This weekend's New York Times Crossword included this clue: "PEPE _ _ _ _ _." The spoiler, for those who did not spend their wasted youth watching Warner Bros. cartoons, is "LEPEW." This is a reference to a cartoon lover-boy-skunk who falls for a beautiful female cat. (She had a white stripe accidentally painted down her back.) Her beauty is all he needs to relentlessly and obsessively pursue her.
The joke--not so funny any more--was that Pepe, to paraphrase a now-famous moment in politics, can't help himself. He just starts kissing her.
If it sounds familiar, it is part of the national #MeToo moment, when our women and girls are remembering their own persistent pursuers. And it also provides a moment when some of us come to remember not-so-innocent attitudes and "jokes," like this cartoon.
And it also reminded me of a young lady who, many years ago, was mistreated at her boss's hands, and whose story will be depressingly familiar. Except that her mother, a friend of mine who is nobody's fool, intervened and provided a moment of clarity on the matter.
The daughter--let's call her Gina--was a professional in an office environment, who suddenly took a nonsensical professional move. She opted to leave headquarters, and took a subordinate role in an out-of-the way branch office in the same company.
The mother tried for three years to get her daughter to open up. Why did you move? There followed a period of unproductive nagging. The Mom thought she would never break through.
Until finally she did.
It turns out Gina's boss, a married man, had wanted her to be his girlfriend.
He was persistent, unreasoning--and smelly. This, of course, is why the skunk reference brought this story to mind.
Gina was embarrassed by the persistence and threats of her boss--and she solved her problem by opting to take the sideways job out of her boss's clutches.
After hearing Gina's story, and after determining that no physical assault had occurred, Mom asked why her daughter chose to stay--and why she chose to remain quiet.
The answer seems to me to be a familiar rationalization of a woman who, at an emotional level, is not so sure of her rights.
The mother-daughter conversation, as told to me, went something like this:
Mom: "Why couldn't you tell any one?"
Daughter: "It's just that I didn't want to burn a bridge."
Mom: "There are times when that is exactly what you do."
Daughter: (Uncertain) "What?"
Mom: "Honey--burn that bridge!"
For Gina, her mother's advice was too late to help her manage the situation that time. But never again.
I am not sure that we as a country, or as a culture of entrepreneurs, know what to do when we hear of someone making unwanted advances. Or threats, or worse. For too long we have been protected from having to make that judgment. There were few reports, or reports were so delayed that they were irrelevant to management.
At the same time, companies' responses have ranged from active suppression of the facts, to summarily dismissing the perceived accuser. There is no way yet to determine the right course of action for any fact pattern. We urgently need a sense of what the right response is, and how to tailor our management reactions.
One thing is for sure.
We will only come to the right response when the accusers feel that they can, without delay and knowing they are protected, burn that bridge.