A friend and I were discussing the recent media controversy regarding late night talk show host David Letterman’s confessions to affairs with his staff members and she asked me what I thought about him announcing it on his show. From a Human Resources perspective, would I have advised him to do so or to take another approach?
The question is actually a legitmate one and more than cocktail party conversation. After all, executives and upper management are the celebrities of an organization. The same is true for your hot shot sales team and the front desk receptionist known to every employee, customer and vendor that walks in the door. While we can only hope that any indiscretions they suffer will never be picked up by TMZ or the Associated Press, you can guarantee the gossip grapevine will be running wild throughout your organization as soon as the first person finds out.
So, would I have supported the Letterman approach had he asked me? Actually, no. I thought it was awkward and uncomfortable and I kept waiting for the punch line that never came. To me, it was too personal of a revelation – I may watch the show but I really don’t know him well enough to know that much about him.
I understand the argument that he needed to come forward to protect his reputation. But, really? The reputation was shot either way and it is debatable if his audience really even cared. Then there is the argument that the best defense is a good offense. This is true – sometimes. Bear in mind in this case however, that he was not being sued for or accused of sexual harassment. He did not have to defend himself against any employee accusations, true or false. The relationships with his employees were consensual – the only person he had to defend himself against was his wife. It probably should have stayed that way.
The second matter was the extortion case, in which he was actually the victim. Even though he did a bad thing, he did not commit a crime and did not have to defend himself against a crime. Law enforcement had already apprehended the extortionist and, in fact, the revelation of the extortion plot was already national news ahead of the show airing.
In another alleged extortion scandal surrounding a local and national public figure, UofL men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino was similarly forced to acknowledge an affair. I have to admit that I think Pitino handled the situation in a better way. Rather than running to the media to get his side of the story out first in an attempt to gain sympathy, he responded only when the media attention toward him and his family became intrusive. His response was brief and to the point, provided facts of what occurred, addressed allegations of things he said did not occur, and then told the media that this was a private matter that should have stayed that way.
So what have we learned from this that we can apply to our organizations? First, let’s not fish from the company dock. Many companies have policies in place that prohibit relationships among employees or between staff and management or, at least, require disclosure of relationships to HR to prevent future claims of sexual harassement. In today’s world of unrestrained litigation, Letterman’s lucky that none of these relationships have come back to haunt him with a lawsuit – yet. Of course, even with policies in place, there’s no guarantee that employees will follow them, but every bit of added protection helps.
Now, let’s move forward to keeping private things private. If there is a personal issue involving a company executive that is about to break in the media, then, yes, you may wish to pre-empt the media frenzy by letting your employees hear it first directly from the individual in their heartfelt version of what really happened. But if it is not going to be featured on the morning news show, let’s remember that discretion is the better part of valor. There is no need to tell everyone everything. Some things should be kept private because they are private.
The good news for Letterman is that our pop culture is so rife with scandal that we’ve already moved on to Mel’s new baby, Angelina’s new tat, or Lilo’s latest embarrassment. The bad news is that if this happens in your business, the story will likely stick around for a very long time, so consider your spin wisely, and don’t let your damage control do more damage.
Submitted by: Paula Agee, SPHR; Senior Human Resources Consultant, IntegrityHR, Inc.