Jeff Cogen's affair with a Multnomah County staffer, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner's serial sexual harassment allegations and New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner's admitted repeat sexting are the latest high-profile examples of an issue many organizations have or will face.
The prevalence of male sexual misbehavior, and the increased willingness of women to confront their male tormentors publicly, means many more organizations — corporate, nonprofit and public — will be dragged into scandals with the potential of undermining customer, stakeholder and public trust.
The tactic men usually fall back on — profusely apologizing with their wives and family at their side — is starting to crumble as an effective way to regain at least a shred of respect, let alone trust. Huma Abedin, Weiner's political-partner wife, is coming under fire herself for publicly defending her husband, despite his lapse back into online sexual mischief, including more photos of his penis.
At a time when there is growing public dissatisfaction with government, business and other institutions, there seems to be a correlating decline in public patience with these transgressions. It takes more than an apology and a stiff upper lip to get on the road to redemption.
While situations vary a great deal, there are some common principles to consider in addressing this issue. Here are some of them:
1. Get the whole story out at once.
Telling the whole story will cause a shock, but that is much better than allowing the story to dribble out, creating many more shock waves. More important, an unfolding scandal makes a bad situation even more corrosive. The male offender comes off as less than truthful and, consequently, appears untrustworthy. Imagining sordid details won't surface eventually, especially under the prying eyes of the press, is like hoping that sharks won't bite your bleeding leg in the ocean.
2. Acknowledge broken trust and act responsibly.
Apologizing for hurting people, including your wife and family, is a good start, but it is an incomplete mea culpa. Malefactors must realize and accept blame for splintering trust within an organization and among its constituents, whether they are customers, shareholders or donors. You need to "man up" and face the music, even if that means stepping down from your position. One of the greatest trust-builders is to demonstrate you hold your organization in higher stead than yourself. However, if you reject the resignation option, then you need to find a substitute way to restore trust, which can be difficult as opposition, formal and informal, grows. Whatever you do needs to be done with utmost transparency.
3. Understand the court of public opinion has different rules of evidence.
Trying to buy time or wiggle back into good graces by calling for investigations or citing legal questions isn't a trust-builder. Sometimes you have to make a choice between fighting in court or the court of public opinion. If protecting your legal skin is your top priority, then it often is best to retreat from the public stage and wage battle in the quieter climes of courtroom hearings. But stepping down won't necessarily absolve you of wrongdoing, which will dog you whether you are in public office or the corner office. So thinking about your struggle in the court of public opinion could be your best option, even if it requires giving up on defenses about due process.
4. Admit your addiction.
Weiner clearly has an addiction to what amounts to pornography. His isn't an isolated case. He needs help, not a leadership post where his addiction can place him in a compromising position and make him a target of blackmailers or extortionists. People will be more sympathetic if you get help instead of clinging to your attempt to get or hold onto a classy job.
5. Quit making spouses look like doormats.
Don't trot out the wife and family to stand by you when you've partied without them and now are on the hot seat. You need to tend to your personal life out of the limelight and avoid making your loved ones seem like props at a press conference. Putting a spouse on a podium next to you is demeaning and breeds more cynicism about your character. After you've found and followed the road to redemption, your spouse can be a powerful voice to vouch for your journey. That's a much better and appealing role for a spouse, which they only have to play if you live up to your promise to change your ways.
Thinking ahead, many organizations have adopted zero-tolerance policies on racial, gender or sexual orientation discrimination. Maybe it's time to add sexual harassment, pornography and improper sexual relationships, including ones conducted online, to those policies. That would make the line in the sand clear for every surfer dude to see.