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Sexual Flirtation and the Workplace

2009-10-06

As you’ve probably heard by now, unless you live in a cave on Mars with your fingers in your ears, David Letterman has admitted to a history of sexual relationships with women in his employment.

There seems to be a common thread that Letterman isn’t a public or moral leader, and so the world shouldn’t really care. I disagree. Letterman’s behavior is not just a poor example, but it’s probably left him and his production company hung out to dry in a legal sandstorm.

Sexual harassment rules exist to protect all of us, both those who are pressured into an inappropriate relationship, and those who must work alongside Letterman’s sexual partners. Why did Letterman do so much fishing off the company pier? Why get into relationships with his staff, rather than women in the larger community?

Because Letterman knew he could keep them quiet.

It’s all about power. They want to work in TV, and he’s a big man in the TV business. As the owner of the company, his words will have a long-reaching effect on their careers, positive or negative. The women who work for him know this, and there is no way to freely enter and leave a relationship in this environment. The employees who did not enjoy this “blessing” are now scanning the past, looking for situations when their co-workers received favors.

I have no idea whether Letterman abused his power over his employees, and ultimately it doesn’t matter if he took any specific action either for or against particular employees. Now that he has admitted to sexual relationships, every one of his decisions is going to be evaluated and second-guessed in terms of his admitted sexual proclivities. Every former sexual partner is asking themselves, “Was I really a free participant in that relationship, or did I do it because I was scared to say no?”

Worldwide Pants has produced some successful shows, and if Letterman wants that venture to continue, he needs to distance himself from day-to-day operations right now. Employees demand equity in their environment — a sense that they and their co-workers are being evaluated on their performance of the job. That equity is destroyed, and to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, equity is like fine china: easily cracked, and never well-mended.

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