Monday, October 5, 2009

Daylight Lessons From Letterman's Late-Night Escapades

I don’t know David Letterman or any of the staffers he had sex with.

I believe fidelity is the business of only one person, the philanderer’s partner.

Extortionists aren’t whistle-blowers—they’re criminals, and should be put away.

But whenever I hear the justification, “I didn’t violate company policy and no one complained,” my hackles jump up.

Let’s talk about why it’s bad business for the boss to sleep with subordinates.

The key part of consent is that the right to say “yes” is balanced by the right to say “no.” When the person doing the asking is the boss, declining becomes dicey.

Even if there’s no threat or demand involved, how do you know there won’t be repercussions for refusing to go along?

If there’s a problem, whom do you tell? Especially when company policy is silent on the matter, how do you know anyone will listen? Who isn’t beholden to the boss for their job?

Suppose later you need a reference from that person. What assurance do you have that your refusal to play around won’t lead to a negative comment, or a deadly neutral one: “Yes, she worked here.”

The problem is exacerbated when the boss is well-known. Maybe an assistant really digs the head honcho. She might take the initiative to get something going or be flattered that he has shown interest in her.

But the bloom can fall off that rose. What happens tomorrow or next week when she decides she’s changed her mind? Or he starts looking at the next or younger intern and wants to move on and move her out?

And what about the rest of the staff who aren’t sleeping with the boss? If someone who’s known to have done so (and sooner or later, everyone will know) goes on to be promoted, the perception will be that sex was the reason—even if that person is the smartest, most talented person onboard.

The result isn’t hard to predict: resentment, lower morale, conflict, and when opportunities arise, people jumping ship.

Sexual favoritism is a form of sexual harassment. Those who aren’t in a romantic relationship may well feel disadvantaged by that fact. The company opens itself to legal liability.

CBS says Letterman wasn’t their employee. But companies have an affirmative duty to protect workers from third party harassment—especially in cases like this when the third party holds so much power at the workplace.

My concern is that corporate execs will learn the wrong lessons from this case.

They’ll review the company sexual harassment policy to make sure it’s silent on supervisors sleeping around unless there’s egregious retaliation. They’ll remind themselves to call the bluff of anyone who threatens to reveal misdeeds.

And there’ll be a huge run on personal recording devices.

So this is an appeal to human resource professionals and boards of directors to draw the right conclusions from the Letterman experience.

First, make sure there is a written sexual harassment policy and that all employees, senior management included, are trained about that policy and their rights and responsibilities under it. Make sure the policy spells out clearly that senior managers (no matter who signs their paycheck) may not have romantic entanglements with any subordinate. If he or she does, the relationship must be disclosed immediately so management can see whether there’s a disinterested outside party who can take over supervision of the lower level individual. If not, the relationship should end or one of the individuals should leave.

Second, firms—including media outlets—should have an arrangement with an independent, outside counsel with no ties to the organization. That counsel’s number should be made available to all employees with instructions to call with impunity in the event that a top-level staff behaves inappropriately, whether to them or someone else. Employees should be assured that such a call will be held in strictest confidence until the matter can be properly—and promptly—investigated.

As for Letterman and anyone else in his position, here’s some advice: If nightly adoration and huge paychecks aren’t enough for you, try sweat yoga or cold showers.

Ask yourself if you were just Joe Schmo and not in a position of power, would this woman be interested in you?

Above all, ask yourself: if the staffer were my daughter, how would I want her boss to behave?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day Realities for U.S. Women

If you listen to the mainstream media, women today have it made! While men have been suffering a “mancession,” women have been taking over as breadwinners. Soon they’ll outnumber men in the workplace – even at the nightly news anchor desks!

You can just hear the experts erasing that pesky gender problem from their lists.

Too bad pesky reality keeps getting in the way.

Consider these tidbits:

Yes, more men than women have been laid off in this recession. But single mothers face an unemployment rate twice as high as married men (

The jobs women dominate tend to be low-wage and lacking in benefits.

