Why I Quit My Job at a Prestigious Public Media Company
“Go to HR, deal with that asshole head on, but whatever you do, do not lose your shit. You can’t become ‘angry black woman.’”
I worked for a long time at a big public media station in Boston.
I came to the station for the high-caliber journalistic excellence and idealistic vision; I was enthralled by the network’s flagship programs, the potential for online media at a place with so many pioneers and visionaries.
I loved my job. I also loved my colleagues. Those I worked with every day and those I knew from afar, just passing greetings in the hallways, or pleasant chats in the café.
The place was called “the velvet coffin” for good reason.
The Velvet Coffin
I was hired as a content producer to work for the local television division. Three other Web content producers were also hired within the same year.
At first, I didn’t consciously take notice of the differences between my workload and the other content producers. I was the only one who had responsibilities for supporting and developing my department’s websites and special projects, in addition to producing content for the main station website.
I shrugged off the fact that I didn’t have an office, though two of the other producers did, despite my coming to the job with much more experience and having markedly more responsibilities.
I was paid reasonably well for the work I produced — at least in the beginning. The technical nature of my work may not have always been understood by my managers, but it was appreciated. The place meant a lot to me for personal reasons as well. I experienced major life-defining milestones while there: I got married (several colleagues attended my wedding, including my boss at the time). I had both of my children while employed there.
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But looking back, there were little tell tale signs of inequality all along, like being excluded from high-level weekly cross-departmental meetings, which my counterparts all attended.
My second boss was assigned when I was on the job for less than a year. It was soon after the first dot-com bubble infamously deflated as the new millennium got underway. My first boss, a Latino executive producer, gave up the part of his dual job title as director of new media when the local Web budget got butchered. He was to focus on running his TV series. I was disappointed, as I had accepted the job in part because I knew I would be working for him.
In the aftermath of the Internet bubble bursting, public media budgets were cut dramatically year after year, system-wide. In my division of local TV, series were cancelled, layoffs occurred, other projects commenced and ended. All the while it was just me, one content producer supporting each of the five television shows’ respective websites, plus anywhere from one to three big annual special projects, and programming content for the station’s main site. I had no assistant, no dedicated developer, and there were no other content producers or Web specialists on staff in my department. Just me. Meanwhile my counterparts in national TV, radio, and marketing each had a dedicated developer and pretty much carte blanche access to the staff designer.
By my fifth anniversary, in addition to all the site work on my docket, I was also producing online video for the department. I taught myself how to shoot, edit, and encode video for the Web. Even at a station that produced flagship award-winning public affairs, science programs, and documentaries, I could not get access to the technical or personnel resources to develop, support or accelerate my skills in this area.
I was reporting to boss #2 for a couple of years before I finally asked for a promotion. She offered me a promotion but it was to become “content manager,” which wasn’t the title I wanted. So I turned it down. I had my first baby soon afterwards and with all the budget cuts the station underwent that year, I was happy to accept a reduction in my hours to have more time with my baby, and started a four-day workweek.
It always gave me pause and a pang that the president of the company knew the names of my counterparts in other departments, and would address them warmly in passing or publicly acknowledge them at company-wide meetings, but didn’t acknowledge me in passing or know my name.
When the president was promoted up from his COO position, he had to hire someone to fill that vacancy. So he hired another business-school type like himself. To give you an idea of who came in to fill his shoes, the new COO dude’s nickname among staff was Darth Vader and “bad cop.”
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By 2008, eight years into my job, the executive suite finally got on board that the nearly decade-old website needed a redesign. They also decided the local station web team needed a re-org, so the department, which had been decentralized, became centralized. The whole station physically moved to a new, huge, and custom-designed campus a couple miles up the road.
Boss #2 informed me before the big move that I was going to get a new boss. That I would be sitting in a new hub with my peers. Great! I’d be in proximity to and collaborating with people who actually worked in the same medium I did.
Things were looking up.
I loved my third boss both professionally and personally. She was the former content producer for radio and we had an excellent rapport, she “got it:” the medium of the Web. She understood the idiosyncrasies and bureaucracies of the station and the work that needed to be done to evolve the website. But a major rift was developing between the technical team and the executive office on what platform the new site should be built upon.
