The subtle damage of not giving a f*ck: how workplace bystanders are enabling bad behaviour
Speaking up can be hard, but is that why people are reluctant to do it, or do they just not care? Amy Kean examines whether a Richter scale for social issues would encourage us to make a stand.
The most terrifying moment of my life happened in a Tokyo hotel room when, at 1am on a Wednesday in the summer of 2016, a ghost jumped onto my bed.
I’d woken up from a (drunken) slumber to erratic movements at my feet; duvet covers dragged to the floor. The chaotic presence of something sinister; a dark rumbling threat had shattered my peace and instilled the kind of fear that renders you rigid.
I was one hundred percent adamant that I’d had a petrifying supernatural experience.
My brain and body froze. After a few moments the ghost departed. I laid on the bed, eyes wide open, big light on, until my alarm went off.
Above: If there was a Social Richter Scale, then David Beckham's alleged £150 million fee for being a Qatar Tourism ambassador would score highly.
I was on a work trip at the time, during a stint as a strategy lead in Asia. When I went into the local office the next day, exhausted and shaken up, I summoned the courage to tell my Japanese colleagues what happened.
They laughed. “We had an earthquake in Tokyo last night,” someone said. “It wasn’t big. Just a couple of rumbles. It shook your bed.”
You know what’d be useful? A Richter Scale for social issues.
When I say I was convinced, I mean that I was one hundred percent adamant that I’d had a petrifying, supernatural experience. But I Googled and there had, in fact, been an earthquake at that time. A modest 5.4 on the Richter Scale. At 1am, in the absence of any context or objective information, my imagination had run wild and my darkest fears emerged.
I had overreacted. It was embarrassing.
You know what’d be useful? A Richter Scale for social issues. An objective measure that alerts people to the accurate magnitude of things on their TV or computer screens each day. To stop us overreacting, and prevent our minds from transforming every situation into a life-threatening disaster. Or, for when there is a life-threatening disaster, so we can respond appropriately.
For example, everything Piers Morgan says would be a maximum of three on the Social Richter Scale, because it's Piers Morgan. But David Beckham laughing in the faces of the gay community by accepting an alleged £150 million to be the ambassador for Qatar Tourism during the World Cup would be a seven, because that’s a pretty big deal.
Above: Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland threw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers while protesting the use of fossil fuels.
I wish we’d had a Social Richter Scale when two women - Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, both in their early 20s - threw soup in the direction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which was sitting comfortably behind some glass in the National Gallery.
On the Social Richter Scale, people dying in poverty is definitely a 10. Two people throwing soup at an unharmed painting is a one, maybe two at a push.
Plummer and Holland were representing activist group Just Stop Oil, who want our government to end all new licenses and consents for the development and production of fossil fuels in the UK. In a statement about the value placed on art versus human lives, Plummer said: “The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis, fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.”
On the Social Richter Scale, people dying in poverty is definitely a 10. Two people throwing soup at an unharmed painting is a one, maybe two at a push, because the frame got a little bit damaged.
The story was picked up by most mass media and all of a sudden, OuTrAgE occurred. “Disgusting,” said a bunch of furious British citizens. “That’s it, they’ve lost me,” they shouted, forgetting the activists were acting on behalf of all humanity. “HOW DARE THESE IDIOTS DAMAGE WHAT IS SACRED TO US!” and so on. Someone on LinkedIn (who’s now blocked me) compared the two paint-throwers to Hitler.
Above: Adidas eventually parted company with Kanye West, but did they leave it too late?
And that, my friends, is an overreaction.
I have never felt such second-hand embarrassment. ThE oUtRaGeD - in their droves - decided this was their designated hate train for the day. That this was how they wanted to use their voices: to condemn a pair of young women who want to help the poor.
If we used a Social Richter Scale at work, someone getting in at 9.30am instead of 9am, or turning up hungover, would be a low score. Harassment would be a 10, surely? Someone being bullied, also a 10. Both legitimately worthy of our loud, angry voices. I wonder where Kanye West creating a toxic and abusive culture would sit, in which he insisted on playing pornography to his Yeezy staff, and making sexually disturbing references to female employees? Probably quite high!
If we used a Social Richter Scale at work, someone getting in at 9.30am instead of 9am, or turning up hungover, would be a low score. Harassment would be a 10, surely?
Yet, no one said a thing.
