05/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Doorman Disturbia

Jerry Seinfeld was one of the few to comment on the phenomenon of "the doorman." Through the lens of humor, he illustrated the darker side of the door man who overtly presents a kind, compliant, willing to please demeanor.

But as Jerry cleverly demonstrated the presentation is only the façade-scratch the surface and the true personality is revealed. Why are so many duped by these men of servitude? How much damage do these men in uniforms create? And why do most people avoid the subject in its entirety?

Here in New York, security and privacy are considered sacred. Those with money pay extra for private clubs, private schools, and exclusive rights to things that most cannot afford. Excellent service is critical and sought after. The "door man" fits into the category of "service provider." People living in luxury buildings want the door man to service them -- find them a taxi, help them with packages, even get their newspapers and complain if they do not receive quality service. But the service door men provide extends beyond those of a concierge. What has become apparent is that door men are pushing the boundaries to be perceived as a "confidant" or "trusted advisor." The consequence is an increased incidence of "doorman disturbia."

What is doorman disturbia? It is a range of inappropriate behaviors exhibited by doormen due to the reversal of power. The power stems from the doorman's knowledge of intimacies that most people do not share with one another. There is a false sense of confidentiality as door men appear to be interested, concerned and neutral. The ease to which tenants confide in their door men and reveal themselves can be dangerous. The power is one sided as the door man does not reciprocate and share intimate details of his life. In fact, the door man's anonymity remains in tact.

The disturbia ranges from openly judging tenants behavior and sharing intimate details with other tenants to more extreme behaviors of sexual harassment and invoking arguments between tenants. After conducting many interviews with New York City apartment dwellers, what was revealed is shocking. Doormen discussed the bad marriages, late night behavior and familial issues of tenants with other tenants in the building. Other interviewees reported being asked out repeatedly by their trusted staff until it was so uncomfortable they dodged the doorman or thought about moving. There were reports of people who found doormen in their apartments or in the basement having sex. Other than these acts there were more passive aggressive acts including starting riffs between neighbors by playing one against the other while remaining aligned with both parties.

Unlike other professions that have access to people's private lives, doormen are the most untrained and least educated. More importantly, most doormen do not receive an orientation and they are not provided with a protocol for being an effective door man. In fact, most are highly unsupervised and protected by a union. Coop boards turn the other cheek and minimize the consequences, managing agents don't even consider the possibility that such unprofessionalism prevails. Tenants hold such low expectations for their doorman's behavior and accept high levels of inappropriate, rude and crude behavior.

So what is the significance? What I have found in my interviews is that women are the most at risk to encounter doormen disturbia. Women are more approachable and will engage in friendly interactions more likely than men. Now that I am more cognizant of the phenomenon, I have observed first hand in my own building how the doormen flirt with women, comment on their looks, even judge a woman's attractiveness and share their opinion with other tenants (a few doormen told me my neighbor has a large behind).

One of my doormen shared his sexual encounters with me, found out my cell number and proceeded to text me profusely, asked to be invited into my facebook account and started a war between myself and my next door neighbor. Now for purposes of this blog, I experimented to see how far he would go. The results were so disturbing that I am now completely convinced that there needs to be changes implemented in staff selection, on boarding and management. Right now there is relatively little accountability in place to ensure professional behavior and tenants well being-after all don't tenants expect high quality service?

What should tenants do to minimize doorman disturbia?
• Maintain professional boundaries
• Report inappropriate behavior to building management and document your report
• Refrain from answering personal questions asked
• If boundaries are stretched, tell the staff that you are beginning to feel uncomfortable
• Speak to other tenants and determine if your perception and experience is consistent with others'

Building management should:
• Create a detailed job description for all staff of the building
• Do comprehensive background checks of staff
• Assess potential employee's judgment, professionalism and responsibility
• Ask for references and thoroughly check them
• Provide staff with a comprehensive orientation and training regarding protocol and code of conduct. Opening and holding a door is not complicated to learn but interfacing with people, managing professional relationships and acting ethically does require training.
• Develop a system of managing staff on a regular basis which may include observation, spot checking and tenant feedback

The phenomenon that made us all laugh when highlighted on the Seinfeld episode is not funny anymore. The research and observations I have done these past few months has revealed a disturbing reality. Power can be abused if in the wrong hands or given to individuals who cannot manage the responsibility. As a nation, we have seen this too many times over the past year. People need to be aware that power is not always held by political and business moguls. It can reside with those that we underestimate.

The moral of this story is for all to be careful of giving people power who do not deserve it. We do have the capacity to prevent our own powerlessness. What may seem so trite -- "the doorman" -- is just one example of how people destroy one another by abusing power. Yet, what will it take for others to confront bad behavior, put a stop to it and stop living in denial? That is the bigger question!