“The world is full of imperfect people; if everyone who ever fudged an expense report or flirted with an outside contractor were fired, there wouldn’t be many people left in the American work force. This is not to say that Mr. Hurd should be let off the hook for, in his words, failing “to live up to the standards and principles of trust, respect and integrity that I have espoused at H.P.” But a firing offense? Really? “ —New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera, in commentary concluding that Hewlett Packard’s stated justifications for firing CEO Mark Hurd— an inappropriate relationship with an adult film star he had hired as a consultant, and his “fudged” expense reports employed to hide his indiscretion—were a pretense. Nocera argues that Hurd was intensely disliked and distrusted throughout the company, and was perceived as being willing to cut core H.P. activities in order to enrich himself.
Nocera might well be correct that H.P.’s reasons for firing Hurd were not what the company claimed them to be. His conclusion, however, that what Hurd did was not a “firing offense” tells us a great deal about the skewed ethical mindset of the corporate culture in America, with which Nocera, as one who has been immersed in it for decades, is clearly infected.
Yes, really: a CEO of an ethically troubled Fortune 500 company has maintain the highest ethical standards, not merely those of “everyone.” The most recent annual business ethics survey by the Ethics Resource Center, like all its predecessors, makes it crystal clear that nothing influences the ethical culture of a business more than the perceived conduct of the man or woman at the top. If the company winks at the CEO using his position to turn the company into his own personal dating service and using company expenses to do it, then ethical conduct thought the organization is likely to follow.
The universal principle that leaders establish the values of those they lead has been recognized since the days of Julius Caesar and before, yet people still still deny it, minimize it, and try to argue it away. We will hear again this in defense of Representatives Rangel and Waters, just as we did when Democrats claimed that it was harmless for a U.S. President to lie under oath in a court of law, as long as the lie was “just about sex.” (Oddly, the ethical performance and reputation of all branches and levels of government have deteriorated rapidly since then. Hmmmm….) It is the lesson we learn over and over, yet refuse to accept.