Here we are once again confronted with yet another public figure who postures one way and acts another. Thursday night, after becoming the target of an extortion plot, David Letterman confessed, "Sure enough, contained in the package was stuff to prove that I do terrible things."
In a glib tone, Letterman acknowledged that his affairs with women in the office were "creepy." "Creepy," you bet. What's creepy is his willingness to abuse his power over the women who spend long hours engaged in efforts to please him, to laugh at his jokes, to help him be as effective as he can be. Underlings, regardless of how competent and accomplished they may be in their own right, often look up to, admire, and at times even adore their boss -- especially if that boss flirts with them and makes them feel special.
Yes, people are magnets for feeling desired and adored. When faced with attention by someone we deem impressive and powerful, our egos go pitter patter with excitement and our brains get flooded with chemicals, often compromising our rational thinking.
The particular woman mentioned in documents sent to Letterman is his longtime personal assistant, Stephanie Birkitt. Reports say that their sexual relationship ended before Letterman was married in March. The accused perpetrator, Robert Joel Halderman, a producer for the CBS News program "48 Hours Mystery," is said to have lived with Ms. Birkitt and recently moved out of the home they shared.
As a former mentor of mine once shared from his male perspective, "When we feel as though we've fallen in love, our IQ goes down 50 points and we no longer have access to rational thought." In his later years, he struggled with his own sense of power and the abuse of it as well. Open with his shame for transgressing upon innocent others, he talked frankly with me and others in his attempt to manage his guilt and heal his suffering.
Both Letterman and his staff members acted on decisions that had great risk attached - risk of job loss, risk of public judgment and risk of reputation. Much as my mentor knew all too well, people are capable of convincing themselves that abusing their power over another is permissible and not really a big deal. It's allowed because of how great it makes them feel; because above all else, it's their narcissism that prevails. It's what's in it for them...with an assumption that the other person will fend for herself when the time comes for the liaison to end.
This "confession" needs to be framed in terms of "power over compared to power under" another person. This isn't simply a case of philandering. It's a case of refusing to set boundaries on how a "boss" treats his "staff members." It's a case of using ones leverage of position and power to call the shots.
Ilene Wasserman, a consultant to organizations on issues of gender and diversity, says that to constitute something as sexual harassment does not require that we only look at a situation from the eyes of the beholder. "Third party sexual harassment" is an official term used for describing those situations when preferential treatment is given to a particular employee who is sleeping with another employee. Ilene explains that "in cases where two people in the workplace become sexually involved, both parties need to change their status within the organization in order to mitigate even the perception that there might be preferential or biased treatment.
Let's not just turn a blind eye to this situation simply because we appreciate David Letterman's humor and want to continue to be entertained by him. Internal investigation needs to happen in order to determine if his conduct does or does not qualify as sexual harassment. Wherever the legal decision falls out, let's use this as an opportunity to teach our children and our peers that they know there really are ways that seemingly likeable people (people we look up to and admire) take advantage of their position and act on their own greed.