MITCHELL: We need a broader conversation on sex, workplace issues

SHARE MITCHELL: We need a broader conversation on sex, workplace issues

Tavis Smiley | Getty Images

Over the years, I’ve agreed with media juggernaut Tavis Smiley on some issues and disagreed on others, especially when it came to his criticisms of former President Barack Obama.

But I’ve always respected Smiley as a thinker and someone who gets right to the heart of a controversy.

When PBS suspended distribution of Smiley’s late-night TV show after an independent investigation found “troubling allegations” of sexual misconduct, Smiley was characteristically defiant.

“Put simply, PBS overreacted and conducted a biased and sloppy investigation, which led to a rush to judgment and trampling on a reputation that I have spent an entire lifetime trying to establish,” he said in a Facebook post. “This has gone too far. And I, for one, intend to fight back.”

Smiley likes a good fight. And I suspect he will launch a vigorous defense.

But the fallout already has begun.


Walmart, the sponsor of his talk show and an upcoming touring theatrical show, has backed away, “pending the outcome of the PBS investigation.”

So far, details of the alleged sexual misconduct have not been revealed.

PBS said it hired an independent law firm to investigate after receiving a complaint.

“The totality of the investigation, which included Mr. Smiley, revealed a pattern of multiple relationships with subordinates over many years and other conduct inconsistent with the values and standards of PBS,” the network said.

Smiley’s response to those charges raises a point that has been troubling me for a while:

“If having a consensual relationship with a colleague years ago is the stuff that leads to this kind of public humiliation and personal destruction, heaven help us,” Smiley said.

By now, allegations that famous men have used their positions of power to coerce unwilling partners into having sex are no longer surprising. But now we are talking about “consensual sex” between bosses and subordinates.

Variety was first to report PBS found “credible allegations that Smiley had engaged in sexual relationships with multiple subordinates,” and some witnesses “expressed concern that their employment status was linked to the status of a sexual relationship with Smiley.”

In my mind, such pairings are never a good idea — on either side.

As I’m sure a lot of bosses can attest, a workplace relationship thought to be “consensual” can come back to haunt them as a legal matter once the spark has faded.

I have no doubt that a lot of women have had to look for another job after what looked like a loving relationship fizzled.

A former NBC News production assistant has now gone public with a two-decades-old affair with the now-disgraced former “Today Show” host Matt Lauer, fired last month. Addie Zinone told Variety she “ultimately felt like a victim because of the power dynamic.”

But lawyers fall in love with secretaries, doctors fall in love with nurses, and principals are smitten with teachers.

Should these relationships now be barred in the workplace?

At 53, Smiley is at the top of his game. But after more three decades of building his powerful brand, Smiley is now faced with the loss of reputation, something that he cannot recover.

Today, behavior that once seemed acceptable in the workplace, such as dating a subordinate, can be interpreted as sexual harassment. We’ve made a dramatic cultural shift, and in the coming months a lot more men are going to be standing in Smiley’s shoes.

But true to his brand, Smiley doesn’t just raise the relevant questions, saying, “It is time for a real conversation in America, so men and women know how to engage in the workplace.”

For all our sakes, that conversation needs to get started — soon.

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