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Workplace Ethics: Inappropriate Relationships

Boeing Cites Inappropriate 'Personal Relationship' for Executive Resignation

Dr. Ken Siegel, Ph.D.
Psychologist , Author and President, The Impact Group
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; 11:00 AM

On Monday, aerospace giant Boeing Co. announced that it had forced the resignation of its president and chief executive, Harry Stoneciper, because of a "personal relationship" with a female Boeing executive that was "inconsistent" with the company's code of conduct.

Read the story:Boeing CEO Resigns Over Affair With Subordinate (Post, March 8)


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Dr. Ken Siegel, psychologist, author and president of the Impact Group Inc., a psychologists' group which consults with business management, was online Tuesday, March 8, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss conduct and workplace issues in the business world in light of the Boeing Co. incident.

Siegel is the author of the newly released book, "So ... You Want To Be a Leader: 4 Steps To Becoming One Worth Following."

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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washingtonpost.com: Dr. Siegel, welcome to washingtonpost.com. Glad to have you with us.

In the Boeing case, the company chairman was quoted as saying that "it's not the fact that he -Harry Stonecipher] was having an affair" that caused him to be fired but that there were some issues of poor judgment that "impaired his ability to lead ..."

Can you explain this?

Dr. Ken Siegel: As soon as someone opens up a sentence telling you what's not the case it's exactly what the case is. So when Lewis Platt says "it's not the fact that he had an affair" but rather that he exercised poor judgment and what Platt is clearly acknowledging is that that's is exactly the reason he was forced to resign. The affair was evidence of his poor judgment. That was basically the symptom and the cause was poor judgment.

What's so striking is that they use the code of conduct that he (Stonecipher) so vigorously promoted internally as the reason for his dismissal. We so often accuse others of that which we ourselves are highly vulnerable to being guilty of ourselves.

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Washington, D.C.: To what extent do you credit Stonecipher's resignation to the fact that he was having an inter-office affair, and not merely an inter-office relationship? Or do you feel that the inter-office aspect itself is significant enough to warrant his release?

Dr. Ken Siegel: The issue here involves mixing sex and power and that is an incendiary combination. Having a professional relationship with a female at the office is normal and would expected since women comprise 30-40 percent of the work force. But he decided to make it more than a professional relationship.

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: So what have we come to in this day and age? Policing personal behavior as a reason to fire a very competent person?
It said clearly that the lady in question did not work for the CEO, did not get a promotion and worked in a different department. The relationship was consensual.

I see no reason for dismissal.Do you?

Dr. Ken Siegel: Yes, absolutely. He was brought in specifically to clean up Boeing after a series of scandals. That's why he was brought in specifically and to engage in an extramarital affair with anyone in the organization suggests an abuse of power that's unethical. If he wants to have an affair, that's his business, but using his position to facilitate that always causes one to question the voluntary nature of his partner's choice.

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District of Columbia: Dr. Siegel,

As a former teacher, I realized that there is high penalty to pay for inappropriate relationships with colleagues (gossip), or students (jail time, loss of reputation).

I have noticed that my new working environment tolerates dating among colleagues. I was once approached by a co-worker who wanted to inform me that certain people were seeing one another in our division. I promptly informed her that I did not want to be apprised of the situation because this information could be injurious to the co-workers who were seeing one another if management found out. The gossiper looked shocked and walked away.
Was my reaction overkill? Should I have handled this situation better?

Dr. Ken Siegel: In this case, yes, you could've handled it better because you seemed to take the moral high ground or a moralistic point of view when it wasn't necessary. A very large number of relationships have their origins at work because that's where 21st century people spend most of their time. So it's a very common occurrence for co-workers to connect, having already established a common interest, i.e., the work.

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Bethesda, Md.: Lots of people date co-workers. Isn't the biggest problem that he dated a subordinate?

Dr. Ken Siegel: Yes. And the visibility of his position.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Siegel,
I personally think that it's getting harder and harder to prohibit co-workers from engaging in romantic relationships. Surveys show that the more people work, the more they find their mates at the office, sine they have less time for bars, social events, etc. Where can employers safely draw the line nowadays?

Dr. Ken Siegel: Please read my previous answer. Co-worker relationships are not the issue. Hierarchically-based relationships are and that's the line you're talking about. And here's the advice I give: If you choose to become romantically involved with a subordinate or superior in any functional group, one of you should leave. Do not try to hide the relationship. Acknowledge it proudly and choose the high road. This is not your only job.

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Springfield, Va.: Is it OK these days to make comments to female coworkers like "you look nice today", etc?

Dr. Ken Siegel: It's all based on the intention. As a complimentary observation, absolutely, and it could be made to a male as well. If such a comment is a manipulative segue to more involvement, probably not.

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Isn't a bit hypocritical for liberals like yourself to attack corporate execs who engaged in the same behavior for which you defended Bill Clinton?

