Is Simon Cowell a Workplace Bully?

If you’ve ever watched the popular FOX network singing competition “American Idol,” you know what I’m asking about.  British music executive Simon Cowell is one of four judges who deliver short, snappy critiques following the live performance of every “American Idol” contestant.

Of the judges (Paula Abdul, Kara DioGuardi, and Randy Jackson being the others), Simon is easily the most caustic and brutally frank, regularly serving up feedback such as “You sounded terrible,” “That was simply awful,” and “I think you may have blown your chance in this competition.”  While the other judges often couch their criticisms with positives, Simon doesn’t hesitate to rip into what he believes was a sub-par performance.  The young performer has no choice but to absorb the criticism in front of millions of viewers.

Because Simon is the toughest judge, contestants often appear apprehensive when it’s his turn to comment.  If Simon praises the performance, the contestant breathes a sigh of relief and beams with delight.  If he pans the performance, the poor contestant tries to take it in stride.

All of this is against the background of a competition in which relative unknowns are striving to become the next American Idol.  The judges have the most power early in the competition, when they are screening out thousands of wannabe performers.  By the time the dozens or so finalists are competing, votes from viewers — surely influenced by the judges’ reviews — are what largely determine the contestants’ fates.

OK, so Simon can be arrogant and insulting, and he wields real power over the futures of these performers.  But is he a “workplace bully”?

Here’s my read on it: If we define bullying as repeated, malicious, health-endangering behavior, Simon may be guilty of committing high misdemeanors, but he’s not a hardcore felon in the pantheon of workplace jerks.

Simon no doubt has been the source of tears and hurt feelings over the years, and many of his comments are downright mean-spirited.  I’m sure there are past Idol contestants who bear the scars of his gratuitously harsh criticisms.  However, he tends not to play favorites — he calls ’em like he hears ’em, albeit in needlessly insulting terms.  At least he is consistently obnoxious, in contrast to workplace bullies who are masters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde unpredictability.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not endorsing or defending Simon’s style or practice.  He’s a bonafide jerk, and he sometimes abuses the power his role confers upon him.  His Idol fame makes him a workplace bullying poster boy.  But as some readers can certainly attest, there are many, many bosses out there much worse than Simon Cowell.

2 responses

  1. I like the way you are connecting the very serious problem of workplace bullying to something everyone can understand here. Very interesting post.

    I’ve never been able to stomach American Idol. It’s just too awful to watch these poor kids bet their hopes and dreams on a panel of judges who will do or say anything to boost their ratings.

  2. David, thanks for your comment! American Idol is both an opportunity and boot camp ordeal for these young singers, but fortunately only Simon can be counted on for the really mean stuff. In all, however, it’s an example of how chasing one’s dream can require a very thick skin. (Readers, David Card is communications director of Americans for Democratic Action, a progressive advocacy group I’ve been a part of for many years.)

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