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Category: Art and Entertainment

Daylight Lessons from Letterman’s Late Night Escapades

| October 5, 2009

The author, an expert on the prevention of sexual harassment and other issues of women in the workforce, suggests that human resources professionals and corporate executives take the occasion of David Letterman’s revelations to revisit their companies’ policies with the understanding that “sexual favoritism is sexual harassment.” 

I don’t know David Letterman or any of the staffers he had sex with. I believe fidelity is the business of only one person, the philanderer’s partner. Extortionists aren’t whistle-blowers—they’re criminals, and should be put away.

But whenever I hear the justification, “I didn’t violate company policy and no one complained,” my hackles jump up. Let’s talk about why it’s bad business for the boss to sleep with subordinates. The key part of consent is that the right to say “yes” is balanced by the right to say “no.” When the person doing the asking is the boss, declining becomes dicey.

Even if there’s no threat or demand involved, how do you know there won’t be repercussions for refusing to go along? If there’s a problem, whom do you tell? Especially when company policy is silent on the matter, how do you know anyone will listen? Who isn’t beholden to the boss for their job?

Suppose later you need a reference from that person. What assurance do you have that your refusal to play around won’t lead to a negative comment, or a deadly neutral one: “Yes, she worked here.”

The problem is exacerbated when the boss is well-known. Maybe an assistant really digs the head honcho. She might take the initiative to get something going or be flattered that he has shown interest in her. But the bloom can fall off that rose. What happens tomorrow or next week when she decides she’s changed her mind? Or he starts looking at the next or younger intern and wants to move on and move her out? And what about the rest of the staff who aren’t sleeping with the boss?

If someone who’s known to have done so (and sooner or later, everyone will know) goes on to be promoted, the perception will be that sex was the reason—even if that person is the smartest, most talented person onboard. The result isn’t hard to predict: resentment, lower morale, conflict, and when opportunities arise, people jumping ship.

Sexual favoritism is a form of sexual harassment. Those who aren’t in a romantic relationship may well feel disadvantaged by that fact. The company opens itself to legal liability.

CBS says Letterman wasn’t their employee. But companies have an affirmative duty to protect workers from third party harassment—especially in cases like this when the third party holds so much power at the workplace. My concern is that corporate execs will learn the wrong lessons from this case. They’ll review the company sexual harassment policy to make sure it’s silent on supervisors sleeping around unless there’s egregious retaliation. They’ll remind themselves to call the bluff of anyone who threatens to reveal misdeeds. And there’ll be a huge run on personal recording devices.

So this is an appeal to human resource professionals and boards of directors to draw the right conclusions from the Letterman experience.

First, make sure there is a written sexual harassment policy and that all employees, senior management included, are trained about that policy and their rights and responsibilities under it. Make sure the policy spells out clearly that senior managers (no matter who signs their paycheck) may not have romantic entanglements with any subordinate. If he or she does, the relationship must be disclosed immediately so management can see whether there’s a disinterested outside party who can take over supervision of the lower level individual. If not, the relationship should end or one of the individuals should leave.

Second, firms—including media outlets—should have an arrangement with an independent, outside counsel with no ties to the organization. That counsel’s number should be made available to all employees with instructions to call with impunity in the event that a top-level staff behaves inappropriately, whether to them or someone else. Employees should be assured that such a call will be held in strictest confidence until the matter can be properly—and promptly—investigated.

As for Letterman and anyone else in his position, here’s some advice: If nightly adoration and huge paychecks aren’t enough for you, try sweat yoga or cold showers. Ask yourself if you were just Joe Schmo and not in a position of power, would this woman be interested in you? Above all, ask yourself: if the staffer were my daughter, how would I want her boss to behave?

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