Bad Breakup

By John Hollon

Dec. 20, 2007

Here’s a hypothetical business problem to ponder: What do you do when your top executive, someone who has only been on the job a short time yet has quickly revamped and revitalized the organization, has a momentary moral lapse and gets involved romantically with a subordinate?

    In America’s 21st century business environment, there’s an easy, knee-jerk answer—you get rid of the executive involved, even if he (or she) is doing a great job. That’s what happened to American Red Cross president Mark Everson, who resigned late last month after admitting that he had engaged in a personal relationship with a subordinate.

    For many, this is a cut-and-dried issue. After all, this is not France. How can an executive, particularly the top executive, continue to command the respect of the workforce after such a huge moral misstep? Wasn’t the Red Cross board right to call Everson on the carpet and force him out?

    You might say yes, but surprisingly, a lot of America’s business press is seeing it a bit differently.

    As The Wall Street Journal pointed out, “While CEOs sometimes have relationships with subordinates, until recently it was rare for such behavior to lead to a public dismissal.” And The New York Times talked to Regina Rafferty, a consultant to Red Cross donors, who was critical of the board’s quick action. “I’m sure there were sanctions,” she told the Times, “that could have been taken short of firing the man, which wasted the 18 months they spent searching for him, any money spent on that search, and his six months’ worth of learning.”

    Two experts on workplace romance, Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen, authors of Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding—and Managing—Romance on the Job, also questioned the seemingly precipitous decision by the Red Cross board.

    As they point out in an online column on the Huffington Post, “The American Red Cross has been a troubled organization in recent years, and more turmoil at the top is the last thing this worthy charity needs. … Ironically Everson, who had only been on the job for six months, had won raves for the agency’s handling of this fall’s California wildfires.”

    “If Everson was fired expressly for committing adultery with a co-worker in spite of his objective success in his position, we’ll be rather disappointed with the Red Cross,” Losee and Olen added. “People do stupid things at the behest of their hearts. We don’t need headline-making firings to serve as a modern-day version of The Scarlet A,” with a nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel.

    I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I tend to agree with the I authors that perhaps the Red Cross board was too hasty in pushing Mark Everson out the door.

    Yes, he showed terrible judgment here, but all reports say that this was a consensual relationship between two adults who were married to others. There’s no threat of a lawsuit (according to the Times), nor are there accusations of harassment or favoritism.

    More important, Everson, a former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, seemed to bring stability to the Red Cross, an organization that had been through five chief executives in six years and was severely criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina. He “appeared to have brought a level of stability to the Red Cross that it had not experienced in more than a decade,” the Times wrote. “Even as he eliminated senior vice presidents and set what some thought were overly ambitious fund-raising goals, employees said, he was respectful of staff members and an ardent defender of the organization.”

    Leaders like that are hard to find. But more and more, it seems that we prefer easy solutions to complex problems. Zero-tolerance policies are just one example of how our society seems to prefer one-size-fits-all decision-making that is preferable to actually thinking through an issue and weighing the consequences of an action.

    Relationships in the workplace are never easy, and they get geometrically more difficult when there is sex involved. Everson made a bad decision, but was it one that was so terrible that it should have cost him his job? I’m all for decisiveness and strong leadership, but this seems like a hasty decision made on the fly that the Red Cross board may ultimately come to regret.

Workforce Management, December 10, 2007, p. 58Subscribe Now!

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with