Women overall may have experienced fewer job cuts, but they’re disproportionately affected by cuts in hours.

Women working full-time, year-round still bring home only 78 percent of what men earn.

Oh, and those top jobs? Women are a whopping 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 6 percent of top earners, 17 percent of Congress. Women of color barely show up in these lists.

As for the media, women hold only 3 percent of the “clout” jobs ( White men in that field are paid 29 percent more than white women and 46 percent more than women of color.

Yes, women aim for full equality, but not by virtue of lost jobs or pay among men -- most of whom, after all, have wives or daughters who are affected by those losses.

As the protagonist in the movie “Salt of the Earth” put it nearly six decades ago, “Women want to rise up, and bring everyone up with us.”

Friday, August 14, 2009

Honoring Evelyn Coke

For more than three decades, Evelyn Coke took care of elderly and disabled patients at homes throughout New York City. She got folks in and out of chairs and tubs, kept them fed and clean and comfortable. She made sure they had their medications. For many she was a lifeline to the outside world.

Yet because she did for a living what women do for free in the home, Evelyn Coke’s work was always under-valued. For 40 hours of work every week, she was poorly paid. And for the many hours she worked beyond that, she wasn’t paid at all. No laws were violated in the process.

Coke, a Jamaican immigrant and mother of five, was one of more than a million home care workers excluded from protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Seventy years ago, when the legislation was passed, Congress agreed to omit agricultural, domestic and personal care workers. They were, then as now, predominantly female and people of color.

In 1974, Congress amended the law to include some of those workers. But it explicitly kept out those it designated as babysitters and “companions.”

Evelyn Coke reminds me of Mildred, the domestic worker protagonist in Alice Childress’s “Like One of the Family.” Like Mildred, Evelyn clearly valued her work and thought the world couldn’t function without it. She just wanted to be treated fairly – decent wages, a workplace that was clean and safe, time for rest and enjoyment.

So Evelyn decided to sue the home care agency for the overtime she’d been denied. Later the Service Employees International Union represented her. The issue was simple justice.

Her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the issue there was not justice but power: Did the Department of Labor have the authority to decide whether to cover home care workers? All nine justices agreed they did.

Unlike Lilly Ledbetter’s case, this one did not rally most women’s groups. The bill named after her did not garner huge attention in Congress or the media. Evelyn Coke did not campaign at the side of Barack Obama; by then she was in a wheelchair as the result of a car accident. And she will not be able to celebrate a victory that may come with this new administration. She died in early August. According to her son, a serious bedsore – the kind her skills had treated for so many others -- hastened her death.

Evelyn Coke made a difference in the lives of many patients. And her courageous stand will make a difference for all caregivers. In June Sen. Tom Harkin, who introduced a bill in 2007 to reverse the DOL’s rules, sent a letter signed by 14 other senators and 37 Congressional reps asking Secretary Hilda Solis to end the labor law’s exclusion of home care workers.

"Home care, increasingly, has become not casual work performed by a friend or family member but a full-time regular type of employment," they wrote. "It is critical that these professional workers, who provide essential services to our nation's elderly and disabled, have the same right to minimum wage and overtime pay as enjoyed by other workers... [A]s our population ages, the demand will only increase. Yet, there is already a shortage of qualified home care workers and there is a high turnover in the field."

I met Secretary Solis several months ago and we talked about Evelyn Coke. “That’s just the kind of worker I want the Department of Labor to speak for,” she told me. In response to the Harkin letter, she has said that she intends to “fulfill the department’s mandate to protect America’s workers, including home health care aides, who work demanding schedules and receive low wages.”

Opponents argue that fulfilling that mandate would cost too much. The agency that employed Evelyn Coke said paying workers overtime would cause “tremendous and unsustainable losses.” New York City authorities filed a friend-of-the court brief, arguing worker protections would force more people into institutions, and would increase Medicaid costs by $250 million a year.

