On Business: Do the Right Thing

By | Monday, November 13, 2017 Leave a Comment
When I was a teenager, I saw the movie Nothing in Common with Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason. I don't remember exactly when I saw it -- sometime after it had started showing up regularly on cable, so probably when I was in the back half of high school when I was starting to give serious consideration to a career. The movie mostly revolves around Hanks' character reconciling and getting along with his retiring and recently divorced father, played by Gleason. But the backdrop of it has Hanks as goofy, wise-cracking executive at an ad agency. He got to be creative and have fun all day, and he got paid some big money. That sounded like a fantastic job to me! It by no means was a primary motivator, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't in the back of my mind when I went to school to get a degree in graphic design.

My first few graphic design jobs out of school were not for agencies, however, but companies' in-house design departments. Those weren't nearly as cool, but Id understood that agency jobs aren't as common and generally required a high level of expertise that I hadn't quite mastered yet. Nonetheless, every time I went job hunting, I'd send my resume and portfolio samples off to various agencies. And eventually, about five years after graduating, I got in. An actual agency gig.

I was excited. It looked like it had that same free-spirited atmosphere that I saw in Nothing in Common. One of the co-owners had a giant Three Stooges print hanging in his office, and there were two Razor scooters that employees could use to zip from one side of the office to the other. Plenty of the creative work hung around the studios, some of it actual projects they were paid for, some of it just personal stuff people did for fun. It seemed like what I'd been looking for in an employer since high school.

From the fact that I'm telling you all this, I'm sure you no doubt expect the "But..." that's inevitably coming.

It turned out to be a very uncomfortable job. Partially because the job I was apparently hired for didn't exactly mesh with the job I was told I was hired for, but also because the atmosphere itself was very uncomfortable for me (and I suspect others too). It was uncomfortable because it very much felt like a stereotypical frat house. There was a very strong sense of a dude-bro culture (well before "dude-bro" was an actual term) and it wasn't uncommon for jokes to go around that were more explicit than is warranted in a corporate office with many having a misogynistic leaning. As far as I know, there was no overt sexual harassment that took place there (reported or not) -- as far as I saw/heard, those jokes only seemed to crop up when no women were present -- but for as uncomfortable as it made me feel as someone who was decidedly not on the butt end of those jokes, I can't help but believe that every woman there cringed every time they thought about dealing with those attitudes in the office.

After about a year, I was let go, along with about half a dozen others. All of whom happened to have worked on a project that one of the owners micro-managed to the point of it failing. I haven't worked at an agency in the decade and a half since then. If agency life was like that, I will absolutely pass.

I tell this story in relation to the increasing number of incidents of sexual harassment within comics that we've been hearing about. Valerie D'Orazaio has some of the more explicit and wide-ranging stories I've heard, but those are by no means comprehensive! Sadly. I'm wondering how many women were pushed out. Beyond the stories of overt sexual harassment. Not to diminish those, certainly, but the number of times women just felt deeply uncomfortable working in a misogynistic, dude-bro climate like I did undoubtedly exceeds the number of explicit acts of harassment. How many women got a taste of that culture and said, "No, thanks"?

My point is that many of the stories we're hearing about are the worst of the worst. And they need to be treated as such. But just because women aren't being groped on a daily basis doesn't mean that the environment isn't toxic. And even if you're an asshole and don't care about women as people, does it even make sense from a business perspective to actively turn away talented individuals just because you think you're better than them? That seems to me a recipe for problems. If you allow this bullshit to continue, much less encourage it, you're going to be outed at some point, and your business is going to suffer. Like I said, even if you're an asshole with no moral compunctions (and that moral dimension is indeed the way you should be looking at this) it's just bad business.

Speaking of which, that ad agency I was telling you about? They were later bought out for their client list. The agency was less than half the size than when I worked there. The original owners were initially promised leadership positions in the larger company, but were pushed out soon after. You reap what you sow.
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