I’d never met Vito before, but he was the first to respond to a Linked In invitation to join a small group of men in the Bay Area as part of my research. Friendly but hesitant when he arrived, Vito was ‘California comfortable’ in a breezy cotton striped shirt, but slightly uncomfortable on some yet-to-be discerned level as we introduced ourselves, met the other two participants, and poured coffee.
I was convening these men to explore their stories of fear and love at work. It seemed important to gather only men this time; I wasn’t sure why but trusted this instinct. As we settled in to our host's living room, I explained my plan for the next 5 hours: Introductions, each sharing their stories, lunch, debriefing, synthesizing insights, and closing.
Vito volunteered to share his fear story first. We learned that saying “yes” to this gathering was a big step for Vito. Sharing his fear story was another. It took nearly an hour and a half. His transparency was his gift to us. Our listening and bearing witness was our gift to him. I abandoned my agenda, realizing something more important was unfolding.
Vito’s 35-year career initially started in the telecommunications industry. He was an independent consultant for a time but missed having colleagues and so went to work in healthcare, then high-tech manufacturing and then eventually a global oil and gas company, his final employer.
Along the way he earned a prestigious advanced degree, doing work that was satisfying, creative, and impactful. A gay, Jewish man, he was confident and successful in his field, receiving top evaluations, raises, and awards. Vito described it all as wonderful.
Having worked entirely with U.S. corporations to that point, he wanted to try his skill set internationally, so he intentionally found his way into global work in Paris, Singapore, the Netherlands, Sao Paulo and other locations. He developed innovative programs that really made a difference in the lives of participants addressing leadership challenges, safety issues, and more.
Then after four years at the oil and gas company, rumblings of a re-organization indicated that his job was potentially on the chopping block. When a Senior Adviser position was offered in the Office of Global Diversity, he eagerly took it. He was excited about this new role; it was a chance to fuse an area of passion with his skills to bring significant positive change. At first the recognition, trust, and respect for his work continued. His manager, Karen, was supportive and a strong sponsor.
But in the third year she retired suddenly, leaving him without sponsorship, without transition, and with a lot of action items hanging open. He would now report to a Vice President. Their first meeting was not good, and things went downhill from there. This VP, also a gay man, was a harsh, terrifying guy who did not take kindly to requests for supporting Vito’s work. Vito was shocked and bewildered, while also confused and grieving the loss of his former boss.
It was quickly apparent that the VP was gunning for him, as he told Vito, “Karen wanted me to fire you.” Dazed, Vito still remembers sitting at this desk, looking off into space disoriented, trying to figure out what he had done and what he was going to do. How could he get on the VP’s better side? How could he keep his job and get back to doing excellent work and having a positive impact again?
He was panicked, trying to save himself, with lots of activity, but little productivity. The VP provided no direction or clarity, and with so many unknowns, Vito was “caught in the headlights."
Receiving an email or voice mail summons to meet with the VP was gut-wrenching. His stomach would drop. Was today the day he would be fired? Going to the fourth floor felt like walking the “green mile." The drums beat loudly in his head, his sense of doom growing with each step. He was never told what each meeting was about so he could prepare. In these meetings he was regularly berated. He was never praised, but never fired either.
Vito likened this to the whipsaw of emotions experienced by French prisoners awaiting the guillotine without knowing their date of execution. Whenever the prison door opened and a guard approached, the prisoners’ terror grew as they didn’t know if it was their turn, only to be passed by again. Their experience, and Vito’s, was a kind of psychological torture.
After the first four months, the VP called him in to provide him with an unscheduled informal review. Vito took notes, receiving three or four positive comments and three pages of negative comments, describing how unproductive, unintelligent, and uneducated he was. Later, the VP insisted on stacking Vito’s 360 feedback raters with those unfamiliar with or negative about Vito’s work so that Vito’s ratings were sure to be low. The VP himself gave Vito the lowest possible score on every dimension. The facilitators had never seen results like that before.
Another time, when inviting Vito to lunch at an Indian restaurant on an international business trip, the VP asked how spicy Vito liked his food. Vito indicated not too spicy. But when the food the VP ordered was served, and Vito took the first bite, it was off-the-charts spicy hot. He started sweating. “How do you like the food?” the VP inquired with feigned politeness. Vito put on a stoic persona and replied enthusiastically, “It’s delicious! I love it,” and continued to eat and sweat his way miserably through the meal while the VP watched him in apparent satisfaction.
At this point, Vito’s emotions went from fear to terror, but also denial and despondence. He took on a kind of warped optimism reminiscent of Stockholm Syndrome. He came to believe that the VP was right, that he was worthless, but “at least the coffee was good."
He stayed in this job for nearly three years, existing only for the times when he could do meaningful work with employees and external consultants, relishing these few high points when they won awards. Otherwise he was drowning in fear, frozen by what he described as a “sink hole of horror.”
His dogs and his spouse heard all about this. So did his therapist. But he saw no way out of this reality until finally a retirement package was offered at age 64. He took it and escaped, ending his employed career.
He came away with a strong desire to fight injustice and make a difference for others. He currently volunteers on his local board of the League of Women Voters. He’s come close to returning to paid work at times, but cannot go back to a situation where that kind of injustice, fear, and torment might possibly exist.
Reflecting on 35 years in the workforce, Vito was hit hard by the fact that he could easily identify many stories of fear. Fear was expected. Fear was the norm. But love? He could only identify one situation when he felt loved and cared for at work. One in 35 years.
When I asked about his process of recovery from his final three years of employment, Vito looked at me and asked pointedly, “What makes you think I’ve recovered?” Vito said he would never completely recover. He is haunted by the question, “What about me would cause someone to be so hateful to me? What did I do?” This is the workplace legacy Vito carries with him every day.
When Vito was finished sharing his story, the group was silent for a moment, then the other men quickly gave voice to their outrage. The impulse to process his story each through their own experience was strong…"I would’ve..." and "I couldn’t have…" One man even offered to use his youthful Irish brawling experience and rough up the VP!
All were really just trying to make sense of something that did not make any sense. They came to appreciate that Vito had done the best he could and that was to be respected.
Later, I was struck that it was not only the oil and gas company that lost Vito. We all lost Vito. We lost the full contribution that Vito might be making in the workplace today. We lost his knowledge and skill. We lost his creativity and humor. We lost his experience and mentoring. Certainly, his volunteering is something of value, though it is not at the scale of his former work.
When we hear a story like this, it is easy to shake our heads and feel bad for the unlucky individual who suffered such a workplace fate, to act as if the degradation is reserved for him alone. But workplace bullying, harassment, and abuse, and the fears these bring, infect those systems and impact us all.
So it is not just too bad for Vito, or too bad for that woman being harassed, or too bad for that person of color being marginalized, or too bad for that co-worker being publicly humiliated. It is too bad for us all.
When we are part of a team, an organization, or a society that allows the humanity of certain individuals to be degraded, the rich contributions of those people are lost. And, we learn that the team, the organization, or the society is not really safe for any of us. When one is diminished, all are diminished.
The poet John Donne famously said,
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less...
When Vito, and so many others like him, are subjected to workplace abuse and fear, then what they might bring and be and do is lost, as is some of what we each might bring and be and do, and so we all are the less.
Next: What the poet John Donne has to say about the workplace.
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