What About Separating The Work From The Worker?

Who has jurisdiction over whose bad behavior?

In late October, as I wrote columns and tweeted about this wave of stories, I discovered that a male colleague had been hired here at New York despite documented claims of sexual harassment in a prior job. I’m angry not just because New York saw fit to bring him on. It’s also the impossibility of the situation now: Should the guy (who doesn’t supervise anyone) be let go, even though no one at New York has complained about him? Mostly I’m mad that he was chosen, at all, over at least two talented women who also were in the running.

Indeed, what do you do when you know about someone’s bad behavior that predates his position at your place of employment? Serial harassers are an unusual breed of off-the-books offenders—even if, say, this person were fired for sexual misconduct in the workplace with a direct report, what’s to keep someone else from hiring them for contract work? (Should there be anything to keep them from doing so?) Does keeping them specifically away from management positions do anything except keep the misbehavior off your premises? Who’s to say they won’t just become a freelance harasser rather than a workplace one? But what if he writes really great articles and makes interesting intellectual arguments? Does it matter that he hits his wife if he’s a gadget reviewer? I seriously doubt that Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct is only relevant because he tells so many jokes about masturbation and sex. So why do we have such a hard time accepting that someone’s conduct outside the workplace might be relevant inside it?

It’s a curious thing, the idea of redemption, or What Comes Next, because it entails a certain amount of moralizing on the part of the employer. Do nothing, and you could be part of the problem, especially if someone warned you. Do something—fire someone or terminate their contract—and well, I don’t know, can they sue for some kind of prejudice or discrimination? At least we have rules for how we treat felons and convicted criminals when it comes to workplace rights, or loss thereof. What if you learn through the grapevine that a man sexually harassed his employees at his previous place of work but was never disciplined for it? What if he swears he’s changed, what if he’s sober now? What if women come forward and tell you stories of what he did to them two decades ago? Does any of it count, and if so, how much? What is the statute of limitations on sexual harassment, a subcriminal act? I don’t know, but I think we’re well on our way to finding out.