Latte Nation

Love Hurts

Just ask taxpayers and business owners.

By 4.20.05

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"When Susan Peacher hung up her latex evening gown and wooden paddle for a job with the federal government, the former dominatrix thought she was done with abuse," according to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Elizabeth Fernandez.

The problem is that when this ex-dominatrix went to work at her new job for the Treasury Department in San Francisco, she found that one of her supervisors was a former client.

It could have been perfect: The former "Mistress Celeste" is short on money and gets a job with a boss who'll pay extra if she slaps him around a bit over morning coffee and occasionally takes him out during lunch for a fast spin on the bondage wheel.

Instead, everything blew up into a lawsuit, as explained by Fernandez: "This man wouldn't leave her alone, she said in a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit, charging that he sexually harassed her, attempting to kiss her in the elevator, telling her she had 'luscious lips,' and repeatedly asking for 'sessions.'"

Peacher additionally claimed that her client-turned-boss gave her an unfair performance evaluation and that she was given little to do after she complained to higher-ups. "Rather than sit idly at her desk," reports Fernandez, "Peacher spent her time studying workplace harassment and labor law."

In terms of dishing it out, Ms. Peacher had successfully switched from whips to litigiousness. In this case, it was the taxpayers who got the beating, to the tune of $60,000 -- $25,000 for Peacher's attorney fees and $35,000 in compensatory damages. The settlement reached with the government also provided Peacher with a job transfer, nearly 800 hours of leave, and a new schedule that permits her to work at home one day a week.

A key problem in this case is that it was the taxpayers, not the alleged male lecher, who were found financially responsible for the sexually offensive verbal behavior, even though taxpayers didn't know it was occurring. Switch the location of this type of incorrect speech and forbidden flirting between employees to a lumber yard or an auto body shop and, again, it's the business owner who is expected to pick up the tab for any supposed damages, not the alleged wrongdoer.

As the law is now written, it's those with the deep pockets who always and everywhere "should have known" about every off-color joke in their workplaces, every incidence of incorrect flirting, and every individual employee's shifting and subjective definition of what he or she may judge to be "offensive" or "unwelcome."

That is, of course, a performance standard that business owners can't meet, short of employing a speech-and-behavior Gestapo. Bottom line, the idea of "should have known" might be a great way to fatten the wallets of lawyers, but for the rest of us it opens the door to an unrelenting drain on job-creating business assets and a systematic assault on free speech and privacy.

A second problem, less recognized, is that cases like Peacher's have the effect of turning back the clock for women. "What troubles me about the 'hostile workplace' category of sexual harassment policy is that women are being returned to their old status of delicate flowers who must be protected," asserted feminist Camille Paglia at the time of the Clarence Thomas episode. "If Anita Hill was thrown for a loop by sexual banter, that's her problem. If by the age of 26, as a graduate of Yale Law School, she could find no convincing way to signal her displeasure and disinterest, that's her deficiency."

The third problem is that we've turned too much to government and lawyers to deal with issues that can be solved in ways that are less bureaucratic and less confrontational. Again, from Paglia: "We cannot rely on rigid rules and regulations to structure everything in our lives."

The fourth problem is that we have lottery-size damages for "offensive" behavior and no definition of which incidents are a crime. Bernice Harris, for instance, a longtime cashier in the U.S. Senate cafeteria, was accused of harassment for calling her customers "honey" and "sugar." Being called "baby," complained Christopher Held, an employee of Sen. Mitch McConnell, was "real bothersome."

This much is clear: "Honey" shouldn't be a crime, workplaces shouldn't be turned into litigious minefields, the most thin-skinned among us shouldn't be calling the shots, lawyers shouldn't be the first resort, and everything "unwelcome" shouldn't be a federal case.

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.