Lessons from the Letterman Saga
The late-night confession by The Late Show's David Letterman to charges that he had been involved in romances with his staff has caused a ripple effect throughout the American workplace. What can Dave's dalliances teach HR leaders about handling workplace romance?
By Michael O'Brien
David Letterman, America's new late-night ratings king, barely had time to try on the crown for size before scandal rocked his comedy kingdom, in the form of an alleged extortion attempt from CBS news producer Robert Halderman over Letterman's past romantic involvements in the workplace.
Letterman attempted to short-circuit the attempt on his show Oct. 1 show, on which he confessed to previously having affairs with office staff. A subsequent apology on the following Monday night's show was made both to his wife, (herself a former staffer) as well as to staff members who had not been intimately involved with Letterman yet still had to endure countless probing questions from the media.
Employment-law experts agree that Letterman may have learned the value of getting out in front of such a salacious story after watching a succession of high-profile public figures (John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford to name but three) burn at the public stake for their amorous actions.
"While David Letterman dealt promptly and forthrightly with respect to the alleged illegal extortion ploy, he also took the bull by the horns and admitted to having consensual sex in the workplace," says Sara Begley, an employment attorney at Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith LLP. "His audience laughed and clapped at his public confession. From a public relations perspective, [the confession] was a homerun."
But she adds that, from an employment-law perspective, many questions remain unanswered.
"Workplace consensual relations are not illegal and often are not a violation of company policy. But allegations of sexual harassment often arise from a consensual relationship gone south," she says. "If a senior executive makes it his practice to have sex with subordinate employees, exposure to the employer for claims of sexual harassment is not only possible, but likely. Employees may claim that when the top dog wanted sex, there was no answer that would have kept them in good stead except 'Yes.' "
It has been reported that Letterman, technically an employee of his production company Worldwide Pants and not the CBS network that airs his nightly talk show, violated no company policies through his actions, and no one has yet to file a sexual harassment claim against him. And he also has said that the affairs took place before he was married earlier this year.
Part of the problem with such inter-office romances relates to the people not involved in the relationship in question who may feel slighted or out of the loop when it comes time for promotions and choice work assignments, and may feel a sense of resentment towards the co-worker(s) involved in the after-hours camaraderie.
Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Northampton, Mass.-based Human Resource Solutions, advises that anyone engaged in a romantic relationship with their work superior should immediately disclose it to their HR department.
"They need to come forward, and one of those two people needs to be moved so they're not in a direct line of authority, so that there isn't even the appearance that someone is getting preferential treatment."
At the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, where the show is taped, Matuson thinks "there may very well be a hostile work environment, where people are given preferential treatment that others don't get. After all, how many other assistants [got to be] on television?" (Matuson is referring to the fact that one of Letterman's assistants who had been romantically linked to him, Stephanie Birkitt, had appeared in a number of skits on the show.)
When it comes to investigating whether a hostile work environment does exist, HR leaders have to be willing to stick their necks out, Matuson says.
As a former HR director herself, Matuson has investigated her share of sexual harassment claims.
"It's a serious matter, and as uncomfortable as we are as HR professionals, it's something we have to do. I remember the first one I had to investigate. I just kept thinking: 'What am I doing here? I don't want to know these details,' " she says.
"It could be your boss [you end up investigating], and you have to remember why you're in that HR position in the first place: Is it to keep your job, or to protect the employees and create a workplace where people can thrive?"
To limit sexual-harassment exposure at their own organizations, Begley says, many HR departments "have policies that prevent employees from having even consensual relationships with employees who report to them."
Others have anti-fraternization policies in place which restrict all workplace sexual relationships, she says.
Andria Lure Ryan, a partner in the national labor and employment law firm of Fisher & Phillips, says it is incumbent upon HR executives to ensure that managers and supervisors are not abusing their power to coerce employees into unwanted sexual relationships.
"Train all employees that, if they feel unwanted pressure, they can go to their human resource department or other managers for help," she says. "And be on the look out for any signs of behavior that may violate company policies prohibiting harassment."
In all likelihood, Letterman would have preferred to keep his romantic past out of the public spotlight, but his show's ratings have risen considerably since the story broke. And while that's good news for him, it's not the favorable outcome that most organizations would face in the wake of such revelations.
So, regardless of how it's ultimately handled, at the end of the work day, when office affairs usually bloom, the experts agree that companies can't get caught flat-footed.
"It's just bad business to permit unregulated sexual relations between superiors and subordinates," concludes Begley.
October 12, 2009
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