Vice President Joe Biden was polling better than all Democrat presidential candidates. Then, several women from Biden’s past came forward with complaints of unwelcome and inappropriate touching by Biden. What can employers learn from this episode? A great deal.
Lesson One: Past behavior may be judged according to present standards.
Biden, himself, acknowledged as much. He released a video that asserted his conduct was acceptable when originally performed, but only became a problem due to changing social mores and perceptions. For years, much of Biden’s conduct occurred in plain sight. There was no hue and cry for apology, resignation, or impeachment. When it became a distinct possibility that Biden would ascend to the highest post in the land (which occurred in the era of the #MeToo movement), things changed. Gaffable “Uncle Joe” came to be referred to in the media as “Creepy Uncle Joe.”
Lesson Two: Men with superior “feminist credentials” may view themselves above reproach for their sexual foibles.
Biden was, after all, the author of the federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Clarence Thomas was Anita Hill’s supervisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of all places. Perhaps it seemed to these men that they were immune to allegations of inappropriate contact with women.
Lesson Three: Failing to see the wrongness of their conduct.
Even when “caught in the act,” some perpetrators of inappropriate physical contact fail or refuse to see the wrongness of their conduct. In Biden’s apology, he repeatedly asserted that, now, he gets it. Now, he is “woke.” Still, Biden said he had no regrets for his actions because he had no bad intentions. But sexual harassment must be viewed from the standpoint of a person who is the target of unwelcome attention.
Lesson Four: Failure to take swift action.
Failing to take swift action of investigating and correcting inappropriate workplace conduct, employers run the risk of their brand being forever tarnished in the public’s eye. Not only is Biden’s brand tarnished, so too is the brand of the Democrat Party, which prides itself as the great protector of women’s rights.
Lesson Five: Use exit interviews to root out latent sexual harassment.
Biden’s touching problem is significant in part because his conduct was so public. Usually, sexually inappropriate conduct occurs when the victim and harasser are alone, or in the sight of only a few witnesses. Employers must realize that incidents of alleged sexual harassment ordinarily do not come to them so well documented, as in Biden’s case. Comprehensive exit interviews are a good way of rooting out a latent sexually hostile environment. Once sexually inappropriate conduct comes to light, a trained and experienced workplace investigator, such as Attorney Gene R. Thornton, should be utilized to get to the truth of the matter.