What’s Wrong and Not Wrong About the BP CEO’s Yachting Weekend

Tony Heyward. the beset and beleaguered BP CEO who has become the public face of the oil company blamed for the devastating Gulf oil leak, took the weekend off to attend a yacht race off the Isle of Wight. For this he is being pummeled with more criticism, from Rahm Emanuel to Sen. Richard Shelby to angry bloggers on the Left, Right, and Center. Is going to a yacht race really that wrong, in ethical terms? Does it breach any duties or obligations? Here is the score card on what’s right, or at least “not wrong” about his conduct, and what is worthy of legitimate criticism.

Not Wrong: Taking a break.  Heyward had about as horrible a week as an executive can have: he had to commit billions of BP’s money, his company’s stock tanked, his he got demoted, his every move and words were attacked by the news media, and he was excoriated for a full day, on live television, by the U.S. Senate. He earned his pay. If Heyward has a role to play in maximizing the success of BP’s efforts to control the damage, it is a good idea for him to stave off a nervous breakdown or the desire to put a bullet in his brain. A weekend of attempted relaxation, from this standpoint, is not only wise but critical. And if Heyward doesn’t have a useful role to play, then nobody should care what he does.  Realistically, he is not delaying the clean-up or impeding its success by being absent (really just a Blackberry message away) for a couple of days. The same goes for President Obama, who has been subject to similar criticism for taking time out during the oil crisis (and the Korean crisis, the Iran crisis, the Gaza flotilla crisis, the immigration crisis, the budget crisis…) to play a round or two of golf. These are 24 hour a day, seven day a week jobs. There is no ethical requirement that you must let them kill you.

Now, how Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff, can simultaneously defend his boss’s multiple vacations, parties and golf games while the oil has been gushing and condemn Hayward’s yacht racing weekend is a question for psychologists and the Guinness Book of Records staff assigning the hypocrisy records.

Wrong: Taking a stupid break. Hayward has a duty to his company and stockholders not to place a giant beefsteak around the company’s metaphorical neck and jump into a wolf pit. When your company is so unpopular, when an around the clock live video shows an oil well that your company was responsible for spewing slimy, life-extinguishing guck into the Gulf of Mexico, when Anderson Cooper is spending every hour recording heart-breaking accounts of businesses and families destroyed, when a fumbling President has fastened his hopes of maintaining some semblance of popular support on blaming your company for everything, even the governments inept response, this is the time to take a respite at home, reading a book, playing with the grandkids, or watching “Toy Story 3.”

Not in public. At an event associated exclusively with rich people. On, of all things, the water, nice, clean, blue water like the Gulf used to be before his company ruined it.

A CEO who represents his company has an ethical obligation not to embarrass it, even when it is only the symbolism of what he does, and not the substance, that is wrong. A CEO has an obligation not to be stupid and careless with his public image at the worst possible time.

That, and only that, is what is wrong about Tony Heyward’s mental health break on the Isle of Wight.

15 thoughts on “What’s Wrong and Not Wrong About the BP CEO’s Yachting Weekend

  1. I mostly agree with your analysis, his ethical obligation to his company is to take the heat.

    I am wondering, however, is there ever an ethical obligation to be austere? If so, Mssr Heyward would have seemed to have volated this obligation. While this is a question, the more I think about it, the more I think ther must be some kind of obligation here.

    • I think there is; I’m not sure this would breach it. Is he paying for his own weekend? If so, I’m not sure austerity applies. I do think it applies to White House’s lavish parties. Give the budget situation, I think those send a terrible message that verges on the unethical.

      • Again, I’m not sure it is unethical, but Mssr Heyward’s clueless insensitivity seems to border on the comical. Firstly if you are going to take a day off, do it quietly. Many if not most of the victims of this disaster don’t have the luxury of the time or the money for a day off. Secondly if you are going to be seen some place, couldn’t it be someplace that doesn’t provide a stark contrast with the mess in the gulf?

        Then again I think the anger at Obama is misplaced. He is much less responsible for the this mess than BP.

  2. Every time I post (not just here) I have to submit it, then hit the back button, and submit it again. That’s with Google Chrome. If I use Internet Explorer, the post is simply lost, so I always copy it before I submit, and if it fails I just paste it and submit it again.

    The only upside I can see to his “yacht” activity is that if nothing else, it shows that he is a fan (personally) of ocean activities.

    The whole situation with the leak and BP is interesting to me because of the criticism of BP by “activists”…. and I think I’ve got a good analogy.

    You board a commercial flight from NY to LA and once the pilot gets the plane in the air, he comes over the intercom and tells you that he didn’t do his inspection, but if he had, he would have known that the landing gear would fall off the plane after take off. Well, the landing gear has fallen off the plane since you are now in the air and everyone is mad. So the question is, do you shoot the pilot immediately? Or does it make sense to keep the pilot around to attempt an emergency landing?

    Why is everyone so hell bent on issuing punishment before the extent of the crime is known?

    • I hate losing posts. It happens to me all the time, though I have put comments here from other computers and browsers (including Google Chrome) and have never had a problem.

  3. When a CEO represents an unpopular industry and goes out and indulges in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-like excess, I say it is less about an ethical violation than abject stupidity.
    It isn’t that he doesn’t have the right to spend his money as he sees fit.  It is his money, after all.  But if I went out and embarrassed my company with excesses, and I worked for a publicly-traded entity like BP, I expect the stockholders would remonstrate with me about the importance of maintaining my public image as it reflects on the company. 
    Likewise, if I went out as a CEO of a major corporation, purchased a cheap desk and kept a shabby office, it would be exactly the same problem in reverse.  Image is important, but the right image is never excess.

    • Answer me this: do you only earn your pay when you make good decisions? Most corporate execs do the work they are compensated for, the best they can. You may disagree with the pay scale, but that’s irrelevant. Some baseball players earn 200,000 a day for showing up and being available to play. And they earn their pay.That was the deal.

      Do you really think Tony Hayward didn’t earn his pay allowing himself to be hypocritically condemned by a lot of compromised pols trying to distract from the fact that they worked to weaken oil regulations and accepted big pol lobbying money? To have his face and name be the lazy symbol for the media of his company and his most incompetent employees? Really? Of course he earned his pay

  4. Dear Jack: If I was fortunate enough to have a yacht, I’d far sooner hire Hayward to pilot it than Abby Sunderland. At least he knows how to do THAT right. Abby’s adolescent judgement in nautical matters leaves much to be desired. And, as a matter of principle, I wouldn’t buy that boat from her old man! I’d sooner pick up a war surplus minesweeper. John Wayne did!

  5. If I put so much greed and carelessness in my work that I DESTROY the life of MILLIONS for DECADES and then go for a public relationship job to protect my interests, no, I don’t earn my pay. Even if I understand what a mess my greed and carelessness made and work like hell to try to fix everything, I don’t earn my pay. In the petroleum industry, you earn your pay when you make sure to do everything you can to protect the environment from which you extract oil. In Alberta, communities near the tar sands facilities are dying of cancer because of the nasty chemicals produced by the oil extraction. Fishes out there are found with tumors as big as an apple. Did these oil guys earn their pay?

    • You do recall that the “earned his pay” statement was referring to his week prior to the race, right?
      Hayward is accountable for the spill—I have no idea if he was responsible for it; I doubt it, frankly. Lower level managers didn’t follow procedures. It’s on his watch, and it’s his job. But you’ll have to show me how he personally was necessarily either greedy or careless. Maybe he was, but it’s not been demonstrated…unless your position is that oil executives are by definition greedy.

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