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.
October 6, 2009 2:48 PM | | Comments (5)


Guilty as charged: I am, to some degree, stirring up gossip. But I seriously doubt I could get anyone to go on the record about this particular artistic director, and what's important isn't what he did to me but what he's doing and done to his staff and his theater.

And, as I said, he's not the only one — in the arts and in other fields, too. (I've certainly worked with editors who were sexually harassing their staffers, male and female.)

It may be a convenient rationalization on my part, but there is, I think, some additional resonance that comes from not naming the individual I'm talking about. I've been a journalist for nearly 20 years; I've written about a lot of people. If this guy's behavior sounds familiar to a board, maybe he's their guy, and maybe he's not — but in any case they ought to make sure they're protecting their organization and its employees.

Excellent post. But aren't you kind of stirring up gossip, too? I mean, if the board won't deal with it, and if this did happen to you, why not write an expose? Isn't it true that as long as people who engage in this behavior aren't being outed, if you'll pardon the expression, the longer they'll continue to indulge in it?

Leonard Jacobs
Editor, The Clyde Fitch Report

I think this post is right on. Boards want a leader with charisma and power, but when that charisma and power are used for sexual harassment, it can cast a long shadow over an arts organization. I worked in an organization that dealt with a long harassment scandal, which played out in the news long after the former director had been fired. It undermined the community's trust in a wonderful organization, the board's trust in any subsequent director, and the staff's trust in the board. One onlooker observed that the rest of the staff had some of the same symptoms as domestic abuse survivors. After that experience, I will never again underestimate the devastating effect of sexual scandal.

Hooray, hooray! Plain talk about a pervasive problem...
As an arts executive and consultant for 35 years, the sexual harrassment issue is the "dirty little secret" of the arts world. It's not just bosses and their subordinates: its performer with performer, gallerist with artist, staff with board members, etc. The "We're A Family In the Arts" myth covers many sins.

The nfp arts industry doesn't get a free ride
becuz they hire creatives and/or don't pay out dividends. In the end, such inappropriate behavior places the organization at serious legal and financial risk. Speaking up against immoral behavior in the arts is one of the most vital ways we have to preserve artistic integrity.

I like that you assume that the board doesn't know better. To say that the board just goes with it because they don't understand us "creative types." There is nothing creative about sexual scandal.

Also remember, as we have learned with the joys of the Sarbanes Oxley Act, putting in place sexual harassment procedures as well as having a human resource manager to protect the rights of all employees is going to be insanely costly. Not the cost won't be good, but poor organizations that already of a morally strict workplace will be forced to pay for human resource staff.

I'd be careful what you say and publish on the internet that may cause more harm than good.


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