When the boss dates a subordinate, the relationship is never mutual

I was struck by a headline in Monday’s WSJ entitled, Anonymous Email to Visa CEO Led to Top Executive’s Firing. It describes how an email led to an investigation of Jim McCarthy, a senior, high-profile executive at Visa, Inc., who had been involved in romantic relationships with female employees, some of whom worked for him. CEO Alfred Kelly did not rely on HR to address the issue, but fired McCarthy himself, emphasizing his responsibility for the company culture.

At first glance, this might seem like another sexual harassment case like the ones we’ve been hearing about – sex imposed on women in order to advance or not get fired. But this one is a bit different. These relationships were described as mutual, so what was the problem? I have written previously about the danger of the pendulum swinging too far, and the unintended consequences of this new high level of awareness. Is this an example?

It’s a great one, but not of that. Instead, it shows a CEO stepping up, taking ownership of the company culture, and demonstrating that bad behavior will not Never mutual when unequal powerbe tolerated. Leaving aside any judgment one might have over the fact that Mr. McCarthy was married at the time, Mr. Kelly is to be commended. He recognized that that when relationships form in organizations where there is unequal power, it is impossible for them to be truly mutual.

When people work closely together, it is understandable that mutual attraction can occur. It can be tempting on both sides to become personally involved in ways that exceed what is appropriate in a work environment. Brains that are infatuated are nearly impervious to reason. As hard as it may be to accept, the boss is attractive in part because of his or her status in the organization. As Chris Rock once said, “money will change a missing tooth into a cute little gap.” The same is true for power.

Therefore, clear guidelines about what is acceptable must be established, and senior management must take responsibility for creating a culture in which excessive socializing with subordinate, even when there is no direct reporting line is unacceptable and appropriate boundaries are maintained.

Remember, we are not talking about peer relationships in these organizations and that is why there is a problem.

Dr. Joanne Irving is a strategic advisor and coach for senior executives at mid and large size companies, helping them dramatically improve business outcomes and the quality of life for themselves and those around them.  Learn more.

Contact Joanne today to talk about your specific needs.

WSJ, Anonymous Email to Visa CEO Led to Top Executive’s Firing, 12/17/17.

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