Celebrity Behavior & The Importance of Owning Perceptions

Here we go again. Matt Lauer joins a long and undistinguished list of celebrities, executives and athletes who’ve been forced to face the consequences of their negative behaviors. One of the women accused him of sexual assault. That’s unquestionably the worst of the accusations. I’ve covered why I think people get away with that type of behavior in the article below:

I’d like to, therefore discuss the lesser, but still fucked up, inappropriate behavior allegations against him and other members of the staff:

Jokes about women’s appearances …inappropriate comments about women over an audio feed with multiple people listening… playing a crude game in which they chose which female guests or staff members they would prefer to marry, kill or have sex with.
— https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/29/business/media/nbc-matt-lauer.html

I can’t help but wonder – how did he, or anyone else for that matter, think this was a good idea? As bad as it sounds the answer actually lies, at least in part, in my own experience as a manager.

I’ve been in management now for 14 years in various industries – in the military and private sector. I’ve had great working relationships with people I’ve managed, worked with and worked under. I’ve never harassed anyone or ever been accused of it. But I was, once, accused of favoritism. My boss and HR conducted an investigation. It was pretty exhaustive with interviews of other employees, my colleagues and the person who accused me. Needless to say it was very unpleasant and embarrassing. I felt bad that I put everyone through it, and upset that it happened – especially since I meant no such thing. In the end they determined there was no issue. They did, however, instruct me to be careful of perceptions that I create.

Britany (fake name, real person) was the last employee I hired on my team. By the time of her hire I had developed a great relationship with all of the other members (also women). When Britany started, she was somewhat the outsider. She and I maintained a good professional rapport. But I spoke with her less than I did the others. Some of it was the relationship, some of it was that her job was different. I had a coordinator and purchaser that I needed to speak with many times a day and she was a billing administrator who, more or less, worked independently. She never said anything about being uncomfortable. Neither did anyone else.  

She finally spoke up when she didn’t get the raise she wanted. My decision had nothing to do with favoritism. Britany had only been in her role for 2 months and was still learning her job; making mistakes and often relying on colleagues for help. I explained to her that there’s nothing wrong with asking, but we would have to wait to discuss the matter until she was more experienced. Because of the office dynamic, she took that very differently. One of my bosses once told me “the higher up you go, the bigger the microscope. When you get high enough, it’s an electron microscope”. I realize now why. It’s more on me than anyone else to figure out what my actions look like. I’ve since tried overtly to avoid perceptions of impropriety. I speak to everyone who directly reported to me every day. If I take one person out to lunch to discuss business, I always offer or take out the others…things like that. A lot of people who rise to power don’t understand that.

I think that’s, at least in part, what happens during these sexual harassment scenarios. A joke here and people laugh. An ass grab their and someone smiles (even if it’s nervously). Show a dick and you get an eye-roll or even a chuckle. Luis C.K. actually said this in his apology:

At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.
— https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/arts/television/louis-ck-statement.html

Again, does that excuse his behavior? Abso-fucking-lutely not! Am I blaming the victims? Also no. I’m making a point: “Hey, she laughed so it must not be that bad” or “the guys at the office found that shit funny” or “the guys agreed, that chick I interviewed was super hot”. It’s easy to fall into that trap and stay there, convincing yourself that people like what you’re doing. In my case, it was a matter of talking to some people more than others. In other cases, it’s much worse; harassment or even assault. They’re very different behavior sets but the same basic principle – a lack of ownership of the way your behavior affects everyone around you. The more powerful you are, the more important that becomes.