What Letterman Can Teach Nonprofits
I'm not going to name names -- not of the artistic director, not of his theater. But a post on the Salon blog Broadsheet brought him to mind with this line: "Bosses who are hound-dogs taint the reputation of their women subordinates who don't sleep with them."
Broadsheet is talking about the David Letterman scandal, but the issue that quote raises applies to all bosses (male and female, gay and straight) and all workplaces. And although Letterman's production company is very much a for-profit enterprise, nonprofits would do well to take the talk-show host's forced confession as a wake-up call.
The artistic director I'm thinking of is well known (as is his theater), straight, married and given to hitting on any reasonably attractive woman in his vicinity who has less power than he has. Even in the touchy-feely world of theater, he does more pawing of the women on his staff -- especially, of course, the young ones -- than many of them find comfortable. The drain of female talent from his theater over the years has been striking and harmful. More striking is that apparently none of the women has sued him, or the theater, which does, after all, have an obligation to protect them in the workplace. (I am not optimistic that his board will stop his behavior anytime soon. When I covered him as a journalist, he once loudly announced a crush on me, then kissed me lingeringly on the lips right in front of one of his trustees, mere yards from where his wife stood unaware. I was frozen in horror. The board member didn't seem at all perturbed.)
The absence of employee lawsuits against that theater may or may not hold, but the current economic climate likely gives workplace predators like that artistic director -- and there are plenty of them -- even freer rein. What better time to prey on the staff than when they're fearing for their jobs?
Conversely, for boards, there's no better time to be vigilant, protecting the staff from unwelcome advances and protecting the institution from scandal, embarrassment, internal turmoil and the financial drain of legal payouts. Trustees need to ensure, too, even in this tough job market, that their institution can attract top talent: that good people aren't turning down positions there because of what they've heard about a boss with boundary problems.
Boards of arts organizations are often filled with people enamored of the notion of the artist and infatuated with the myth that bad behavior is inherently artistic behavior. The charisma that's so attractive in artistic leaders can also be used to charm trustees into overlooking sexual transgressions. Board types aren't always sure where the line is with creative types.
But there's nothing creatively healthy or normal about a hostile work environment in which subordinates, female or male, believe they have to submit to advances if they want to be successful. There is something, to use Letterman's term, creepy about that -- and, too, about a workplace in which superiors and subordinates are consensually involved, romantically or sexually. Whether the relationship ends well, badly or not at all, there's a perception of quid pro quo.
Which means the tainting of reputations for the talented and untalented alike. At an institution known for pervasive sexual harassment, staffers' rise through the ranks will be marred -- even if the boss never touched them, and especially if he did.