The best evidence of how much latitude mean men are given lies in the stories of how most of them finally fall. Rarely are they brought down for being mean; often they are ousted only when they stop hitting home runs—or when they take their bat and bludgeon someone so publicly and so badly that keeping them around becomes a liability. Dov Charney is a poster boy for the irony of accountability: he wasn’t forced out of American Apparel because of his well-known and longstanding record of sexist and outrageous behavior; he was forced out because he was driving the company into financial ruin. He is living proof that in today’s era of bottom-line triumphalism, as long as you are making a lot of money for shareholders, investors, and owners, it’s OK to be an ogre.
Peter Arnell heaped abuse on employees for years, and Omnicom—the company that had purchased his entrepreneurial branding firm, the Arnell Group and trusted him to lead it—turned a blind eye. It was only when Arnell began to take embarrassing and costly advertising missteps that Omnicom “suddenly” woke up. What sunk this infamously nasty CEO? It wasn’t his violent outbursts within the office or even the lawsuit filed against him by four former female employees—it was orange juice.
When the Arnell Group won the PepsiCo contract to design new logos for both Pepsi and Tropicana, the design for the former drew mixed reactions, but the design for the latter caused thousands of Americans to practically lose their breakfast. Customers complained that the new labeling was so different they couldn’t find Tropicana on the shelf.
The blogosphere exploded with criticism aimed at Arnell: “Give us back our orange with a straw in it!” One blogger went so far as to call him “the Bernie Madoff of brands.”
Just weeks after the new design’s launch, Tropicana announced it would revert to its old packaging. The company lost millions of dollars.
It was around this time that the infamous Mona Lisa memo Arnell had written to PepsiCo was made public. With its references to the famous painting—and to the Parthenon, the golden ratio, the relativity of space and time, the “gravitational pull” of a can of Pepsi on a supermarket shelf, and the rate of expansion of the universe—some thought the memo was a joke. It wasn’t.
Most people in Arnell’s position would have hidden in shame and embarrassment or offered an apology to the American public, but as is typical of narcissistic mean men, Arnell responded to critics by saying: “What the hell—I got paid a lot of money.”
He was fired soon thereafter from the group that bore his name but has recently resurfaced. We’ll see how that goes.
We know it takes a while for bullies to get their comeuppance. Mean men rarely retract their claws; they dig deep into their organization’s flesh. They possess their company’s culture. Demon, monster, beast, ogre, asshole—there are multiple labels for mean men, and they’ve heard them all and do not care.
Former Sunbeam CEO Al Dunlap, known as Chainsaw Al, was notorious for his mass layoffs, but as long as share prices rose, none of the higher-ups were asking him to stop. Interestingly, Jon Ronson interviewed Dunlap for his book The Psychopath Test, and, though admitting he is not a psychologist, reported that “Mr. Dunlap scored positive in category after category.” Ronson noted: “The morning continued with Al redefining a great many psychopathic traits as leadership positives.”
Longtime business journalist and editor John A. Byrne wrote: “In all my years of reporting, I had never come across an executive as manipulative, ruthless, and destructive as Al Dunlap. Until the Securities and Exchange Commission barred him from ever serving as an officer of a public corporation, Dunlap sucked the very life and soul out of companies and people. He stole dignity, purpose, and sense out of organizations and replaced those ideals with fear and intimidation.”
Byrne knew how Dunlap felt about him too: “He once told a reporter for the New York Times, ‘If he were on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him.’”
What did it take to get Dunlap to leave? Numbers.
Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, is best known for making outrageous comments, insulting women’s bodies—insisting some women were not made to wear the clothes his company produces—and claiming it was “funny” to hear Japanese people talk about his brand “because they have a hard time pronouncing their Ls.” Children who lived on the streets or in developing nations, Wilson believed, needed money—so perhaps child labor laws should be loosened.
This inhumane man got away with saying all this until the public had enough. Lululemon made the 2014 Ten Most Hated Companies in America list, and stock prices dropped. Perhaps Wilson’s behavior is less offensive than that of the others mentioned here, but it is still not suited to the top of the C-suite.
Mean men are everywhere, and only a small portion of the worst offenders are in jail. Many, like Arnell, remain dormant for a spell, only to resurface like the undefeatable creatures they are. For a nation fixated on teaching its children not to bully one another in school, we seem to swallow the adult-bully-as-workplace-genius pill whole.
But social media has mobilized power to the people. Non-shareholders, non-investors, and non-yes-men and women can raise significantly more public outcry now than they could in the past—meaning that some mean men are being held accountable sooner than they might have been just five years ago.
Perhaps the tolerance for psychopaths who belittle, berate, harass, and destroy others is decreasing—especially as study after study shows that this kind of behavior is ineffective. But any tolerance for this level of cruelty in the workplace begs the question: Why do we continue to accept it at all?