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You, Too? CEOs are under the 'Me Too' microscope

Susan Estrich on

It's hard enough dealing with sexual misconduct by senior officials. But when the CEO is an alleged pig, much less one who is surrounded by like-minded figures, who do you complain to?

There is a very simple reason why (pick your favorite) got away with the worst kind of misconduct for decades and decades.

The reason is not -- is never -- that no one knew. When no one really knew, it was almost always because the allegations were of the sort of things (bad jokes, bad images, long hugs) men did for years without complaint, however uncomfortable they made women feel. It was not a federal case, we used to assure one another, as we arranged to travel in pairs with them -- until it was.

The stuff that is coming out from corner suites -- at least some of it -- is way uglier than that. And, as one of my friends put it, it was "pretty well known in the community," Hollywood being my reference point here.

The pattern is always the same. No one complained. If they did, they were ignored. Vulnerable women. Who would they complain to? The HR person who owes her job to Guess Who? The complaint system is a failure. The investigation system is designed to come up with nothing. It is precisely the power imbalance at the root of harassment that makes it so dangerous to take it on at the top.

This is one of those cases where it is very dangerous to take a shot and miss. It's enough to survive: Now we have to turn into hit women? Women have been coming to see me for three decades now to ask me if they should complain. There are so many risks. I know so many stories of courageous women who have seen their careers take terrible hits, while the guy takes an online course and goes to anger management. My new goal is to help them find safer ways to do it, both from the women's perspective and the company's.

It's always important to take preemptive steps that protect you if complaints come later, and make clear the company's "commitment." No one objects to that. It should be standard practice, because it will save you a great deal of money if you have to defend yourself later. I review company policies, train C-suite executives. (Appearances matter. Behavior changes count. The past can be redressed by true change, in most cases. I come up with sanctions short of execution to deal with the past. I try to fix things.)

But do you want me to find out if the CEO is paying off a secretary he's been sleeping with? If you are a member of a public board, you should. For that matter, smart CEOs might consider doing what most candidates do before they run: investigate themselves and decide how to deal with what they find. Don't plan on it going away.

 

There used to be an informal line, never sanctioned by the Securities and Exchange Commission but widely accepted in practice. If a CEO messed up "on his own time" with a company employee and then, say, cut a deal with his own lawyers and paid out of pocket, who needed to know, particularly if the company was doing well?

The sexual relationships of a CEO and his subordinates, including those who seek employment with him, pose direct threats, financial and reputational, to the company. Sexual consent, and what we mean by "force," is a different concept when the aggressor has almost economic power over the worker. Fiduciary duties may be raised. Questions of judgment should be raised. The commodification of sex is a route to the subjection of women, not equal power.

The most common reason for CEOs to be fired these days is unethical misconduct, which mostly involves sex in one form or another.

The days of "see no evil" at the top are over.

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To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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