How was Tom Ashbrook supposed to know his workplace behavior crossed a line that would someday get him fired?
He was a Great Man, reveling in fame and adoration in the media world as host of the public radio show “On Point,” even if WBUR managers occasionally let him know some colleagues were upset by his conduct. The worker bees were told to deal with him; he was not expected to change. That pattern of management overlooking bad behavior of men deemed too big to fail is a recurring theme of the #MeToo era. Jettisoning offenders doesn’t change the underlying culture.
Before he was a Great Man, I knew Ashbrook as a decent one. A long time ago, we sat side by side in a Globe department known as “Living.” Pregnant with my first child, I had come off presidential campaign trail coverage. He was back from an overseas reporting assignment. After Ashbrook took up an editing stint on the business page, I stayed stuck with a boss who saw little value in a journalist headed for maternity leave. Ashbrook threw a lifeline I still appreciate. He got me in front of the business editor, which ended with a post-baby landing spot. I was an occasional guest when Ashbrook first started his public radio career, but that, understandably, changed when “On Point” took off and went national.
He was never my boss, and I trust accounts of his post-Globe workplace demeanor. After 11 current and former station employees filed complaints of bullying and sexual misconduct that spanned the past 10 years, he was placed on leave in December. Two outside reports found that Ashbrook “created an abusive work environment,” and last week he was dismissed. The reports said his conduct “did not constitute sexual harassment,” a finding that offers hope for redemption. Now on a reputational rehab tour, he said he feels terrible about what happened. But he doesn’t seem to really get the difference between a hard-driving boss and an intolerable one.
No excuses for his behavior — but any confusion over its long-delayed consequences is understandable. He was the franchise. He ruled the public radio universe. As for his bullying, as he tells it, “A few times over the years, that was raised with me, but never in a way that really broke through to me, and never in a way that effectively led to change.”
Management’s urge to look the other way is not surprising. According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor and director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, it reflects “a crony culture,” designed to “protect our ‘star’ who is ‘one of us.’ ” Where “the dominant group members” are homogeneous, she said, it’s even harder for them “to hear the seriousness of the complaints or their impact on the complainer/workplace . . . . Everywhere that women/minorities are still scarce in upper echelons, this dynamic is still in play.”
So, if WBUR is to change, shouldn’t the “crony culture” change, too? Yet, no station management changes have been announced, even though, according to WBUR’s reporting, “complaints about management were a prominent element in the investigation.” Employees who complained said “they were told or led to believe that they could lose their job and have trouble finding similar work elsewhere if they pursued complaints about Ashbrook.”
Sounding as oblivious as his ex-star, WBUR’s general manager, Charlie Kravetz, apologized “to those who feel they were not cared for.” The media business is tough; deadlines take precedence over delicate feelings. But there should be a line between a flash of anger and a pattern of abusive behavior. WBUR management passed on the chance to rein in their big star, and with that, keep their best show.
There’s a lot in our culture that grants extremely talented people license to be a jerk. If Ashbrook was allowed to be too much of one, it’s hard to see how his enablers can magically turn into cultural change-agents. But if they can, Ashbrook too, deserves a second chance — someplace — to forget being a Great Man, and just be a decent one.