Isn’t management supposed to fire abrasive managers?

[*Note: Sulzberger’s statement pointing to Abramson’s management style as the reason he fired her was released after this article was published – link here to read it. ]

Last night I caught up with Charlie Rose’s coverage of the ouster of Jill Abramson as Executive Editor of the New York Times. Rose played a clip from his earlier interview with Abramson when she was first promoted in which she told him that she was made aware that she needed to bring “good Jill” to her new role. In 2011 – three years ago – Poynter quotes a New Yorker article that brings this concern home:

…many in the newsroom considered her to be intimidating and brusque; she was too remote and, they thought, slightly similar to an earlier executive editor, the talented but volcanic Howell Raines, who had also begun the job right after Labor Day, in 2001. After less than two years, Raines was forced out, and his memory is still cursed.

Auletta is careful to note differences between the Times’ first female executive editor and perhaps her most notorious predecessor, including this: “The difference between Jill and Howell is that Howell executed people he didn’t like.”

Jill AbramsonPolitico’s David Byers is credited with breaking the story of workplace turmoil in the Times newsroom: “[Publisher] Sulzberger said Abramson’s departure was related to ‘an issue with management in the newsroom,’ and had nothing to do with the quality of the paper’s journalism during her tenure. Abramson was not present for the newsroom announcement.”

When journalists report on their work culture it reveals the same conflicting tales and perceptions we all deal with when dealing with a  difficult boss. When is someone too abrasive to remain in a managment role? Salon tore into Byers’ reporting for Politico.

Here’s the most telling section of Politico’s story on New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s firing: Her accomplishments aside, Abramson’s tenure was marred by disagreements with Times CEO Mark Thompson, who took an unprecedently hands-on approach to managing the paper’s editorial resources. Abramson also suffered from perceptions among staff that she was condescending and combative. Small point: “unprecedently” is not a real word. Larger point: With a mere three remarkable words — “Her accomplishments aside …” — Byers has dismissed as irrelevant Abramson’s two-and-half-year tenure as Times executive editor. This is followed by a string of half-assed, unsubstantiated non sequiturs [full article]

Don’t women have a right to bully too!?!

Oddly, given the history of the Sultzberger’s apparent acceptance that having an Executive Editor who is openly hostile to workers was part of the cost of winning awards – unless of course if it rose to the level of scandal – it seemed incomprehensible that Sulzberger was being upfront when he cited Abramson’s interaction with employees as why she was leaving. Were women being held to a different standard? Are we labeled with terms like “brusque” or “bossy” when men are given a pass? Personally, it drives me mad that journalists love the “mean girls” meme when reporting on workplace bullying especially since the majority of bullies are indeed men. No one should abuse co-workers. So, when the argument about equal pay came up it was actually a relief. Women no longer had to argue that we have a right to be abrasive. This was something worth fighting for. Reports suggested that higher ups felt that Abramson’s inclusion of an attorney in pay discussions was a war cry. But, it’s hard to label the publisher who actually put a woman in charge as sexist. According to Ken Auletta at the New Yorker it’s just not that simple.

Even though she thought she was politely asking about the pay discrepancy and about the role of the business side, and that she had a green light from management to hire a deputy to Baquet, the decision to terminate her was made. Sulzberger met with her last Friday, and reportedly told her that it was time to make “a change.”

Charlie Rose framed his discussion in terms of  what Abramson ‘perceived’ was true. She clearly felt that she was being paid unfairly and she has a history of facts supporting that. And, she also knew that her co-workers and those reporting to her found her to be difficult to work with. David Carr reported that Abramson had hired a consultant to help her improve her management style. Was this too little too late? According to the statement Sulzberger released today the answer would be yes:

Sulzberger statement


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