I’m baffled by some of the commentary surrounding David Letterman’s confession of romantic liaisons with employees on his show.
Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Tom Shales reminds us that Letterman is a clown, not a cleric or a congressman. The gist of the article being that he is an overgrown adolescent that should be held to different standard than the politicians whose sexual hijinks he skewers. Today, in the New York Times Maureen Dowd’s column basically says men will be men, from what we know so far none of the women were pressured, and at least Letterman had the decency to apologize. And then there’s the curious announcement from Letterman’s own company (World Wide Pants) stating that they have a written policy that covers harassment, but that Dave is not in violation because no one ever made a complaint.
Sadly, the commentary seems to confuse ethics with the law.
What these articles are saying is that Letterman has no obligation to be a moral role model. He’s a comedian, an entertainer with a heart of gold according to Shales and we should cut him a break. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with that proposition, that question is an ethical and moral issue. It is totally different from the more important legal one.
The law prohibiting sexual harassment applies equally. It doesn’t distinguish entertainment companies and congressional staff offices. All employees are entitled to work in an environment free of sexual harassment. There’s no room for waffling or double standards. It’s the law.
Based on what has been reported in the press so far, it doesn’t appear that the women involved with Letterman were coerced into a sexual relationship with him. Who knows, they may have even pursued him. But based on the information reported so far, we simply don’t know. So for the sake of discussion, let’s say they were all consensual, as Maureen Dowd suggests. No harassment? Right?
Not so fast.
One of the risks of even a consensual sexual relationship in the same supervisory chain of command is that the lover receives favored treatment, such as perks or assignments that aren’t available to everyone else. Such favoritism is unfair to everyone else and can create a hostile work environment – another form of sexual harassment.
Here we know that at least one of his former lovers was rewarded with recurring on-air roles despite what some say was her lack of on screen talent. Would she have had the same “break” if she weren’t sleeping with the boss? Did someone more qualified get passed over? We don’t know.
World Wide Pants’ statement that no one complained yet so there can’t be a policy violation is rather disingenuous. That’s like saying I didn’t get a parking ticket so the meter didn’t really expire, or I still have checks so there must be money in the bank.
Please . . . . all it means is that no one has been made to be held accountable. Yet. And maybe they won’t. But that’s not the same as saying it didn’t happen or that it couldn’t happen.
The risk exposure to a business for having a hostile work environment claim is very real and the factors that contribute to such an environment like favoritism resulting from a lovey-dovey supervisor/subordinate relationship are predictable.
Employees can tell when something is going on. They sense the chemistry and efforts to deny it have all the awkward body language that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt did before their relationship became public. Remember how they were standing there at the premier of that Mr. & Mrs. Smith movie? All stiff and pretending they didn’t see each other. ‘Common on. A couple can’t hide it for long. But when such a relationship blossoms in the workplace, employers can incur legal liability if they fail to protect themselves.
Smart companies have written policies on sexual harassment. Some prohibit dating among coworkers altogether while others who do permit office dating make very clear that dating is not okay between supervisors and their direct subordinates. If love is in the air, one of the parties is voluntarily or involuntarily transferred out of the chain of command.
That’s why my number one Top 10 Lesson of the Letterman Saga is not to lose sight of the potential for harassment based on a hostile environment. No such claim has been made yet in the Letterman case and for Letterman’s sake I hope it never will. But employers shouldn’t be lulled into a comfort zone that two consenting employees engaging in a sexual relationship doesn’t hurt anyone. It can. Especially if when the relationship turns sour one of the adults says it wasn’t consensual.
Oh, and the other 9 Top 10 Lessons, well, they start with picking symbolic company names like World Wide Pants and go down from there 😉