Ethics Center: Reputation Management

Sex Kills! The Reputation Lessons of Robert Filner, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and . . . .

Sexual harassment (noun): Uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority towards a subordinate (such as an employee or student). – Merriam Webster dictionary.

Most people know what sexual harassment is. They know that behaving in a sexual manner toward someone they work with—typically someone who doesn’t want that attention—is unethical and illegal. And responsible business owners, managers, and even politicians know it’s wrong to make suggestive comments to their employees, peers, and supporters, let alone touch them inappropriately.

So why do politicians like former San Diego Mayor Robert Filner, former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer brazenly flout the law and cultural norms with their behavior? Tough question, but we suspect it has something to do with the nexus of power, money, ambition, and the special entitlements that high-profile people expect and receive.

However, the good news is that such politicians typically pay the price, either in terms of losing their jobs and/or killing their reputations. Both Weiner and Spitzer claim they learned their lessons and are attempting political comebacks (a questionable prospect in Weiner’s case). Filner will depart the mayor’s office in a couple of days.  However, we suspect he may never draw the right conclusions from the scandal that tore his beloved San Diego apart.

During Filner’s emotional resignation speech, he talked as much about lynch mobs and political coups as he did about his own personal failings. And he never admitted responsibility for allegedly harassing some 20 women, including his former communications director, former deputy campaign manager, a retired Navy officer, a dean of San Diego State University, a school psychologist, and a vocational nurse. And he certainly never admitted to personal touching, headlocks, choking, stopping women from leaving his office, using sexual favors as bargaining chips with visiting lobbyists, and even hitting up on women at an event for military personnel who’d been sexually abused.

Instead, he chalked up his demise to “awkwardness and hubris.”

So if Filner and Weiner (who continued to engage in sexting after resigning his Congressional post) can’t or won't learn from their mistakes, perhaps you can. What are the reputation lessons to be drawn from politicians who cross the line?

  • First, don’t try to date a subordinate. And approach lateral colleagues with great sensitivity (if at all). Too much can go wrong when personal relationships in the workplace go sour. It’s best to avoid such entanglements if possible.

  • Second, understand that everyone is entitled to their “personal space.” Even innocent and casual touching can be misinterpreted. And when someone like Bob Filner, a mayor of a major American city, approaches women from behind, puts them in headlocks, and touches them suggestively, get ready for a reputation disaster.

  • Third, don’t take advantage of people who approach you for help. When a licensed vocational nurse asked for assistance in getting veteran’s benefits for her friend, Filner agreed to only if the nurse joined him for dinner. Please don’t treat people who approach you in good faith in such a self-serving and sexually inappropriate manner.

  • Fourth, when your reprehensible behavior comes out (and it will), take responsibility for it. Politicians typically don’t get booted out of office due to lynch mobs or political coup plotters. They lose their positions because they screwed up, plain and simple. Blaming others only makes a bad situation worse.

  • Fifth, if you do make a mistake and get caught, don’t be ungrateful when authorities try to help you. In Filner’s news conference, he never thanked the city of San Diego for agreeing to cover up to $98,000 in legal expenses from his initial sexual harassment lawsuit. Not only that, he blasted the city for forcing him to resign before getting that assistance.

  • Sixth and finally, whatever you do, avoid a sexual harassment scandal—well, any scandal —at all costs. It just takes one lawsuit or one negative Internet post for your reputation to be tarnished forever.

In short, whatever your business or professional capacity, know what sexual harassment is and don’t do it. And in the event you succumb to temptation and get caught, own up to your behavior, apologize, and be grateful when you catch a break from authorities.

Bob Filner’s (and Anthony Weiner’s and Eliot Spitzer’s) stories are tragic. But it’s still unclear whether they have or will ever learn the right lessons from them. But if you want to succeed as a business professional or small-business owner, you can learn those lessons—and you must. Your continued good name—and the success of your business—depends on it! 

For more information on managing your business reputation, check out the reputation articles in our Ethics Center.