I don’t know how I first stumbled across the concept of the “missing stair”. What I do remember is that it instantly made me think of someone I worked with at the time.
Let’s call him Harvey.
Harvey was a manager – probably the most capable manager in the department. He could be grumpy and gruff sometimes, but he pitched in when things got busy. He helped when we needed him. He solved problems.
Then we went on a work night out.
Harvey got really drunk, but fair’s fair, we all got really drunk. Harvey got falling-down drunk and we laughed. Harvey cosied up to one of the girls in the team and we stopped laughing.
He only put his arm around her at first, but then he started stroking her shoulders and touching her thighs. He was glued to her side, no matter how many times she tried to escape.
I still hope he was simply too hammered to notice her discomfort, but maybe he just didn’t care. He held all of the power. She was shy and didn’t like confrontation. She was frightened to tell him – her manager – to stop.
‘He’s always been like that’
The next day at work everything was normal, like nothing had ever happened. I felt shaken by Harvey’s Jekyll to Hyde transformation.
“Can you believe he would do that?” I asked two of my older colleagues who had been at the company much longer than me. They both grimaced. One of them shrugged resignedly.
“It’s not the first time. He’s always been like that,” she said.
We started watching out for him after that. Or, more accurately, watching out for each other. We warned new starts about him before nights out.
Harvey was the missing stair.
Working around a missing stair feels like a fact of life
The term was first used on a sex blog called The Pervocracy to describe a rapist, but they aren’t all sexual predators. Some are racists or sexists or homophobes. Some are bullies. Some are manipulative and calculating sociopaths.
What unites them is how other people react to their unacceptable behaviour. We caution newcomers who might get hurt rather than push back. We make mind-boggling allowances. We stay quiet when we should speak up. Because it’s always been like that.
As the inventor of the term wrote: “Like something you’re so used to working around, you never stop to ask: ‘What if we actually fixed this?’
“Eventually you take it for granted that working around this guy is just a fact of life, and if he hurts someone, that’s the fault of whoever didn’t apply the workarounds correctly.”
Your dodging days are never over
When I go home to the house I grew up in, I can’t help but jump the bottom step. I tread lightly on two more, further up. Those are the stairs that squeak – the ones I learned to carefully avoid when creeping around years ago, drunk and underage and up too late. I dodge them instinctively, even when I’m there alone. Force of habit.
When I left that job, I was relieved to know my dodging days were over. But, of course, they weren’t
At a colleague’s wedding reception, months after that gut-wrenching incident in the pub, Harvey slung a heavy arm around my shoulder. I slipped away and laughed about it with the others behind his back. Dodged him instinctively. Force of habit.
When I left that job, I was relieved to know my dodging days were over. But, of course, they weren’t.
Someone else’s problem
Every job has a missing stair. Most have several. And they aren’t exclusive to workplaces, either. You’ll find yourself doing everything you can to avoid missing stairs in families and friend groups, at weddings and book clubs, and wherever else adult humans interact with each other.
Like their namesakes, missing stairs are an inconvenience to everyone who comes across them – universally complained about. They have the potential to cause real harm. Replacing them seems like an unmanageable task.
And, like real life DIY, there’s always an excuse for putting it off. We want this unpleasant person to be someone else’s problem.
How to mend a missing stair
Fixing the missing stair in a corporation, for example, means escalation. Official action. Bravery. It means uncovering everything this person has done and said – finding people willing to talk about it, and proof. It means upper management listening to and believing some of the most junior members of staff – the easy prey.
What if you pull up the carpet to mend the missing stair and realise the entire flight is rotten?
And what should be done with the onlookers who knowingly let the missing stairs get away with everything, potentially for years?
What if you pull up the carpet to mend the missing stair and realise the entire flight is rotten? Do you need to replace the whole thing? You’d probably end up wishing you’d never taken a closer look in the first place. If the staircase is still mostly intact, the temptation is to just keep dodging.
No one is untouchable or irreplaceable
Like I said, Harvey was good at his job. Great at his job, even. In my experience, the missing stair usually is. It’s often their only saving grace. But no one is irreplaceable.
No one can be allowed to become untouchable at the expense of someone else’s happiness or safety, no matter how brilliant they might otherwise be.
We’ll have to work together on this one. It’s not just time to fix the missing stairs in our lives, it’s time to rip up the lino and fully expose them. Not later. Not soon. Now.
Alex Watson is the Head of Comment for The Press & Journal and is tired of excuses