This article is adapted from a segment on the Waves and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christina Cauterucci: Last week, HuffPost and BuzzFeed both ran pieces that contained a whole slew of allegations that Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota runs a borderline abusive workplace. There were multiple former staffers who said they and their fellow employees were berated for wrongdoing in front of their peers. Sometimes they’d be CC’d on their emails, saying, “This is the worst press release I’ve ever read in my life.” They were forced to endure emotional outbursts and fits of rage. They were generally miserable. And a few days after those pieces ran, on Sunday, Klobuchar announced she was running for president. Now voters outside Minnesota have a new reason to care about the working conditions in her office.
Klobuchar has generally deflected these accusations, saying she loves her staff and just has high expectations. She has a couple staff members who’ve been with her for many years. And some people, some former staffers, did speak on the record to say that she’s a demanding boss but not an abusive one. Other people are saying, “A man would never come under fire for this type of behavior.” So is she facing undo scrutiny because she’s a woman who apparently yelled and demeans her employees?
Rachelle Hampton: I do think there is a level where she is receiving more scrutiny than a man would, but this is also unacceptable behavior from anyone. We are conditioned into thinking, “Oh, tough bosses get the most out of their employees.” And we’re used to men being tough bosses. And now that it’s a woman doing it, we’re like, “Whoa, maybe not.” Maybe this is wrong, but it’s always been wrong.
Cauterucci: I think also the fact that she is not only a presidential candidate at this point, but a highly favored one. She’s from the Midwest. She is more liberal than average, but certainly more moderate than a lot of her other peers on the presidential slate.
Ashley Edwards: She got re-elected with a pretty high margin.
I don’t necessarily think this is sexism at all. Especially in this time, workplace harassment of any type is at the top of people’s minds, and if she were a man, people would be reporting the same thing. We have to think about it now that she could potentially be running the country.
She has such a high staff turnover rate … you know who else has an extremely high turnover rate? Donald Trump. And people write nonstop stories about how the White House is in chaos and that things can’t really get done when people are operating under fear. So is that really somebody you want as president, who can’t operate without making people so afraid for their jobs and their livelihood? I don’t think that’s just sexism. I think that’s just terrible behavior for anyone, and she’s rightfully being called out for it. And she hasn’t really addressed it. She just said, “I’m a tough boss.”
Hampton: I feel like she’s going to use that as a marketing point: “I’m a tough boss who can take on Trump. I’ll be the person who can really just dress him down.” I don’t think we need more toxic-ness.
Edwards: I’ve never had a terrible boss to that point, but when you have even a slightly bad boss who’s condescending, you have that anxiety just going to work. You feel paralyzed. I can’t imagine having to work where you’re getting emails at 3 a.m. that are all in caps or cursing you out. Some of her aides said they had a script they had to follow: “Let her vent. Don’t interrupt. If you have to interrupt, do this.” That’s something out of Devil Wears Prada.
Cauterucci: I don’t find any of the behaviors described in these investigations defensible, but I couldn’t figure out why it doesn’t bother me as much intellectually as I know it should. I think it’s partially because, whether this is fair or not, I have this sense that jobs in Congress are inherently, extremely demanding. People who are egotistical enough to want those jobs are probably all nightmares to work with. And you don’t run for office because you’re a good manager—then maybe you’d be a chief of staff or something like that. However, there were a lot of people in these pieces saying, “I worked in politics for so long. I’ve never had a boss like this.”
Edwards: I’ve worked in places with people with strong personalities, but then there’s a difference between being assertive and a leader and just being a bully. Do you want another president who’s a bully?
Hampton: Or petty and vindictive. Multiple people said that if a staff member got a job elsewhere, she would try to get that offer rescinded. Petty’s not a good look for a president.
Cauterucci: Putting aside all of the ethical issues with how to treat your staff, it’s also a question of: Are you getting the best work out of people? Because it’s not just the president who’s doing the job. You are in essence managing an organization.
Hampton: One of the things that struck me is that everyone kept describing her as Minnesota nice. And there’s this idea of Midwestern niceness that always just rankles me, as someone who grew up in the Midwest. The Midwest is not that friendly. There is a level of superficialness to the friendliness. It’s very much like Klobuchar, where she’s nice to her peers, and then the people she considers below her are cannon fodder. This idea of Midwestern niceness has permeated a lot of politics, and it’s very annoying.
Edwards: Do we really want a president to be nice? Or do we want somebody like Trump, who says whatever he thinks and doesn’t care about offending people? Or do we want someone like Klobuchar, who seems nice on the surface but will drag you behind closed doors? What do we really want here?
Cauterucci: It was interesting to read about how conservatives have been responding to this. They’re basically applauding her for being mean or tough. There was a conservative columnist at the Washington Post who wrote that “all this shows is that Ms. ‘Minnesota Nice’ might just have the touch of steel a real leader needs.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote, “Perhaps the Senator is simply less tolerant of millennial demands.” I think they’re saying all these people who are complaining about their workplace conditions are helicopter-parented P.C. snowflakes. There’s a weird fetishization of a strong leader who is willing to be a dick to people in order to get what she wants, which is a traditionally masculine quality.
I also kind of fetishize this idea of a strong woman in power, because it’s so novel. We hardly ever get to see women in positions of executive leadership, and women who are in those positions don’t get to show anger very often. We’re used to seeing them be not only “Minnesota nice” but also make themselves seem less threatening: “Oh, I’m just a mom who cares.” Thinking about a woman able to express frustration and emotion gave me a little thrill.
Edwards: But why did people tell Hillary Clinton that she was shrill and needed to smile, but with Klobuchar it’s seen as OK? Also at the State of the Union, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was sitting there, not amused, not smiling, and people said she looked like an annoyed teenager. What do we want women to be?
Edwards: We have to be everything all the time, and nothing at the same time. She has to have this Minnesota-nice persona, but then she’s also borderline abusive to her staff. And that’s kind of like what we want a female leader to be. It’s just a lot of conflicting directions.