Our tech team was strongly advocating for an open source solution for the new website’s back-end. The COO, “Darth,” who was charged with making sure the redesign was executed within a year, adamantly rejected the open source strategy. Web staff pushed back hard. Heads rolled. People resigned.
My third boss was among the heads that rolled and her termination wasn’t pretty. It was political, it was personal, and it was demoralizing. The department’s developers and designer quit.
Fast-forward six months.
In walks boss #4. He is a buddy of Darth’s from a past job. Quick dossier on boss #4: An Asian American man with no experience managing websites, never mind humungous messes like the website of this 50-year-old public media company. He came from a management consulting background and had a certificate in publishing.
Yeah. That’s nepotism and crony capitalism for you.
Beers and bros
Within weeks, despite being against HR and union rules, new jobs within the department were offered to internal staff without first publicly posting them.
Internal staff from radio’s marketing team were promoted to fill these vacant key roles in my department. I was by far the most senior and experienced content producer on the staff at this point, and never given the opportunity to apply for any of these roles.
I found out from a random Facebook post from a colleague in another department that boss #4 was having bro beer nights at a local pub and Saturday night dude-only poker nights with my male coworkers.
Needless to say, I was not invited to these bonding exercises.
When a colleague was leaving for another job, I found out there’d be a farewell fete for him at the local pub, arranged by boss #4, which I hadn’t been invited to. Another coworker told me about it so I showed up. Boss #4 didn’t talk to me or look at me even once that evening.
I knew then something was definitely up — or going down as it were.
The next week, an e-mail was erroneously and egregiously circulated maligning my performance and abilities.
In the e-mail I was called an “underperformer” whose work was “mediocre at best.”
Because I always stayed on top of my incoming messages, I discovered the e-mail within minutes of it going out. The document attached to the e-mail was meant for boss #4’s boss, a VP who was also new, also a crony of our COO, Darth Vader. Instead, it was inadvertently forwarded to the entire department.
I immediately wrote back to boss #4 and the content manager:
Kind of distressing to find out along with all of my colleagues that you think I am an underperformer and my work is mediocre.
And I left my office to call my husband. My first office, which I had just moved into weeks before, after ten years of service there!
The new content manager and boss #4 called the IT department to kill the e-mail and claimed that no one in the department had had a chance to open it and read it.
I would have laughed harder at the time if the ineptitude that caused the whole problem hadn’t involved putting my professional reputation on the line.
At the time I was livid and frankly shocked. I was an award-winning producer and had nothing short of stellar reviews every year for the ten years I’d been there before he arrived.
Angry Black Woman
A trusted colleague, an affable, wise African American cameraman advised me:
“Go to HR, deal with that asshole head on, but whatever you do, do not lose your shit. You can’t become ‘angry black woman.’ Do not under any circumstances let them portray you as ‘angry black woman.’”
You know her, right? The head-rolling-finger-wagging-screaming-in-your-face-angry-black-bitch. This colleague was cautioning me against allowing any opportunity to be painted into a convenient stereotype that boss #4 could then exploit and ultimately use to ice me out of the company.
If I lost control of my temper and went off on these managers for their fuck-up, I would make it easy for them to depict me as irrational, out-of-control, impertinent, and unprofessional. I’d be reduced to a cardboard stereotype, thus indirectly substantiating the egregious claim that I was an “underperformer” in boss #4’s estimation.
I completely kept my cool whilst meeting with management in the aftermath of their email mistake. Actually, I did very little talking myself when the moment of confrontation arrived. I just looked at them both calmly and squarely in the eyes and let them talk themselves silly while I copiously wrote down every single thing that was said.
Soon thereafter, Boss #4 hired a developer, pretty much the only person he could find who could deal with supporting the ridiculous Cold Fusion website we bought. He cut the stereotypical profile of a brogrammer. Fat cocky white dude who made inappropriate comments on a daily basis to women in the office and thought he was God’s gift to every meeting.
I was told I had to give up my hard-won office for this guy. This guy, who weeks into the job started lobbing paper balls at my head.
