Ethics Dunce: Tavis Smiley (Tavis, Please Pay Attention: The Workplace Isn’t Your Dating Bar)

“I’ll consent to your annual raise, if you’ll consent to going out with me…deal?”

(Now this is why companies and organizations that want to avoid sexual harassment problems need effective training sessions, ideally run by me.)

Tavis Smiley, the PBS talk show host suspended from the network and currently in the process of being erased from the culture due to allegations of sexual harassment, was asked by Tucker Carlson on the latter’s Fox News show about the propriety of a supervisor having sexual relationships with subordinates in the workplace. Smiley responded with this jaw dropper:

I certainly understand that there are persons who believe that there is no such thing as a consensual relationship in the workplace. I hear that. I can respect that point of view. But there are other opinions on this. In my employee handbook we do not encourage interoffice relationships but we don’t forbid it either because I don’t know how things are going to turn out in your life and you start hanging out with our company. I don’t know who you’re going to meet. And let’s face it, nobody’s working 40-hour weeks anymore. We are working 40-, 50-, 70-, 80-hour weeks. Where else are you going to meet people in this business?

His answer was self-indicting, deceitful, ignorant, stupid, and redolent of rationalizations.

Carlson didn’t ask about “consensual relationships in the workplace.” He asked about whether relationships between women and the men who have the power to fire them, promote them, give them raises or make their working lives a living hell are appropriate. The answer is no. Of course no. Nor can they possibly be called consensual. Quite apart from that aspect, such relationships, even if they are initiated by the subordinate, constitute per se unethical management. They undermine morale. They undermine respect for and the authority of the manager. They create suspicion and distrust of the staffer. They create a hostile work environment for all the women in that workplace. destroy staffs and organizations. They are the organizational equivalents of incest. They are wrong. Always. This isn’t a new discovery either. It should be obvious.

“Where else are you going to meet people in this business?” Well gee, Tavis, it sounds like you have a choice to make. You can earn your big money and pursue your profession and its goals, or you can use the workplace as a dating bar or your personal harem. You can’t do both. Sorry. You have to avoid the temptation of hitting on those who report to you, and if they hit on you, you have to be sufficiently mature and professional to tell them that as their superior, you don’t have relationships with staff. Many, many leaders and managers muster the character and self-control to do this. (The technical term for them is “ethical.” Look it up.)  If you can’t follow their model, I suggest that you work at home.

For the record, here, from the Ethics Alarms list, are the rationalizations…all 20 of them… your juvenile question evokes:

1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it”
1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it.”
4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”
5. The Compliance Dodge.
10. The Unethical Tree in the Forest, or “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What will we do without him/her?”
11.(a) “I deserve this
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
14. Self-validating Virtue
15. The Futility Illusion: “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”
21. Ethics Accounting (“I’ve earned this”/ “I made up for that”)
25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!”
28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!
41. The Evasive Tautology, or “It is what it is.”
45. The Abuser’s License: “It’s Complicated”
47. Contrived Consent, or “The Rapist’s Defense.”
50A. Narcissist Ethics , or “I don’t care”
52. The Hippie’s License, or “If it feels good, do it!” (“It’s natural”)
58. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”

Read them, study them, internalize them, and perhaps then you will be trustworthy as a supervisor, manager or leader because you will finally have functioning workplace ethics alarms.  Right now, you clearly aren’t, and don’t.

In the alternative, you could grow up.


19 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Tavis Smiley (Tavis, Please Pay Attention: The Workplace Isn’t Your Dating Bar)

  1. Thoughts on someone like Charlie Wilson, who deliberately hired hot secretaries because “you can teach ’em to type, but you can’t teach ’em to grow tits.” ?

    • He can think whatever he likes, or say things like that to friends and associates. If the attitude infects the workplace, however—and how can it not?— he’s at risk of crossing the line.

  2. Can’t agree more than 20%. In the world I know best (big organisations with highly marketable and intelligent staff) such stern absolutist pronouncements wouldn’t be useful. If you were to come our way Jack I’d want a facilitated discussion, and I’d fear you delivering an angry lecture. Perhaps the key difference is that in our world there isn’t much ‘power’ to abuse. ‘Management’ is a constant challenge to keep staff happy and positively directed. They have plenty of options to work elsewhere. And being that they are adults then most of the time they are best left organising themselves. We don’t own them. Of course the potential misuse of power is a big issue. And from time to time one must weed out sociopaths, and reorganise to address potentially toxic relationships. Leading by example and avoiding hypocricy are also crucial. I wonder how you deal with what must be more than a handful of your male clients who have married their secretaries / assistants, the doctors who have married nurses, and the professors who have married junior lecturers?

    • How? They were lucky. They violated basic management ethics, and it worked out. It still harmed the organization. It is an absolute: you don’t shit where you eat, and you don’t hit on your staff. You establish a clear policy forbidding a manager getting involved with subordinates, and fire every one who does.

      It’s not a dating bar. Period, No exceptions.

      You did nothing but list rationalizations. Yes, it’s an absolute.

      • Impractical in Australia and UK and I’m surprised if such a stance would stand up in the US. Sounds like great business for employment lawyers. You can spend a lot of time and money fighting against ‘wrongful’ and ‘unfair dismissal’ claims. And the publicity is almost always awful. Taking such a stern stance – which would have to be disclosed at the recruitment interview – would for many young professional staff (male and female) be seen as a major turn off.

        • Good. Then you don’t want them. In this country what I described is regarded as best practice, and it is. No, you don’t date your secretary, and you are an idiot if you try. If there’s a clear policy, in the handbook, there’s no legal defense at all.

        • Not only would it “stand up” in the US, its certainly within the range of standard employer policies and certainly no one would be shocked by such a policy. Most people in the US, at least in year 2017, do not seek employment with the hope of finding a mate there. You wouldn’t have to disclose that in an interview anymore than you’d have to disclose a policy prohibiting stealing someone’s lunch from the refrigerator in the kitchenette.

  3. Huh. I agree with just about every word of Tavis’ comment. As a lawyer who easily worked 80 hour weeks, I saw many consensual office relationships happen. And, the way law firms are designed, everybody has dozens of superiors (as a junior attorney, I technically had hundreds of bosses). People can be grown-ups and date in the workplace at the same time. In fact, there is a very bright line between harassment and dating. Typically, if a relationship gets serious, the more junior person (usually female) does leave to find another job to avoid malicious office gossip or the appearance of impropriety. But casual dating? I see no problem with it.

    • “Casual dating” has no useful meeting.

      And law firms have terrible sexual harassment and misconduct problems, as I find every time I am asked to do an ethics audit for one. I don’t know how you can keep endorsing this. A supervisor with multiple female subordinates who is sleeping with one of them? How does that NOT disrupt the reporting structure, perception of fairness, and workplace atmosphere?

      How often are these relationships open, and how often are they “secret”? Gee, if they are so harmless, why do the little lovebirds hide it as long as possible?

      If they are adults, then they should know that ethical adults don’t use the workplace like this. Lateral dating causes problems, but its nor unethical per se. Vertical dating is.

    • I don’t endorse dating in direct-report relationships. But, if an associate hits it off with a senior associate, counsel, or partner in another practice group, I don’t really see a problem with that.

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