As quickly as the public rallied around Jill Abramson when it was reported that she was fired shortly after raising concerns about pay equity, it is as swiftly turning against her now that New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. has reported that she was fired for "the public mistreatment of colleagues," and that he had repeatedly heard complaints about her from colleagues. His report that she was guilty of "arbitrary decision-making" (what boss doesn't make decisions that can't be cast as arbitrary?) and "inadequate communication" (an "inadequate communication" itself) was as vague and meaningless as it was crafty. As he intended, a quick perusal of public comments to his statement shows that sentiment is rapidly shifting from concern about gender inequity and the "glass cliff" for women who ascend their professional ranks, to comments that the Times should sue her for libel and that she apparently deserved her termination.
Sulzberger's comments could not be more predictable, nor more suspect. Predictable because whenever a worker is terminated under suspicious circumstances, the employer will charge that there had long been a problem with the "difficult employee;" that the termination was necessary and made in response to complaints coworkers -- not supervisors -- had made; and that it had been going on for a long time. And Sulzberger's comments are suspect because had they been true, it is highly unlikely she would have been terminated as suddenly and aggressively as she was when the publisher abruptly fired her without a word of ceremonial gratitude for her service to the newspaper, much less acknowledgement of all she'd achieved for the Times. When a termination is handled in such a harsh manner and the employee's reputation smeared, unless there has been a specific act of misconduct or negligence clearly necessitating a swift and severe exit, it is almost always an act of aggressive retaliation and a prelude to mobbing.
Mobbing is the collective shunning, abuse and disparagement of a person that transpires when someone in a position of leadership signals to the group that they want someone gone. Had it been impossible for Sulzberger to terminate Abramson, such as a contractual obligation to retain her which kept her in the workplace, once leadership signaled they wanted her gone, her staff would have begun to rethink her value and find fault until she was eventually so disempowered, abused and disgraced that she would have left of her own volition. Her staff and coworkers would have soon been making reports of her bad behavior and gossiping about her with a vengeance. They would have ignored her authority and sabotaged her good efforts and completely shunned her. And any mistakes she had ever made would have been amplified a thousandfold as her staff and colleagues sought favor with the leadership that wanted her gone.
And that may very well have been what was happening for some time. But you can bet that what is happening right now, in the wake of her public departure and the scramble to do damage control, is that Ms. Abramson's staff have been individually brought into the offices of their supervisors, assured that they are doing an excellent job and are valued by the paper and told that there had been much more going on with her than they realized. They have been told, individually and behind closed doors, that she has had many good qualities and done many good things, but she has some personal, if not mental health issues. They have been told or reminded that there have been many complaints about her and that as much as the Times wanted to keep her on, it was just not possible. They will allude, if not come right out and say, that she has been bullying people and they had no choice but let her go. They will be assured that it is for her own good that Ms. Abramson was fired.
And at some point in the conversation, each employee will be commended for their own work and suddenly promised or provided with perks, opportunities, raises or unprecedented praise. And the ones who will reap the most rewards will be the women on the staff -- many of whom we can predict will publicly defend the New York Times as treating and rewarding women very well. Indeed, few if any women at the Times will offer Abramson private, much less public, support. Even those who have been most concerned about any gendered bias in the workplace, will begin to murmur, this case wasn't about gender. This workplace conflict was all about a "difficult employee."
That is how mobbing goes down. Those who had problems with Abramson -- and who hasn't had problems with their boss -- will applaud her termination as good riddance to a "bully." And those who have not had problems with her, will suddenly recall all the many ways she was abrasive, rethinking every slight or supervisory action she engaged in, until soon they, too, will conclude that she was nothing but a problem from day one and it was best for everyone involved. The message is clear: the only "mistreatment of colleagues" that really matters is when it's done by someone they want to get rid of. The rest of the pains-in-the-ass can stick around and be applauded for getting things done.
No one really knows why Jill Abramson was fired, and she may not know the full story herself. But what we do know is that when someone in a position of organizational leadership points the finger of workplace death at an employee, others will fall in line. And what we do know is that had Sulzberger really been concerned about her "abrasive managerial style," rather than her abrasive gendered style, he would have handled it much differently. But he didn't. He handled it with the swift and aggressive actions of someone reacting with emotion, not acting with reasoned restraint. And that smells a whole lot more like retaliation than it does justified termination.
Sulzberger will now dig in his heals because he's made a public declaration of his position--and because he probably does view Abramson as the problem. It is difficult to recognize the way in which gender--or any social identity--shapes the way we perceive others. It is likely that he did hear many reports of her staff resenting her "pushy" behavior--just as it is likely he failed (beyond the very early stages of her tenure) to back her up and tell others to respect her authority. We tend to be blind to our own biases, particularly the more free of them we believe ourselves to be.
In thinking about this latest public fall from grace it is easy to stop thinking about the distinctions between how men and women are perceived and communicate in the workplace; and it is easy to forget about unequal pay between men and women and how swiftly and severely retaliation for asking about it can go down; and it is easy to conclude that working for Ms. Abramson might have been a bitch, and Sulzberger had no choice. The public wants to make sense of an ambiguous event, and it wants to make sense the easiest way. It's far easier to conclude she had it coming than to confront the possibility that yet one more assertive woman was tossed off the proverbial cliff.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in Psychology Today.