Saying I’m sorry is becoming overused. Today Show morning host Matt Lauer is sorry. CBS morning anchor Charlie Rose is sorry. Actor Kevin Spacey is sorry. Senator Al Franken is sorry. Movie producer Harvey Weinstein says he’s sorry. Because the word sorry is used so often when someone admits doing something wrong, it has lost is power.
In our business, we have always advised clients in trouble to apologize if they erred and if they were genuinely sorry. Saying I’m sorry acknowledges vulnerability and humility. However, when it’s heard too often, it begins to sound insincere and void of any real meaning.
That’s why I find it interesting that “I’m sorry” is now being accompanied with two new words; ‘ashamed and embarrassed’. The growing list of powerful men accused of inappropriate workplace behavior say they’re “ashamed and embarrassed” that they’ve let people down.
Should we weep now or hold our tears for a more appropriate moment? I don’t believe for a second these men are ashamed or embarrassed about their behavior. They are ashamed and embarrassed that their behavior is now public. The real shame is for the people these men allegedly harassed who have been living in silence all of these years for fear that their careers or reputations would be damaged.
Harassment in the workplace is nothing new. What is new, is that people, especially women, are now empowered to speak out. It doesn’t matter how long ago something inappropriate happened. Survivors are regaining power by stripping power from high-profile men who apparently made their own rules. What is new, is what some once laughed away as ‘boys will be boys’ is no longer an acceptable thought process. What is new is that “I’m sorry” is no longer and should no longer be enough.
A quick unofficial survey of my professional female friends and colleagues reveals that almost all of us have been the victims of inappropriate male behavior. It may have been a touch in an inappropriate place or language that was sexually explicit.
As a younger television news reporter, I would come home and recount some of the things that happened or were said in newsrooms I worked in. Horrified, my husband used to say if this happened in his office, these men and women would have been fired. He would urge me to report them. In most instances, no one would have done anything about it.
I recall a television videographer graphically recounting his sexual experience with a woman he was dating. Given we were in a news van traveling at a high rate of speed, I couldn’t get out. I repeatedly told him I was not interested, and he had crossed the line. He just laughed. There was no one to report him to because he would have denied it. It would have been his word against mine.
In my day, television newsrooms were often synonymous with bad behavior. Inappropriate conduct that didn’t make the news was almost the norm. It wasn’t just sexual advances or inappropriate flirting. It was intimidation, aggressive behavior and a barrage of obscenities hurled at individuals. It was putting someone down in front of others, reducing them to tears.
I once worked for a news director who threw his typewriter through the plate glass window of his office as the staff was readying for the evening news. The newsroom stopped. Everyone looked up. Then, as quickly as the glass had shattered, everyone resumed working as if the outburst had never occurred.
Don’t get me wrong; there were many trustworthy ethical people in the multiple newsrooms I worked in. But, like a fast-moving virus, it sometimes felt like the few people with bad values contaminated the entire space.
I recall an evening that I was asked to cover a specific story. Due to medical reasons and a note from my doctor, I was unable to go. The night time editor cursed at me, called me names, insinuated I was a liar and then proceeded to criticize my qualifications and questioned how I was ever hired.
Visibly shaken, I called my boss, explained what happened and told her I was going to file a complaint with human resources. The next day, she cautioned me not to ‘make this a big deal’. She said she would talk to him, but he probably didn’t mean anything and was just doing his job. She said if I made waves, it would come back to haunt me. She was the only woman in management and on a fast track to move up the ladder. She didn’t want me to get involved, because she didn’t want to be involved.
Different times. Different standards. Yet, cultures of silence and fear still exist today.
While NBC says they had never had a single complaint against Matt Lauer in all his years at the network, I find it difficult to believe that no one even had an inkling that he may have misbehaved. If he did what multiple people said he did, then many must have known about it. They were simply too afraid of him to complain.
Since Harvey Weinstein was first accused of sexual assault and harassment, three dozen men have been accused of varying degrees of misconduct. Chances are, more complaints will surface. The question the rest of us face: will we become de-sensitized to these accusations as we have to societal violence and other unfortunate but common occurrences?
Change is always slow, but change can lead to improvement. At the Today Show, CBS, Netflix and other companies who have come under fire for the bad behavior of their employees, we are witnessing management doing the right thing to reinforce what their organizations stand for.
The immediate firing, publicly communicating and not tolerating this kind of behavior shows us that as organizations, they are the ones who are sorry, ashamed and embarrassed that this has happened under their watch.
In the past, an apology and statement saying what your business stands for often made things go away. Today, it’s one thing to say what you stand for or have your core values printed on posters that are plastered on walls around the office. It’s something entirely different to enforce those values.