Dr. Ken Siegel: Number one, assuming that all liberals defended Bill Clinton because of his conduct is judgmental and probably unjustified. Number two, I'm not defending sexual behavior at work as being appropriate or inappropriate but I am suggesting that the mix of sex and power organizationally should be met with sever consequences. That is a far more right-wing, responsibilities-based position than a liberal would normally embrace ... although thank you for the compliment.

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His biggest problem?: An earlier chatter said his biggest problem was that he dated a subordinate -- I would think that being married would also weigh in pretty heavily. He wasn't just dating a co-worker/subordinate. He was a married man doing these things. Hence the judgement issue?

Dr. Ken Siegel: Absolutely correct. This was not an unwise man engaged in unwise activity. This was a sophisticated, competent CEO brought in on a ticket of reclaiming Boeing's credibility, engaging in scandalous behavior himself because of the issues of power.

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His affair: I think people are missing the point that Stonecipher is married. If you come into a place to clean it up, then you should be held to the same standards as everyone else. I'm curious, would he have been fired if he were single?

Dr. Ken Siegel: Probably not and perhaps he should have been severely chastised, publicly acknowledged the relationship, have on of the two of them voluntarily leave and issue a public apology indicating he made an amorous unwise choice but it was still his choice.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Dr. Siegel,

Just wanted to correct your earlier stat. Women actually make up 47 percent of the work force according to the Department of Labor:

U.S. Department of Labor/Women's Bureau

Dr. Ken Siegel: Thank you very much. I appreciate the correction.

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College Park, Md.: Is an "inappropriate relationship" only defined as a sexual one? There are many "emotional relationships" on the job that don't involved sex, in which the boss favors a particular person and that person thereby gets many benefits.

Dr. Ken Siegel: While you may want to call that inappropriate behavior, it's just bad management and yes, it does have a demoralizing and divisive effect on that manager's employees.

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Alexandria, Va.: I heard that the relationship was consensual. Does that eliminate Boeing's liability, limit it or by firing the CEO, have they opened themselves up even further?

Dr. Ken Siegel: It depends on her position. We don't know if her employment has continued nor if she feels retaliatory because he was fired; however, her continued credibility there is, I suspect, damaged.

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Washington, D.C.: Is the female going to suffer any repercussions? Let's face it most women who choose to date in their workplace tend to choose men who are higher up on the pay-scale ladder than they are (i.e., dating up).

I personally have witnessed several secretaries who work in doctor's offices end up marrying doctors who work there. Why should the doctors be considered at fault when it clearly takes two to tango?

Dr. Ken Siegel: In public corporations, I have found that it is always the woman who suffers; her career is capped, her credibility is impugned whether it is justified or not and her capabilities are scorned. A doctor's office is more like a dysfunctional family and the level of intimacy is greater. So while involvements in that context are complex and difficult and awkward for everyone involved, they do not carry the same impact as in a public corporation.

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Alexandria, Va.: Where do you get off accusing one of your questioners of unnecessarily taking the moral high ground, when you accuse Mr. Stonecypher of "using his position to facilitate the relationship" when there is no evidence he did so? Indeed, in all your remarks so far you have failed to clarify what if any substantive reason there was to fire the man for his private activities. You allude to the fact he was brought in to clean up after scandals, but those scandals had to do with bribing government officials and industrial espionage. Do you have some basis to relate the two very different types of behavior? Can you in clear language explain why private conduct which, whatever affected spouses might think, had no impact on the company (that's the case we are dealing with) is a basis to fire the man?

Dr. Ken Siegel: His conduct was not a private affair. It was a public affair that was publicly visible. Number two, he was clearly in violation of his own company's code of conduct to which he would have held any of his executives. And number three, anytime the issues of sex and power intertwine, the concept of free choice or consensual choice is questioned.

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Washington, D.C.: In your response to a question from North Carolina, you say that his ethical problem was "Using his position to facilitate the affair."

Do you know something more about this story than was published? Everything I read made it very clear that it was consensual. What leads you to assume that he used his position to "facilitate" the affair? I agree that mixing sex and power is a dangerous activity, but I think it's unfair to assume that's what was happening. How do we know power was involved? Couldn't it be the case that they were simply just attracted to each other?

Dr. Ken Siegel: Well, they were obviously attracted to each other. Secondly, he's a CEO. There are no other peer-level CEOs, so she is by definition subordinate -- not a subordinate, but subordinate. Thus, power is clearly involved.

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Dr. Ken Siegel: The general rule is this: Relationships are difficult enough by themselves. What we call duel relationships are difficult at best and untenable at worst. Keeping things clear is your best choice.

Thank you for the great questions. I have a new book on leadership called, "So ... You Call Yourself a Leader? Four Steps to Becoming One Worth Following," available on amazon or at the book signing I'll be doing at the Borders at Towson Mall in Towson, Md., March 22 at 7 p.m. I look forward to meeting you.

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