Not Letting Staff “Suffer Your Fantasies Of Self-Victimization”

Just Google “flight attendant assault” and you’ll find no shortage of news and video clips of passengers physically and/or verbally attacking flight attendants as a result of their refusal to accept pandemic safety protocols. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this vitriol has spread to every sector but instead of simply rolling with the punches or quoting public policy, one music director decided to speak up on behalf of his orchestra’s staffers.

Georgia Symphony music director, Timothy Verville, posted a public message on his Facebook page that makes it clear that there’s a clear limit to how much he and the orchestra’s staff need to tolerate rude and threatening action from patrons unhappy with safety protocols.

“Here’s the deal folks,

For the past several weeks, the Georgia Symphony and I have been on the receiving end of baseless accusations, veiled legal threats, and borderline verbal abuse. They originate from a small, vocal minority regarding our Covid-19 policies across various aspects of our organization. These policies to protect staff, musicians, patrons, and our students have been called “highly unethical”, “authoritarian”, and more. This is while we are in the middle of a continuing pandemic, and our county is under a declared state of emergency.

We are accused of violating any number of federal laws, which we have not done. We are accused of violating a person’s constitutional rights, which we have not done. Just today, one individual accused us of imposing “dictatorial rules” “insane restrictions” and “Nazi-like rules on American Citizens,” which of course we have not done.

“Citizen scientists” and internet chatroom certified legal “experts” have been aggressive and at times hostile in tone in their communications towards us. I have even been yelled at in a phone conversation regarding our policies.

Not every objector has acted in this manner. There have been a couple of individuals who disagreed in a considerate manner. And while I believe they are wrong, I appreciate how they comported themselves.

But to those who choose to present themselves in the distasteful and untruthful manners described above, I say this: every communication you send provides another reason why organizations across the country are doing what they are doing.

I will not let you bully our staff and I will not allow any of them to suffer your fantasies of self-victimization. Performing arts organizations have a moral duty to care for those who work there and their patrons. It is the organization’s responsibility to let people come to be enriched, entertained, and educated in an environment that is as safe as possible for all.

And every unfounded accusation hurled in our direction further strengthens my resolve in this.”

The statement goes beyond catharsis and taps into a leadership approach that is one of those rare tools worth pulling out when needed: confronting unacceptable behavior, even if those actions carry risk.

I especially liked the opening to the penultimate paragraph and in the end and I reached out to Verville to learn more about what exactly inspired him to write the post.

“As the accusations and demands became more surreal and ludicrous (like being accused of committing human rights violations earlier this afternoon), I couldn’t help but shake my head at the comedic tragedy of it all,” said Verville. “It is difficult to pinpoint a single message, phone call, or instance that prompted sharing what has been going on with the Georgia Symphony. It was more of a cumulative effect between the bitter communications and the pressures they were putting on our organization and staff.”

The issue ultimately worked its way into larger Covid policy strategic decision making.

“In the morning before I wrote the post, we had a board meeting that included recounting some of the internal and external issues surrounding Covid protocols during the previous month,” said Verville. “At this point, I was already actively involved in several of the matters over the past few weeks. But I was left with a feeling of wanting to reassure those in the orbit of our organization that we were continuously working through exceedingly difficult situations, and we would prevail together. And that I would continue to be there for them.

The post I created is intended to serve two purposes. First, it is to let other organizations know that they are not alone in dealing with these types of often vitriolic, time-consuming, stressful situations. They are not normal and they are not appropriate. We should be discussing them more openly.

But secondly (and more importantly) it was a message to our staff, our musicians, our students, and our patrons. To let them know what we are experiencing to present safe, live events. And that I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure we are able to do so.”

I was also curious to learn more about how those efforts were impacting staff morale, especially among members who were most likely dealing with negative feedback.

“We have been very proactive with our staff regarding these types of exchanges,” said Verville. “We empower them and let them know that they have our trust to handle situations in a manner that they find most professionally appropriate. But at the same time, they understand that they are not on an island and there is a team around them to support and assist them, including the music director. While that may sound like empty corporate speak, it truly isn’t with us. We are all in constant communication about these issues and work collaboratively to resolve them. But we do occasionally send gifs and memes between each other to lighten the mood and help lower the stress level.”

All of this serves as a good reminder to keep a close eye on the morale and well-being of staff who receive the brunt of these complaints.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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