.

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Comments
  1. Reblogged this on the Gravity Gate and commented:
    Sir, hope you are doing well! 🙂 I absolutely second your view point in this post.
    I had resigned from my 1st job because of this Editor whom I have described in one of my blog posts http://wp.me/p2OlCT-bC; maybe you should read it for a good laugh 😛

  2. […] On second thoughts, I should have retitled this ‘what’s the boss got to do with it?’ […]

  3. GM says:

    Was browsing blogs tagged Pune and found your page. Have spent the better part of this year trying to answer why bosses treat their reportees badly. With or without abuse. There is so much of harassment that takes place even without verbal abuse. The only reason I can think of is – Because. Because they can get away with it. By the way, the quote that you have at the beginning of this post – there does not seem to be consensus on who actually said it. Is it one of those Internet myths? Where I read it, it was attributed to Narayan Murthy.

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