Late Show shenanigans

Posted Oct. 07, 2009, at 6 p.m.

Those who pay attention to such things say David Letterman’s version of the late-night talk show revolutionized the institution. His original “Late Night” on NBC has been described as the anti-talk show. His three-joke, knowingly underwhelming monologue, intentionally deflating interaction with celebrities and pre-taped out-of-the-studio bits reinvented the medium.

The revelation last week that Mr. Letterman was having sex with women who worked on his show recalls an earlier, sleazier show biz world, where the “casting couch” was real, not a Hollywood cliché. Dave as the “Aw, shucks” Indiana hayseed in the big city, charming actresses with self-deprecating humor, now seems like pure affectation. Especially jarring is that he made hay with jokes about elected officials’ liaisons with interns, congressional pages, bathroom stall neighbors, prostitutes and Argentine newscasters. Now, the joke is on the comic.

If Americans were introduced to workplace sexual misconduct through the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings in 1991, they learned the nuances of it through President Bill Clinton’s dalliances with intern Monica Lewinsky, revealed in 1998. The intern was 22 when the affair began; Mr. Clinton was 49. And he held arguably the most powerful job in the world.

Power is the central element in workplace sexual harassment, human resources professionals say. If the sexual relationships with Mr. Letterman were consensual, and if there was no promise of promotion or pay increases based on sexual acquiescence, an area business human resources director said, then there is no case of sexual harassment.

But businesses are wise to have carefully crafted policies about such relationships, even if they are consensual, because they are rife with pitfalls. Mr. Letterman’s World Wide Pants Inc. production company likely had such policies. Ignoring those policies put businesses in peril, because when the relationships end and the employee is passed over for promotion or a raise, he or she can claim discrimination.

Some businesses ban dating between employees altogether; others require employees to disclose relationships. Still others discourage such relationships, and reserve the right to transfer an employee out of a department as needed.

Yet another element to the Letterman affair is that he has been in a serious relationship with a woman for 23 years — his wife since March — with whom he fathered a son six years ago. Though marital infidelity is nothing new, that it took place in an office environment apparently without measures being taken by managers to stop it is disturbing.

Human resources officers say sexual harassment charges in the workplace in which someone pressures an employee for relations have declined over the last 10 years, perhaps the result of more training and clearly stated policies.

It is difficult to judge whether the women with whom Mr. Letterman had sex are victims, shameless opportunists or merely willing romantic partners. The sexual shenanigans at World Wide Pants, where a name change is in order, are probably seen in other workplaces, which suggests that we either have reached an understanding about such matters, or we have a long way to go.

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