“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”
—attributed to various people, but mostly Malcolm Forbes
This week when reports started surfacing about Dr. Ronny Jackson, the nominee to lead Veterans Affairs, I said to my husband, “I know that guy.” I don’t actually know him, of course, but I know his type.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked at a television station in Texas. One morning I needed to get into one of the studio production booths. It was locked. One of the senior engineers handed me a key on an enormous, heavy key ring. It didn’t work. I jiggled the key. I pulled it in and out, but it wouldn’t open the door. I wondered if he’d shown me the wrong key and I proceeded to try every one of the approximately three dozen keys on the ring. Nothing. Finally, I went back downstairs and told him I couldn’t get the door open.
“Are you an idiot?” he said.
I was stunned. I felt my face turn purple and I think my heart stopped. I stared at him. I didn’t know how to respond. He continued to dress me down with a series of scathing insults about my intelligence. To be clear, I barely knew this guy. Our jobs did not overlap. It’s not like he was basing his insults on some history of bad performance, though that would not have been any excuse for his behavior. It was irrational and a little frightening. He insisted that I follow him upstairs so he could demonstrate the basics of key usage. He berated me as we ascended three flights, his voice booming in the empty stairwell. It was early and most of the staff wouldn’t be in for another hour or so. I realized I was alone with a lunatic.
Upstairs, he jammed the key in the door and nothing happened. He jiggled the key. Nothing. He then performed some odd series of maneuvers which involved pulling the key out of the lock just a hair, tilting it upward, and turning while holding the knob in his other hand. Nothing. Finally, he pulled another key from his pocket and opened the door. “See,” he screamed at me. “That’s how a key works.”
I retrieved the item I needed and walked away without responding. As soon as my boss came in that morning, I told him about the incident. I said it was unacceptable and I wouldn’t put up with it. My boss was surprised and wondered if the engineer was having some sort of personal crisis. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I avoided him for the remainder of my time at that job.
In the weeks after the key incident, a number of my coworkers told me about their own run-ins with this engineer. All of the people he’d lashed out at were women, most of them young. With his peers or with his bosses, he was professional and friendly. With anyone he deemed beneath him? He was a jerk.
Years later I ran into him at a conference. At that point I’d moved on to a management position at a station in a larger market and he was trying to start his own business. He greeted me warmly, said we should get together for coffee. It was like he didn’t remember that our one meaningful interaction involved him calling me names and shouting at me. To hear him talk, you’d think we’d been close friends. It was bizarre. We did not have coffee.
This sort of behavior is not as unusual as it should be in the workplace. I experienced other instances of similar behavior from several men over the course of my years working in offices, though none as bizarre as that one. But I came to recognize a particular type of man, the sort who is high achieving and respected by his bosses, but despised by everyone else. In Jackson’s case, the media focused on reports of excessive drinking and the allegations that he was a little too free with the opiates, but I’m more interested in those reports that he created a hostile work environment. Many people seemed flabbergasted that someone who received such glowing praise from several presidents could possibly be the same man who treated his employees so terribly. I wasn’t flabbergasted. I thought it sounded all too familiar.
This morning, Jackson withdrew from the nomination. He won’t be leading Veterans Affairs and I suspect his career has taken a hit. This administration might keep him on as White House doctor, but it’s hard to imagine a future president making that decision.
I don’t know whether Jackson handed out pills inappropriately or whether he drank on the job, but the fact is that most of this might never have come to light if he’d treated his employees with more respect. The people who worked beneath him have said they worked in fear, because Jackson was prone to fits of temper and to lashing out against them. He ranted. He yelled. He didn’t lose his temper in front of the people with the power to advance his career, but he treated his subordinates terribly. Maybe he’s a great doctor, but he is clearly a bad boss and a bad leader. A good boss inspires hard work and loyalty. Jackson inspires resentment and fear.
Ronny Jackson spent his career kissing up to people in power, but he was brought down by the people who could do nothing for him. It’s a good reminder to treat everyone as if they have the power to change your life, because someday they just might.