Is Corporate America Finally Starting to Get It? Or Will They Miss the Point?

There were a lot of people stunned by this week’s announcement by Boeing that its CEO, Harry Stonecipher, was being given the boot in response to the disclosure of his affair with a fellow Boeing employee. Those used to the usual paradigm, where the less powerful subordinate (generally a woman) is considered more expendable, may be shocked that Boeing would sacrifice the CEO specifically brought in to turn the company around and overcome its recent public missteps.

Does this move have significance beyond Boeing’s effort to clean up its act? Will other companies realize that it may be necessary to take a hard line against workplace relationships where they raise the appearance of impropriety? Will some companies take it too far by seeking to prevent all workplace relationships, even those that are consensual? You can bet that many corporate executives and HR professionals will be asking these questions in the days to come, as they assess their own potential vulnerability.

For those who haven’t yet heard, early this week Boeing announced that Stonecipher, the company’s 68-year old married CEO, was asked to resign after his affair with a 48-year-old company vice president came to light. See Boeing’s Press Release of March 7, 2005. The termination happened with lightning speed: the affair only began in January, during a company retreat (see Business Week article), and Stonecipher’s ouster came two weeks after an anonymous employee sent a “packet of evidence” of the affair, including sexually explicit e-mails, to company chairman Lewis Platt (see Seattle Post-Intelligencer article.)

Let the corporate handwringing begin. Was Stonecipher let go because he was specifically brought in to boost ethical standards at Boeing? Boeing’s Code of Conduct prevents actions that could embarrass the company, as certainly this has done. (See Kansas City Star article.) There is not, as of yet anyway, any claim that the relationship was anything but consensual, but Boeing may be more sensitive about the subject than most: its former CEO had not only been involved with Boeing employees himself, but the company has been recently hit with a class action sex discrimination suit. (See Seattle Times article.)

It is admirable that Boeing is attempting to hold its CEO accountable to higher ethical standards, and that the CEO was let go before the subordinate. (Her days may be numbered, however: see Associated Press article.) If Stonecipher’s ouster forces other companies to take a hard look at the activities of their corporate executives, especially when it comes to relationships with subordinates, then as the newly-freed-from-prison Martha Stewart might say, “it’s a good thing.”

However, Stonecipher’s ouster has also inspired some “crazy talk.” This situation should not be license to clamp down on each and every workplace relationship. It is a fact of modern life that one of the prime places to meet people with whom one shares common interests and other bonds leading to relationships is in the workplace, especially when many people are working too many hours to meet anyone elsewhere. While companies may have anti-nepotism rules that restrict dating (see Washington Post article), restricting relationships where employees are not in the same chain of command is simply overreacting.

Some suggest that the situation was more grave because Stonecipher was married. However, as Ellen Bravo of 9 to 5 points out: “If CEOs were knocked out for extramarital affairs, we’d have a major employment opportunity in the United States. There would be a lot of openings.” (See Los Angeles Times article.) Much of what transpired should really be between Mr. and Mrs. Stonecipher (who, being separated from her husband, might not care about the affair as much as the rest of America does right now.) (See Seattle Times column.)

Ultimately, while it is important that all companies take a look at what is going on between corporate executives and subordinates to ensure that relationships are truly consensual. Moreover, when push comes to shove, the decision to terminate an employee should not be based on who is more valuable or nets the company the most money. But it would be truly unfortunate if companies miss the larger moral issues in their zeal to clamp down on all workplace relationships or institute a new code of workplace morality that invades employees’ private lives.

More Information about Sexual Harassment

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.