That’s right. He threw paper balls. At my head.
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I was a professional, married, thirty-something mother of two with a decade of seniority over everyone on the team, and the motherfucker is throwing paper balls at me like a sixth-grade bully.
It went on for weeks. He’d throw paper balls at me in front of several co-workers. Because he was a dipshit. And on top of being politically and relationally inept, this dude was an asshole with no skills.
He got absolutely nothing done, he couldn’t even launch a blogging platform, couldn’t even integrate an off the shelf blogging tool like WordPress. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he was being paid twice my salary.
I told my new supervisor about the paper balls activity. But nothing happened. When it happened for the fifth or sixth time and no one addressed it, my husband demanded that I take it directly to HR.
I let the content manager know that’s what was going to happen and only then did he and boss #4 snap to attention and address the situation.
As painful and infuriating and unfair as these experiences were, I was so grateful for and amused by the bros’ ineptitude and smarmy over-confidence. Because I had them by the fucking balls; I could have done anything I wanted at that point. I had well-documented proof that I was being discriminated against and harassed.
And I had an incredible track record for superlative performance. Never had to go to HR about anything besides perfunctory business in my many years at the station. I could have sued the shit out of them and the company. But I took the high road because I believe in karma and my love for the station in principle, despite the institutional racism and sexism I suffered, prevailed over any urge I had for revenge.
I am not interested in revenge, but I am interested in the station making amends. And I hope, I believe, that someday, that this institution will do better by hiring and promoting qualified women and producers of color, who are talented and smart and creative, who have earned a place at the table, instead of hiring and promoting their pals and dumbass bros who can talk shit and play Texas hold ‘em on a Saturday night.
For me, the writing was definitely on the wall for months, so I started to apply for jobs in other departments. Jobs I was more than qualified for. At the time, it was an official station and HR rule that any internal candidate who was interested in a job posting had to be given at least one courtesy interview. I wasn’t even getting acknowledgements that I applied for these internal jobs!
At one point after applying for the third or fourth time to an internal job and getting radio silence, I reached out to the head of the “diversity” initiative for advice.
She never bothered responding to my e-mails or calls.
That’s when I was like, OK fuck y’all, time for a divorce. And started looking for jobs on the outside.
To my delight and relief, I had no problem getting interviews or job offers on the outside. After some hand wringing, I took a senior editorial job in a completely different industry. They doubled my salary. And after three or so years without a raise (there was a multi-year, station-wide salary freeze in effect) with two growing kids and a mortgage, that’s the kind of change I wanted. I didn’t ultimately stay long at the rebound job, but it was great to get out of that institutional cluster fuck.
It was hard to leave. There were still so many people that I loved and respected at the station, and I still believed the work they produced was fighting the good fight. But it was like being in a bad marriage for far too long. Once the pain of letting it go ebbs a bit and you flow into the next chapter of life, you admonish yourself, with a big dose of relief of course, “why did I stay so long?”
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Advice for My Younger Self
It is liberating to emerge from the velvet coffin.
If I could distill all this negative stuff into any positive take-away it would be this: Advocate tirelessly for your work and for the tools and resources you need to do your job well. If that doesn’t get you anywhere, i.e., if your boss is not willing to productively address resource or organizational and governance issues, look elsewhere for employment. Whatever you do, do not take on more work without a commensurate change in title and/or compensation.
Other advice I’d give to my younger self? Avoid working for a department or company where you are the only person who does what you do, unless you are hired in a senior position and have the authority and budget to staff the department or resource the project as needed. Also: Do not pass up a promotion, even if it isn’t exactly the title you wanted. It looks better for you internally and on your CV to show a progression in your tenure at any given company.
And lastly, never, ever stay in an abusive relationship, whether at work or in your private life. Do not work for an organization that does not regularly recognize, acknowledge, reward, or appreciate your talents and contributions. Do not work for a company that privileges nepotism and cronyism over experience, merit, and skill. If you are in or find yourself in that kind of untenable environment, start looking for other opportunities immediately! Life is too short and we spend too much time at work to squander our time and talents on the undeserving.