Letter from DC: Cain Controversy Reveals Worst of Political Class

Common DC employment resolution becomes opportunistic fodder.

By , Columnist

The enlarged brouhaha over reports that GOP presidential aspirant Herman Cain’s 90’s employer, the National Restaurant Association (NRA), settled severance agreements with two woman that alleged sexual harassment has demonstrated just how low this city can get.

The frenzy has provoked charges of racism by Cain, accusations by his supporters of a “dirty tricks” campaign by his rivals, a disgusting appeal by leftist media figures to target the NRA and its current staff, and a gleeful rubbing of the hands by partisans who derive sadistic pleasure from manufactured political scandal.

nra logo.jpgThis isn’t a tale of egregious sexual harassment. It’s a tale of opportunity for cable news networks, pundits, operatives, crisis management firms, political trade start-ups, and anyone with an agenda that has gender dynamics as its last priority.

What no one is willing to admit, much less even acknowledge, is that Herman Cain’s experience as a leader of a Washington association is relatively ordinary, and not always as tawdry as invocations of Long Dong Silver and Coke cans with pubic hairs made infamous during the Clarence Thomas U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

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“Employment termination and severance agreements are pretty commonplace in this town,” said an attorney that specializes in human resources issues that has worked for those making accusations as well as those facing the accusations. "Hostile work environment’ charges are important leverage for employees that may have fallen out of favor with their employers for non-performance related issues.”

sexharass fe-male.jpgAccording to employment law, “hostile working environments” are defined by those making the charge, not by the intent of the alleged perpetrator. “It’s not what the person meant, it’s what the recipient felt,” explained the lawyer affiliated with the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  Moreover, “hostile working environments” can be created not just from instances of sexual harassment, but abusive and demeaning behavior by co-workers and superiors.

Many instances of sexual innuendo, public abasement, and usurping one’s standing in an organization are often rationalized in reaction by its practitioners; that the receiver of the discomfort is not being a “team player” and there must be “performance issues.”

The writing is on the wall, and that person’s days are numbered. An employee (male or female) has fallen out of favor - and in most instances, at no or little fault of their own - and they become targeted for termination. What is considered harmless banter or joshing by “team players” in good favor take a very real turn to a “hostile work environment” by those not in the clique.

The only recourse from getting screwed is to raise the issue of a “hostile working environment” and use it as leverage to secure an advantageous severance package. As part of the severance agreement come two other tools of leverage: the “non-disparagement” and the “non-disclosure” clauses.

The employer then needs to make a financial calculation of whether an airing of dirty laundry to rebut - or possibly confirm - the allegations or make the performance case is worth it. Or does it make sense to offer severance with an agreement that the employee not bad-mouth the employer and keep it secret in exchange for enough money to recover from the indignity of the situation as well as seek new employment without the stain of being an accuser.

(Non- disparagement and confidentiality serve to protect the screwed as well. This is where Cain messed up, by the way, in calling the allegations baseless and insisting that he did not sexually harass specifically the two complainants. Non-disparagement and non-disclosure goes both ways.)

“It is the unfortunate cost of doing business as well as the unfortunate risk of being employed in this town,” explained the lawyer. DC is a travel and schmooze town, with booze, hotel rooms, and social situations a heavy part of the work week, especially in the lobbying and industry association sectors.

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It’s an “at-will” work environment where unless employees protect themselves, they are subject to victimization by office politics and power plays. Many are also compensated well in exchange for the risk. Sad, but true.

There are too many opportunities for trouble to arise, especially from a bunch of doofuses that conventional wisdom would assume are some of our country’s brightest and most honorable befitting the positions they hold in elite media and public policy circles.

glee logo.jpgBut when you get right down to it, Washington is like Glee’s William McKinley High School, only with more money and more at stake. Just look at the political class's reaction to this episode.

Is it a legitimate indictment against Cain that he is a serial sexual predator, which has not been soberly alleged? Or is it more likely that a rough work environment for three women was exacerbated by his sophomoric attempts at gregariousness?

Perhaps most damning for Cain is not so much an employment dispute that by all accounts was hardly egregious, but pretty standard operating procedure in DC circles. The women involved in this mess are said to have effectively transitioned from their unpleasant experiences and found success elsewhere.

What this episode reveals is that Cain, who presents himself as a Tea Party warrior fighting Washington, was actually one hell of an insider who profited handsomely from the town both financially and politically. He benefited from a system that protects those in power and if this chapter demonstrates anything, Cain is no Washington outsider. Cain is the ultimate Washington insider.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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