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Sometimes a little space in the workplace is good

The real power of celebrities is that they have the capacity to bring attention to small issues, writes Rob Long
What does American comic Steve Harvey know about workplace culture? Ethan Miller / Getty Images
What does American comic Steve Harvey know about workplace culture? Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Steve Harvey, the American comedian and television presenter, has a tendency to find himself in hot water.

A year or so ago, as the host of an international beauty pageant, he misread the winner’s name and awarded the top prize to the wrong contestant. A few minutes later he apologised and – all on live television – had the crown removed from the head of the baffled non-winner and placed on the right contestant’s head, while audience members shuffled nervously and pageant competitors wept in awkward confusion. If your sense of humour runs to the dark and creepy – and mine definitely does – it was an indelibly hilarious moment. If you were the mistakenly crowned contestant, it probably didn’t seem so funny.

Harvey managed the scene with grace and good nature – he’s a true professional and a consummate broadcaster – and it’s the skill that’s kept him on television for decades. He’s been a sitcom star, a game show host, a chat-show host and a competition presenter, and in each role he’s been an appealing and approachable character.

Perhaps too approachable. A Chicago newspaper recently reprinted a strongly-worded memo he sent to the staff of his chat show, laying down some new rules for them to follow. In the first place, there were to be no more meetings in his dressing room. “No stopping by or popping in,” he decreed. “Do not come to my dressing room unless invited.”

He went on: “Do not approach me while I’m in the make-up chair unless I ask to speak with you directly. Do not wait in the hallway to speak to me. I hate being ambushed. Please make an appointment.”

And if you were planning to be sneaky, he was way ahead of you: “I promise you I will not entertain you in the hallway, and do not attempt to walk with me.”

When the memo was published, it created a mini-firestorm of reaction. Some people were shocked that this affable and friendly guy – someone they have seen on television and heard on the radio for decades – could be so high-handed and imperious. Don’t approach me? Don’t walk with me? It all seemed so arrogant and mean-spirited. The internet burnt with angry responses and bitter denunciations. Fans declared themselves former fans. Viewers of his chat show swore off watching any of his (many) television appearances.

When Steve Harvey later clarified his meaning – he was constantly being interrupted, he had no time to himself, walking from his dressing room to the stage required him to run a gauntlet of supplicants and executives and staffers, all demanding attention – he was careful not to apologise.

He just wanted to make it clear, he said, that when his door was shut it was shut for a reason, and that he’d like to bring a little more order and organisation to his workday.

And who can blame him for that? When I read the memo, and the interview he gave after it appeared in the news, I almost broke out into applause. I’ve spent a lot of time on movie and television productions and have seen how many times a well-known performer is waylaid on the way to the set for a quick meeting, a photograph, a favour or some small request. The number of tiny little breaks must be maddening – made worse, of course, by the knowledge that if the celebrity complains, even a little, they’ll be marked down as rude and arrogant and an unlikeable diva.

What Steve Harvey described, in his memo, is what everyone should have at his workplace: a place to concentrate free from interruption, a door that can shut and an understanding that meetings begin, first and foremost, with an appointment.Perhaps, though, part of the backlash against Harvey wasn’t so much about his movie star attitude. Maybe what drove the negative reaction was sheer jealousy.

How many times in your workday are you interrupted by trivialities? How many idiotic and pointless emails clog your inbox daily? Walking from your desk to the coffee machine, how many times are you stopped and entreated to do this or that task, write some soon-to-be-unread memo, attend a circular and futile meeting?

If you’re me – and, I suspect, most normal non-famous working people – this happens often. And there’s not much we can do about it, either. I suppose we could all write Steve Harvey-like memos of our own, but the reaction from our co-workers would be pretty similar to the initial reaction of a lot of Steve Harvey fans: who does this guy think he is?

“Who does this guy think he is?” – that’s a very different question when asked about an international television star rather than, say, a regional sales representative.

And that’s the real difference between celebrities and regular folks. It’s not that our problems are so different, it’s that they can write memos about it and get results. The rest of us, if we want any peace, have to pretend to be on the phone.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles

On Twitter: @rcbl

Updated: May 18, 2017 04:00 AM

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