Justice for the Evelyn Cokes of this world will have a price tag. But the cost of injustice – poverty for full-time caregivers in one of the fastest growing fields of employment, the impact of high turnover on patient care -- is much higher.

For now, this household aide needs to become a household name. Let us honor Evelyn Coke posthumously as she should have been honored every day in her work.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Learning from Lilly Ledbetter

I asked a college class how many had heard of Joe the Plumber. Everyone raised their hands. Lilly Ledbetter? Not one hand went up.

In December I had the honor of sitting next to Lilly Ledbetter, plaintiff in a high-profile pay discrimination suit. We were both on a panel on fair pay the next morning at Hunter College. Here’s what I learned:
• She’s a person of strong faith, including faith in justice.
• Her husband grappled with four bouts of cancer (he has since passed away). He had to miss oral arguments in the Supreme Court because of radiation treatment.
• Lilly doesn’t mind saying that she’s 70 years old, that she was never in this for the money, that she thinks Rep. George Miller, a sponsor of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, is Hollywood handsome.
• She understands that unequal pay hurts not just women and people of color, but families and communities.
• She’s button-bursting proud of her four grandchildren and two children, especially her daughter who’s in HR at Blue Cross/Blue Shield and focuses only on positives when doing performance evaluations.
• For 19 years, Lilly Ledbetter got excellent evaluations managing a line on the night shift at Goodyear Tire Company in Birmingham, Alabama. She has no idea who slipped her a note informing her that for 17 of those years, she was paid much less than the other managers who were male (15-20% less than most, 40% less than some). There were two likely informants, men who’d mentored her, but one was in Texas and the other was dead. After Lilly got over the humiliation – “like you’ve fallen in a crowded room and you look to see who noticed,” she said – she decided she had to fight, even though she knew it would take years. Her motive was simple: As a government contractor, Goodyear knew the law. She wanted them to obey it.
• Just as she’d hoped, other women and an African-American man at Goodyear have received substantial raises because of her action. Recently forty executives from big name companies got on the phone with Lilly to ask her advice on ensuring fair pay in their companies.
• She loves talking to groups, especially young women, and hopes someone in Hollywood makes a film about her so others can learn from her story. (Some have suggested Glenn Close or Meryl Streep for the role. I told Lilly I’d like to see Sissy Spacek -- she’s got that southern accent and quiet grit.)

Other facts I already knew. Lilly had gone to the EEOC, who said hers was one of the worse cases they’d ever seen. She found a great lawyer and got support from women’s groups. The company appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where five of nine justices (surely they’ve lost the right to that name) decided that victims of discrimination must file a charge within 180 days of the first instance of discriminatory pay -- never mind that the company had prohibited employees from discussing salaries. I knew that members of Congress immediately introduced legislation to fix this. George Bush threatened to veto the measure, which was passed in the House, held up in the Senate. John McCain said he opposed it as a boondoggle for lawyers; Barack Obama said he’d be proud to make it one of the first bills he signs – and now he’s done just that.

Here’s what else I know: Passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act is a grand win, but only one small step toward fair pay. The EEOC will need adequate funding to enforce existing equal pay laws. And these laws address only part of the problem: treating women differently when they perform the same jobs as men. Most women and men don’t do the same jobs – and women’s jobs pay less just because women do them.

We need to revalue women’s work, remove the legacy of discrimination embedded in the market rate of those jobs. We need to end the motherhood penalty, so that no one is discriminated against because of caregiving responsibilities. Only when we have new rules that value families at work – policies like paid sick days and affordable family leave accessible to all – will we establish a framework for women to reach equity in employment, and men to reach equity in the home.

Thanks to Lilly Ledbetter and other women like her who found their voice and inspire the nation, we’re a lot closer to moving that agenda. We’ll know we’ve made it when the media pay as much attention to Lilly as they did to Joe the plumber.