Thought experiment: What if former Vice President Joe Biden were a high-profile CEO, and women at his company were publicly speaking up about how he’d made them uncomfortable over the years by touching them ― kisses on the head, shoulder rubs, nose nuzzles, hugs and so on?
Would he get to keep his job?
At a time when women are finally being recognized as human beings deserving of respect (that’s what the Me Too movement is), a good board of directors ― under strong public pressure ― would ideally tell a CEO who’d committed Biden-esque blunders to own his behavior, apologize and even resign.
Stepping down would mean more than any kind of apology, said Liz Stapp, a business ethics professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado.
“The deepest apology is behavior,” she said. “Self-imposed consequences.”
But Biden is not a CEO. He is not even officially running for office, though he is expected to throw his hat in the ring for the 2020 Democratic nomination. In recent days, Biden has been tripped up by accounts from seven women who say he made them uncomfortable in public settings by touching them. Examples: unwanted shoulder squeezes, hair sniffing, touching his forehead to theirs, a hand on the thigh.
On Wednesday, Biden offered an explanation of his behavior ― though not an apology for it ― in a video on Twitter. He was just trying to connect with people, he said. Times have changed, he said. He seemed to suggest he’d behave differently in the future, but it wasn’t clear how.
“Social norms have begun to change, they’re shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it, I get it,” he said. “I hear what they’re saying, I understand it. And I’ll be much more mindful ― that’s my responsibility. That’s my responsibility, and I’ll meet it.”
In corporate America, a Biden-like character’s chances of survival would depend heavily on the amount of publicity around the situation, said Lauren Edelman, a law professor at Berkeley. She believes that under most circumstances in the business world, someone like Biden would be safe. “People tend to overestimate the impact of the Me Too movement on corporations,” she said.
Former CBS Chairman Les Moonves, for example, allegedly got away with far worse than Biden before he was finally ousted last year.
But times are changing: Ray Kelvin, chief executive of the fashion chain Ted Baker, stepped down last month after employees accused him of forced hugging and other misdeeds. (He’s denied the allegations.) HuffPost wrote about another woman who sued her boss ― the CEO of the company ― after he forced her to hug every day.
In most cases where men have been fired for alleged inappropriate behavior, it involved high-profile industries and individuals. “Joe Biden is a highly prominent figure of interest to the media, which raises the likelihood of dismissal somewhat,” Edelman said.
If Biden’s behavior had occurred in the workplace, it would fall into the category of “hostile work environment harassment,” Edelman said. The legal issue would be: Was the conduct pervasive enough to constitute sexual harassment?
“From an ethical standpoint, companies should take action when their executives’ actions have the effect of making employees feel uncomfortable,” Edelman said, adding that the intent of the accused is not the issue at all.
Biden, it should be noted, is not being accused of assault or even harassment. If anything, he’s guilty of benevolent sexism, as HuffPost’s Emma Gray reports.
He surely would’ve gotten a pass in any workplace not too long ago, when women were powerless compared to men. There was no expectation that men would consider a woman’s feelings or desires before giving her a little pat on the head or an affectionate squeeze.
Indeed, Biden did get a pass. He was known for being overly affectionate, for handing out handshakes and kisses to all who crossed his path.
But women have accrued more power at work and in politics. And you can’t treat powerful people like cute little kids. (No one is sneaking up behind Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi and kissing their heads.)
Former Nevada state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores has described being in a crowded room preparing for Biden to introduce her at a political rally. He came up behind her, sniffed her hair and kissed the back of her head, Flores says. He didn’t ask if he could touch her. They didn’t know each other very well.
“He stopped treating me like a peer the moment he touched me. Even if his behavior wasn’t violent or sexual, it was demeaning and disrespectful,” Flores wrote in New York magazine last week. “I wasn’t attending the rally as his mentee or even his friend; I was there as the most qualified person for the job.”
The context was egregious, Stapp said.
“A woman can hardly be seen as strong, powerful and intelligent minutes after ‘Papa Joe’ rubs noses with her or kisses her on the top of her head like an infant,” Stapp said. Such treatment is damaging to her credibility as a leader. And women already struggle with this, particularly in politics, Stapp noted.
Biden said Wednesday that politics isn’t a sterile place, and that he’s always felt a need to make a human connection to show people he respects and cares about them.
The actions Flores describes don’t show that at all.
It’s true that politics isn’t sterile; it’s a passionate realm, and there is a need for warmth and affection. Fair enough. But whoever said we had to do away with those things?
All Joe needed to do was ask before he touched. What an easy way to show he cares.
CEOs ultimately are subject to shareholders and to the needs of their boards. In a democracy, by contrast, politicians serve at the pleasure of voters. Biden’s comeuppance could still await him at the ballot box. But voters have shown a willingness to overlook a lot.