Wednesday, August 14, 2013

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner: Bad Behavior

Perhaps you've heard about San Diego Democratic Mayor Bob Filner, who by all accounts makes people like Herman Cain, Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford, Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood look like gentlemen greatly concerned with women's dignity. He is currently being sued for sexual harassment by his former communications secretary. And I wouldn't be surprised if other lawsuits are upcoming. The man appears to have been a sleazebag. Filner's behavior towards women allegedly ran the gamut from simple pickup attempts or investigations of interest through unambiguous textbook sexual harassment to what could conceivably be called attempted sexual assault. Or as one woman ruefully told me it could just be another day at the office. There is a joke by Chris Rock in which he claims that "Sexual harassment is when an ugly man tries to get some". I can't really call it but Filner doesn't quite appear to be an Adonis. 

Some of the claims against Filner would seem to suggest that the man had been watching too many Benny Hill skits. I'm a HUGE Benny Hill fan but somehow I manage not to use a comedian's fictitious behavior as a guide book for interacting with women in the workplace. In the first place that would be wrong and in the second place I really really really need my job. I'm not getting fired for doing some dumb stuff like Filner allegedly did. I mean how do you explain that to friends and family. It's one thing to get fired because you stood up against some racist stuff going down or because you blew the whistle on some shady finances or illegal dumping. I would be proud of that. It's something else again to get fired because you grabbed somebody's butt. How do you explain THAT on a resume? All kidding aside, other claims indicate that Filner had been crossing some very clear redlines around sexual harassment or worse. Since men are traditionally the initiators, unless a man takes a chance and makes his intentions clear, things might not happen. The challenge is that different women have different ideas about which men they consider attractive, when and where it's appropriate to field offers of interest, and of course how direct or bold such offers should be. A woman may think that one man's crude approach is refreshingly direct, masculine and flattering and think that the exact same approach from a different man is creepy, degrading and actionable harassment. It all depends. You just don't know until you try. David Letterman evidently knew how to be smooth. Filner did not. 

However in today's legal and cultural environment it's usually, especially for men, a good idea to avoid making the workplace your happy hunting grounds. I've seen it work for some people but I've also seen others make a big mess. And more importantly than that it's CRITICAL not to hit on people that work for you. That's virtually the definition of sexual harassment. It's a big freaking no-no. Trying to make sex some sort of quid pro quo arrangement is also wrong. Filner doesn't seem to realize that. And obviously putting your hands on people is also just not done. Does it rise to assault? I don't know. The lawyers can answer that. But there are just some basic obvious things that anyone should know. Unless you have some sort of explicit invitation keep your hands to yourself. It is known. How difficult is this? If the women Filner harassed had punched or slapped him or their husbands, boyfriends or other male relatives had gone looking for him with bad intentions, I would think he got what he deserved. But aside from the obvious assault-like nature of some of the allegations, to give the devil his due, other allegations are simply a man trying (ineptly and crudely) to make a move. Headlocks and forceful kisses or grabbing someone's behind = unethical, immoral and illegal. Asking someone who doesn't work for you if she has a man or telling her that you think she's attractive and asking her out to dinner = normal life.
Her job was to escort Filner from table to table during the dinner. At one point, Fink said, an attendee singled her out for praise saying, "this girl has worked her a$$ off for you." At that, Fink said, Filner told her to turn around.
"As a staffer, I know it sounds silly to say that you just do it, but you just do it," Fink said. Once she'd turned, Fink said, Filner "took his hands, patted my posterior, laughed, and said: 'No, it's still there!'" For a moment, Fink said, she was in shock, "and it certainly gave the people at the table pause.
Read this account of thirteen different women retelling their experiences with Filner. Let everyone know what you think.

Was all of this sexual harassment?
Should Filner have been arrested/voted out of office a loooooong time ago?
Should Filner be recalled?
If you worked with someone like Filner (as a peer, subordinate, or boss) how would you handle him?
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