Herman Cain scandal: Lightweight compared to real world

That's a good one
Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Herman Cain scandal
That's a good one
Gage Skidmore via Flickr

COMMENTARY. What should we do about Herman Cain? Declare him unfit to be president because he may have made some inappropriate comments or gestures to some employees nearly two decades ago? Ever make an inappropriate comment to an employee? I'm sure you haven't. Me neither.

According to Politico, both women got five figure payoffs to go away quietly. Wow, five figures. Really? Anyone out there have a feel for how much that is in the context of executives being accused of behavioral misconduct? I do. We'll get to that in a minute, right after I go get some peanuts.

Now a woman comes out of the woodwork -- with Gloria Allred by her side, no less -- and accuses Cain of making an unwanted sexual advance 14 years ago. I'm sure none of you have ever hit on someone who wasn't interested before. Yup, me neither.

Never mind that the accuser, Sharon Bialek, has apparently filed for bankruptcy twice, has been sued by creditors, and owes both the IRS and the state of Illinois money for back taxes. Her fiance denies that she's got any current money problems. Right. Except for the two liens filed by the tax agencies, the latest being in August.

I can't imagine that either Bialek or Allred is being just a little bit opportunistic here. They couldn't be in it for the payoff, could they? Nah.

A sitting president has sex with an intern in the oval office, then lies about it under oath and to the American people, although I guess that "depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Now that's scandalous. Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, any of those names ring a bell?

It's like the old Casablanca line, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

Okay folks, it's time to get real about these accusations. In the real world, executives get accused of things. Sometimes they're true; sometimes they're not. I'm not even sure it matters in this case, since the accusations are all relatively lightweight, at least in the context of what I've seen in thirty plus years in corporate America.

Here are a few stories from the real world that I think will help put the Herman Cain affair in context for you:

Who propositioned who?

As a VP of a public company back in the 90s, I had to fire a female manager whose performance had been unacceptable for some time, even after repeated verbal and written warnings. After her exit interview, the HR director called me with a question:

"Steve, do you have something to tell me?"

"No, I don't think so," I said, on instant alert. "Why do you ask?"

"Ashley said you two had a sexual relationship and the termination was personal. Is that true?"

"No, of course not. Actually, she came on to me when I first started working here but I told her I wasn't interested and that was that. So no, nothing ever happened. It's total BS."

To make a long story short, Ashley eventually came clean and apologized for lying and that was that. I guess she was just angry. It happens. She later told me that getting fired was a wake-up call she needed. Go figure.

Five figures: is that a lot?

A company VP apparently propositioned -- in a pretty graphic way, I'm told -- a female associate of mine at an offsite conference. I coached her on how to handle it. She ultimately got a mid-six figure settlement to her claim. She left the company, not the VP. Another woman I worked with had a similar result at a famous software company. Both incidents occurred in the 90s and those settlements are appropriate for a serious accusation that has significant merit.

As for the first two unidentified Cain accusers, if they got five figures, then their issues were probably relatively minor.

CEOs and their workplace mistresses

I've actually worked with four CEOs who had affairs with employees and ended up dumping their wives and marrying their employees. I also know two senior managers who did the same thing -- had affairs with their administrative assistants and divorced their wives for them -- at the same time.

Look, executives work long hours these days. As a practical matter, work is a natural place for them to meet potential mates. Sometimes feelings aren't reciprocated. When that happens, it's awkward and, to one party, appears inappropriate. It happens.

I could be wrong, but I don't think any of the Cain accusations even amount to sexual harassment. Inappropriate comments or gestures aren't even in the same ballpark. And Bialek wasn't an employee, so that's neither here nor there.

More on: Should managers date employees? Sure, why not?

Remember Mark Hurd?

Just over a year ago, a marketing contractor who was also represented by Gloria Allred accused HP CEO Mark Hurd of sexual harassment. And while the claim was found to be baseless, the board fired Hurd anyway, an act that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison called "the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs."

By overreacting, HP's board lost a CEO who had "pulled off one of the great rescue missions in American corporate history, refocusing the strife-ridden company and leading it to five years of revenue gains and a stock that soared 130 percent," according to writer James B. Stewart.

Addressing the charges head on

This afternoon, Herman Cain is expected to hold a press conference to address the charges against him "head on." Until now, he's held firm that all the accusations are false and that he's never harassed anyone. That's his story and I expect him to stick to it.

Now, some pundits say Cain hasn't handled the situation as well as he should have. Some say he should come clean, be more direct and upfront, tell the truth about what really happened. Well, here's the thing. Maybe that's exactly what he's been doing all along. Maybe nothing -- or close to it -- actually happened.

Maybe, just maybe, what caught him and his campaign staff off guard is that common and relatively minor workplace situations would be blown all out of proportion by a politically correct culture that views anything that makes anyone uncomfortable as scandalous. That's what I think happened.

In any case, you've got to admit, the Cain accusations are pretty lightweight, by any measure. Help me prove it by sharing some juicy workplace harassment stories in the comments.