According to a recent Rolling Stone article, a letter entitled “The Truth About Yeezy: A Call to Action for Adidas Leadership” was sent to the new CEO of Adidas, accusing the company of staying silent throughout “years of verbal abuse, vulgar tirades, and bullying attacks”. The letter stated that tolerance of West’s behaviour was high amongst Adidas VPs and management, and that team members had “turned their moral compass off” in order to allow the rapper and designer to thrive. Complete silence. For years. One of the excuses given by an anonymous source, a former senior employee at the company, was: “there’s no playbook for this.”
So… a bit of an underreaction, then? (There’s an amazing playbook called 'the law' that Adidas leaders should check out.)
Above: Why are so many people staying silent about things that need to be said?
I wasn’t shocked by the Kanye West story. From what I hear, in the creative industries things like this are getting worse. I just heard about a man in a UK-based agency who’s finally been fired for sexual harassment and abuse of junior members of staff. But for two years, no one said anything.
Last week I was talking to a friend - a female senior leader - who’d been openly bullied into a breakdown by an angry male boss because she had the audacity to speak up about some unethical business practices taking place. No one else had said anything.
They say that in London you’re no more than 6ft away from a rat. I think that probably applies to London-based agencies, too.
Women’s drinks are getting spiked at ad industry parties. No one wants to talk about it. This year I’ve heard more stories about abusive CEOs and sexual predators than I have ever done. I speak to women every single week that are suffering from PTSD and trauma from work-based experiences. The shocking thing is that no one’s intervening. “Please don’t say anything” is normally the line at the end of every story that hits my DMs. They say that in London you’re no more than 6ft away from a rat. I think that probably applies to London-based agencies, too.
All these things are happening in plain sight, yet everyone’s staying silent.
There are two main reasons why.
Above: All the perpetrator of a crime asks is that someone say, see, and hear nothing.
First: power. The psychiatrist, Judith Lewis Herman said: “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
Most people don’t give a fuck. Rather, they are pretending to give a fuck.
Baddies like Kanye West have always benefited hugely from the silence of bystanders. People want to retain their jobs, their financial security and their status, and these things override their morals. It’s easier to shout into the online abyss about, I dunno, football scores, or a thing a Z-List celebrity said, than flag the bad behaviour of Steve in client services.
The second reason is that most people don’t give a fuck. Rather, they are pretending to give a fuck. Most people don’t actually care about someone else getting bullied at work. They’re unbothered if a woman gets chased out of the business for no reason. They’re not fussed if the intern gets touched up at the Christmas party. They couldn’t give two shits if Kanye plays porn in front of staff. And the really bad thing is that the predators and bullies and baddies have now clocked that not enough people care to intervene.
Above: To make a change it requires people to speak out.
Maybe I’m overreacting, but the latest Kantar Inclusion Index shows that despite loud, often outraged conversations around DEI in every industry, progress is stalling. Not enough is being done. Why? Because not enough people give a fuck. If enough people gave a fuck, things would be improving. But they do not give a fuck.
It’s important that we acknowledge this, instead of continuing to participate in the merry, meaningless dance that’s more akin to a masquerade ball, in which most people have perfected the art of moral pretence.
We live in a post-perspective era, where people are happy to scream at soup and yell at everything Piers Morgan says but, apparently, need a playbook to intervene when someone in the vicinity is being intimidated or abused. Most people’s true concern is about as real as the ghost that leapt on my bed in a Tokyo hotel.
It’s hard to know what to care about these days, because we’re supposed to be angry about everything all of the time.
I’m not being morally superior, here. There are many times I have not intervened. Not in recent years, but definitely over the years. It’s not necessarily our fault. It’s hard to know what to care about these days, because we’re supposed to be angry about everything all of the time. But also, it’s never been easier to pretend. Those senior members of Adidas staff didn’t need a playbook. They wanted an excuse.
Self-deceit is a remarkable process. We kid ourselves that a situation is too nuanced, the shades too grey, the stakes too high for us to intervene. We assume she didn't want us to step in! That it would only complicate things if we spoke up! That what we saw at the Christmas party wasn't that big a deal... a mere three or four on the Social Richter Scale. And he was so drunk!
We fool each other into believing we're active enough because we share black squares and applaud yet another mass awareness campaign that reminds the world that harassers harass and bullies bully. We pretend we need a playbook to tell the difference between good and bad when, really, we've all just run out of fucks to give. Haven't we?