Put Your Boss to Bed
How those of us raised in toxic work cultures can use our grit for good
By Marissa Ronca
I recently spoke to a group of communications students at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, and they asked about the early days of my career. I tried to convey how thrilling it was to work in TV two decades ago, when cable was starting to explode. I didn’t tell them about the time I threatened to burn down a producer’s house. Or “knock the Invisalign’’ out of a disrespectful manager’s mouth. Or that this behavior, learned from people I respect, was standard in our industry. We bonded through battle.
When I was young and new to the industry, it seemed that work culture across most networks was toxic — we just didn’t have a word for it. Our bosses pulled their pants down at dinners and took meetings in strip clubs. They often got so drunk on business trips that some unlucky colleague had to put them to bed. I endured plenty of conversations about co-workers’ boobs and, am sorry to say, did nothing to stop it. Everyone I came up with has similar stories or worse. We got the work done under chaotic and sometimes abusive circumstances. On a conference call, a big-name producer screamed and called me a “cockfucker” until I cried. We knew it was twisted, but that’s the way it was: Suck it up, “have a sense of humor,” hold your own — or get out of the business.
Now we know that many people in power took things too far. This isn’t about them. It’s about the rest of us: an entire generation of “resilient” executives. As recent press about Ellen’s show illustrates, there is collateral damage from infamously toxic offices and sets. While some industry leaders continue to perpetuate those legacies, the rest of us have long known that we must do better.
By 2014, I was head of original programming and development at a cable network and oversaw a large creative team. We were responsible for launching the megahit Impractical Jokers and Emmy nominees At Home With Amy Sedaris and Billy on the Street. We were highly productive and successful without all the hazing, belittling or screaming. This was my intentional and dedicated effort as the department head. I was proud of the work we did and how we did it — through open communication and a sense of community. (This wasn’t an act we put on in the office. Our group text chain still lights up whenever there’s big news, in our industry or in our lives.)
Alongside our camaraderie, I still had to interact with external colleagues stuck in the old way of doing business — and determined to drag me back into the ring. I had developed defense mechanisms to cope in these moments and no longer made empty threats or lost my temper. I learned to yell without raising my voice. That would be too “emotional.” While agents and managers screamed, I imagined myself 10 feet underwater, numbed by a million Xanax. Once they tired themselves out — they always do — I emerged calm.
I also had two young sons at home and was trying to exemplify work-life balance. So when a rising superstar in my department asked if she could work from home one day a week after her baby was born, I would empathize, right?
Wrong. My gut reaction was: Who the hell does she think she is? Her question should have come with a trigger warning. In an instant, I flashed back to when my boys were born, when I was still working under punishing leadership. To how I returned to work quickly after two difficult C-sections. Answered emails at 3 A.M. while breastfeeding. Jammed my recently bi-sected bod into Spanx for an evening work event four weeks postpartum. As soon as maternity leave was up, I pushed myself to pick up exactly where I left off with workload and business trips. It was hard and heartbreaking. It’s the only time in my life I regret. My heart aches for mothers everywhere doing this now.
The instinct to say no to my very pregnant direct report — to impose the rules I followed, to refuse to bend outdated policies — took me by surprise. I thought I was beyond being a petty and punitive leader, but my immediate resistance to change was like muscle memory. That scared the hell out of me.
In what I now remember as our slow motion conversation, I somehow took a step back, checked myself and said yes to her. After discussing with my leadership team, we made this flexible office policy the norm for all new parents and stressed caregivers. It never impacted employee productivity, and the benefits massively outweighed the risks. When I left the company in 2019, a new father on my team gave me one of many handwritten notes. It said, “Thank you for creating a work culture where parenting matters, and we know our lives outside these walls have real value.”
One small policy change had an incredible impact. The ripple effect of making many more could be revolutionary.
Who better to reimagine and build a future for the business we love than those of us who rose through chaos? We know firsthand that the path is hard enough without hazing. Our tough professional upbringing prepared us to rise to this moment and apply our grit for good. Otherwise, we’re no better than the cockfuckers who came before us.