Workplace bullying, not sexual harassment, prompted this week’s termination of popular Boston public radio program host Tom Ashbrook by his employer, Boston University, which owns the WBUR-FM radio station. From the station’s report:
BU reached this decision after an independent review verified claims that Tom had created an abusive work environment. Over the past two months, while Ashbrook was off the air, two firms investigated allegations made by 11 former On Point producers. A law firm looked into the sexual harassment allegations and found that Tom’s unwelcome conduct was not sexual in nature, and did not constitute sexual harassment under university policy. A consulting firm looked into broader workplace culture issues at On Point. It concluded that Tom consistently overstepped reasonable lines and created a dysfunctional workplace. The investigators talked with about 60 people, including Tom and management.
In December, sexual harassment allegations against Ashbrook surfaced publicly, and soon it became evident that bullying-type behaviors were also part of the alleged misconduct. He was suspended by WBUR pending an investigation.
That month I was invited by WBUR to do a segment on the legal differences between sexual harassment and workplace bullying. On December 14 I was interviewed by Deborah Becker; you can read the transcript or listen to the 6-minute interview here. I used the term “abusive work environment” to describe how my proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation — known as the Healthy Workplace Bill — characterizes workplace bullying. I found it interesting that WBUR used the same term to describe Ashbrook’s conduct, distinguishing it from sexual harassment.
The Ashbrook situation raises several important points:
First, as we are seeing with other public allegations of sexual harassment, workplace bullying is often part of the picture. Accused serial sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein, for example, has also been tagged as a bullying boss. As reported last October by Brett Lang for Variety:
In an industry known for attracting its share of screamers, few raged as violently as Harvey Weinstein. “There was a lot of pounding his fists on the desk and a lot of yelling,” said one of his former employees. “There was an anger inside of him that was jarring and scary.”
Another onetime staffer says that in recent years Weinstein had reined in a penchant for physical altercations but had not lost his talent for berating employees. He was particularly cruel with assistants and executives who didn’t push back when he tore into them.
Second, Ashbrook’s termination indicates that some employers are starting to get it about workplace bullying and its destructive effects on morale. Although it must be said that Ashbrook’s behavior was apparently no secret within WBUR for some time, when things did go public and the station ordered an investigation, they fired him despite a finding that there was insufficient evidence to support claims of sexual harassment. Rather, they cited the bullying behaviors as the main reason for the decision.
Third, this doesn’t mean that everyone is satisfied with a decision to terminate a well-known radio host for workplace bullying. Looking at social media comments, several posters accused Ashbrook’s co-workers of being “snowflakes” who couldn’t take his rough communication style. Based on my knowledge of folks who work in media settings, I would take issue with such characterizations. The electronic and print media are not vocations for the feint of heart, and I doubt that many folks at WBUR, if any, fit into the category of being “oversensitive.” But this is among the responses we can anticipate as more employers respond to workplace bullying.