What to do when your boss behaves badly

August 10, 2016

Vanessa Gezari, CJR interim editor in chief: The Roger Ailes saga continues, with recent reports that he used Fox resources to investigate various personal enemies, including journalists. What should managers or staffers do if they feel a boss is behaving unethically, from sexually harassing employees to misspending company money?

Jill: Each new revelation from New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, who has owned this story, reminds us how difficult it can be to speak truth to power. It’s especially daunting when that power is at the absolute top of the food chain and creates a culture where aberrant behavior is normal and those who oppose it are viewed as underperformers. Don’t assume this is a one-off situation. Re-read the late David Carr’s takedown of the pig pen environment that flourished on Sam Zell’s watch at Tribune. Then think about how easily the terms “politically correct” or “playing the (insert race, gender or victim here) card” are invoked today to silence those who call out words and deeds that are morally incorrect.

So, what can you do as the victim of or witness to wrongdoing by a manager? Remember one very important word: Document. Do it in every legal way you can. Make notes, write down dates and quotes, keep a clear record of who else was present. In the Fox case, several women apparently taped conversations with Ailes. Presumably, this was done in New York, a one-party consent state. If you’re considering this route, be sure to check local statutes first, as it is a crime in some states to record a conversation without the consent of both parties. Tell trusted colleagues what you know and quietly try to identify others whose experience mirrors yours. Build allies and a body of evidence. A good HR department, your union steward, or your attorney needs it – and you, of course, need to keep copies.

As you are documenting the wrongdoing, make certain you hang on to every positive evaluation, pat-on-the-back memo, performance metric, or other proof of your good reputation. In the event of management retaliation, you’ll be better positioned to prevail in litigation or arbitration. Most of all, hold onto your dignity and self-esteem. It’s soul-crushing to feel powerless or that you’re an enabler as you methodically work to challenge (or escape) your supervisor or the system. Have a good support network, especially someone knowledgeable who can coach you through this mess made by others. 

Let me also use this moment to say that these continuing issues are another reason diversity is so important in organizations, especially at the top. It’s harder to “normalize” injustice when people who’ve been its victims have the clout to make genuine change.


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Vanessa: Donald Trump’s candidacy–and his skill as a media manipulator–have challenged political journalists’ impartiality, as various media commentators have noted. In this fractious political season, what advice would you give reporters covering Trump and Clinton that will help them maintain a straightforward tone while also holding candidates’ feet to the fire?

Jill: I think news managers need to remind reporters that calling out inaccuracy, dissembling, and deflection by any candidate isn’t proof of media bias. But doing so demands that journalists be well prepared, both as fact-checkers and with language they might not be accustomed to using with the frequency that this campaign demands. Example: Vanessa, your question described Donald Trump as having skills as a “media manipulator.” Those are strong words but CJR has covered him extensively enough to back it up.

Without being a jerk about it, journalists have to practice interrupting a filibuster reply and challenging a candidate, surrogate, or supporter. They have to be comfortable saying:

·      That’s not true.

·      Unfortunately, what you’re saying is out of context. Here’s the complete picture…

·      That’s not what I asked you.

·      You’ve changed the subject. I’m going to ask you again…

.    You’ve just criticized your opponent by saying “people tell me…” — please name some of those people.

·      You’ve attacked the other candidate but haven’t answered the question.

I’m also pleased to see broadcast news organizations including fact-checks and corrections in their full-screen supers and print and digital outlets using them in headlines. When applied with equal vigor to all candidates, that’s not bias. It’s just good journalism. 


Vanessa: The police shootings of African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the protests that followed have driven home the power of services like Facebook Live and Periscope to turn ordinary observers into citizen journalists with potentially massive audiences. There are great benefits to putting this technology into people’s hands, but live recording carries obligations as well. Now that everybody can be a broadcaster, what should people know about the ethics of live video?

Jill: There is immense power in going live. We are capturing real-time events as never before– and that’s a net positive.

But as broadcasters have known for years, the power to inform instantly also carries power to harm: from tipping off a hostage-taker to the strategy of potential rescuers to showing gruesome, traumatic video, to providing erroneous and out-of context information. TV and radio stations train staff to make good ethical decisions in the midst of live coverage. They can shift to seven-second delay, enabling producers to keep recording, but break away before showing something in the moment that they’ll later regret. Live social media tools and users aren’t quite that sophisticated–at least not yet.

In the midst of recent high-profile news stories, I used my meager design skills to create this graphic to share with my friends and followers on social media. Feel free to pass it on:




Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.