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Cain Case Shines Light on Workplace Sexual Harassment

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SHARON BIALEK HERMAN CAIN ACCUSER
AP/Politico

Sharon Bialek's stunning accusation of sexual harassment literally at the hands of a certain former pizza magnate may or may not finally trigger a Cain Mutiny among his hardcore Republican supporters. But whatever the outcome, the trajectory of this story -- which began with anonymous claims first reported by Politico -- brings the vagaries of sexual harassment in the workplace front and center.

Over several decades of running companies, I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly of harassment scenarios. Long ago and far away, when sexual innuendo in the office was typical and HR stood for "Home Run," a young woman at one company I managed was repeatedly pressured for sex by her older, married male supervisor. When she complained about this clear-cut harassment, the supervisor expressed outrage that she would dare make such an insulting allegation. But others had observed the bad behavior and, facing a potential lawsuit and the loss of his job, her harasser changed his ways, though he never admitted any wrongdoing.

Years later, at a larger and more prosperous company, a female with a litigious history turned a couple of nasty comments from a manager into a full-blown lawsuit faster than you could say "hostile work environment." Our "corporate counsel" knew she had no case; nevertheless, he pushed for a substantial "nuisance" payment to the plaintiff, so we could avoid the legal fees and the tsouris. It made me sick to reward her and her famous contingency attorney, but we settled.

Though the vast majority of workplace sexual harassment involves males mistreating females, that's not always the case. A flamboyantly gay employee at one firm where I worked made a practice of greeting male staffers with the provocative, "Hey sailor, new in town?" Sometimes he pressed the point with more overt pick-up lines. This was funny to most and quite disturbing to a few, but no one filed a complaint.

Then there was a woman who said to a female colleague, "Your breasts look great today." The second woman was shocked and offended, and let this be known to management. The person who made what she thought was a playful comment felt awful, apologized and that was the end of it.

That HR (human resources) sexual correctness can run amok is illustrated by the case of a friend of a friend, who was formally accused of harassment for jokingly offering an intern a ride on his motorcycle. To avoid a lawsuit, he was pressured by "corporate" to write an abject apology stripped of any explanation or defense. Making him write "I can now see that it was wrong to have offered someone a ride on my motorcycle" undermines the many legit claims of workplace sexual harassment.

The corporatization of America has, to some degree, replaced a Wild West business environment with a consistent set of sexual harassment guidelines and training. But more often, in my experience, corporate bigwigs treat harassment claims as merely a cost of doing business, similar to, and much cheaper than, fines regularly paid for environmental misbehavior or financial shenanigans.

If the corporation is mega enough, the costs of defending against sexual harassment claims -- whether those claims are valid, inconclusive or bogus -- are a drop in the bucket; and companies can afford to wear employees down with threats and endless delaying tactics. Conversely, they can dole out five or even six-figure settlements with virtually no effect on "shareholder value."

As in the case of the National Restaurant Association and Herman Cain, sexual harassment settlements almost always come with confidentiality agreements, so no one besides the parties involved ever finds out what really happened. This protects the corporation from exposure while forever silencing employees who have already effectively been told to "shut up" by the act of harassment itself. And these agreements do nothing to prevent further incidents.

Whether or not it's proven that Cain harassed his accusers, the pizza magnate's fondness for dismissive language -- "End of story," "Period," "What part of 'no' don't you understand" and sarcastically, "Excuse me" -- evokes a corporate autocrat who enjoys lording his power over others.

If we expect profound menschiness from candidates for office, we'd have to choose from among the Lives of the Saints, and even some of them were problematic: St. Augustine, a dedicated womanizer in his youth, was said to have prayed, even after entering a monastery, "Give me chastity, but not yet!" But if the credible-sounding charges from Sharon Bialek -- a conservative Republican -- are to be believed, Herman Cain's behavior was a bridge way, way too far.