Here’s how to apologize for having treated your employees badly.
Say sorry to the people you actually hurt, rather than to the people who had no idea what was going on. Don’t claim you were blindsided by allegations of mistreatment when you had plenty of warning over the years. Don’t make it about you, even if the “you” in question rode east from rural Illinois on a hog truck and went on to become one of the most successful radio hosts in the country.
“Is there a way back?” former “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook asked in his Globe opinion column this week, asking Boston for another chance after being deposed from the successful WBUR show he helmed for 16 years.
Maybe. But this wasn’t it.
Ashbrook was fired by WBUR after 11 current and former station employees made complaints about bullying and inappropriate behavior that had spanned a decade. An investigation found that Ashbrook had created an abusive work environment. Twelve other current and former employees spoke to a WBUR reporter, backing up the official complaints with their own accounts of appalling behavior.
That’s a lot of smoke. But, in the immediate aftermath of his termination, Ashbrook claimed that the only fire here was the one in his belly — his passion for excellence, his “terrible urgency about our country’s direction” — that may have read as “stridency.” His many accusers were simply mistaken, in other words.
In this week’s op-ed, Ashbrook conceded that “high ratings are no excuse for inexcusable behavior.” That’s progress.
But it’s not nearly enough progress for the men and women who summoned the courage to join the complaint against their former boss. They say Ashbrook yelled at them when a show didn’t go well; that he crushed up their work and threw it at them; that he tried to make up for the humiliating dressings-down he gave female producers with shoulder rubs; that management knew he was a problem but seemed unable, or unwilling, to do anything that would force him to change his ways.
Some “On Point” producers were happy in their work and have defended Ashbrook in the wake of the allegations. But others said they were warned about how difficult he was as they were starting their jobs. Those who complained about him scoff at the notion that the host was blindsided by their allegations: Producers were dropping like flies, some leaving what should have been plum jobs after six months.
“He must have been aware of the rapid turnover,” a former producer said. “That is not normal for a well-paid, desirable job in a market like Boston.”
Said another: “It was a punishing place to work. We knew from hard work, but this was working for an unappeasable tyrant. . . . I had nightmares for years.”
The five producers who shared their experiences at “On Point” with me on Wednesday asked that their names be withheld. Though Ashbrook knows who the complainants are, they said they worried that revealing themselves would affect their professional relationships.
“We shouldn’t have to do this,” said one of them, angry that Ashbrook’s op-ed had forced her to come forward once more. “All we did was endure years of abuse . . . and I resent having to expose myself.”
The producers are furious over what they see as Ashbrook’s self-serving apology. Addressing the op-ed to the city he loves, Ashbrook wrote that he had learned that his behavior was “offensive and overbearing to some.” He ended by asking the city to give him another chance “to make Boston proud again.”
He’s asking the wrong people to forgive him, said the producers, none of whom had heard from him in the months since his firing.
“He knows how to reach us,” said one of them. “He didn’t hurt the city of Boston. He damaged our careers.”
In an interview, Ashbrook said he planned to reach out to those who complained but “wasn’t sure if they were ready to hear from me yet.”
“I thought I would start with a public apology, and a very direct one,” he said. “I fully intend to be in touch with each of them, absolutely.”
Ashbrook said his apology is sincere.
“All I can do is honestly apologize to those who have felt hurt or wounded, and I am trying to be as straightforward as I can,” Ashbrook said. “I am offering my apology in the most public way, and I mean it.”
Look, nobody wants a boss who makes the mistakes Ashbrook made to be prevented from working again. After all, legions just like him remain gainfully employed across the country. But what does redemption look like here? Does it lie, as Ashbrook seems to be suggesting, in a return to his old perch?
“The work that Boston and the country supported all these years is more important than ever,” he wrote. The city he loves, and that was proud of him, still needs him, he suggests.
But the burden here isn’t Boston’s. It rests with Ashbrook. And he has a ways to go.