The Deadliest Rationalization Of All?

woodys excuse

All rationalizations can be deadly and have been. History and human nature teach us, however, that “Woody’s Excuse,” #22 on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization list, can hold its own with any of them when it comes to tallying up pain, ruined lives, and death. This is “The heart wants what the heart wants,” the comedian, actor and acclaimed director’s personal pass for his seducing and marrying a girl who was, in essence, his adopted daughter.

Today the Washington Post carries the grim final act of a story so terrible that it crosses into the realm of black humor. A veteran Labor Department lawyer, married, with an impeccable record, was found dead in his cell after being arrested and charged with violently attacking a co-worker with whom he had become infatuated. The story is full of weird U-turns of phrase; for example, the judge called the lawyer, charged last week with first-degree burglary while armed and third-degree sexual assault relating to the June 5 attack, a “wonderful person in most respects”—-that is, “most respects” beside the implications of his breaking into a woman’s home, punching her in the face (or spraying her with mace,) then trying to incapacitate  her with a stun gun, handcuffing her hands behind her back and knocking her to the floor. The victim was so badly injured that a plate had to be surgically implanted in her face.

Other than that, Judge, you’re right: he was a hell of a guy.

The lawyer had, we learn, worked with this woman for more than two decades. Obviously some kind of relationship arose between them more intense than jokes around the coffee maker; those details of the story hasn’t been made public. At some point, however, the slippery slope of flirtation to temptation to fraternization to obsession skidded into full-blown madness. Had he not died—a suicide seems likely—the attorney would have lost his job, his law license, and probably his family. To say that he engaged in conduct calling into question his fitness to practice law (D.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 8.3) is a darkly hilarious understatement, like those in the Post story, which begins by saying that the lawyer and his co-worker “planned to skip work and spend the day together. They would meet at her home in Northwest Washington, go to breakfast, visit gardens and, finally, have dinner. But things went horribly awry.”  I’d say your partner in a romantic liaison  going crazy, macing you, tazing you, breaking your face and then killing himself in his jail cell warrants a description a bit more illustrative than “awry.” But I just don’t understand the new dating rules, I guess.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Federal government doesn’t prohibit inter-office dating, but it’s a mistake nonetheless. The workplace, to be professional, objective and efficient, must be free of conflicts of interest, hidden alliances, and emotional distortions—and you know, we all know it. Formal workplace regulations, enforced with even-handed and consistent penalties, provide an invaluable and essential first, or sometimes last, line of defense against Woody’s Excuse, which boils down to nothing more virtuous than “If you want it, take it,” or just “Go for it!” In the case of the lawyer and his love/obsession/victim, it might have made the difference between tragedy and mere wistfulness: “Okay, I’m married, but she makes my heart sing Rossini, and she’s interested. Woody says I’m a fool to fight the primal call of romantic love! But wait—the Labor Department forbids interoffice dating, and I’m sure as heck not going to give up my career for a crazy fling. <Sigh!> Better get to work.” Meanwhile, how many co-workers, many of them lawyers too, watched this train wreck develop and did nothing, not wanting to be “snitches” and under the delusion that love conquers all?

Woody’s Excuse is so dangerous because it attacks our ethics and character where they are always most vulnerable, that place where rationality is smothered by dreams, desires, hormones, lust, fantasies and longing. If it takes an unpopular employment rule or two to keep all this at bay, then so be it. The fate of the Labor lawyer is a cautionary tale: he knew what was right and what was wrong, and something told him to go ahead and do wrong anyway. It was Woody’s Excuse.

The workplace is not an appropriate or ethical place for romance, and if it is not banned, Woody will get the upper hand, sooner or later.


Pointer: ABA Journal

Facts: Washington Post 1,2,3

Graphic: Henry Mackow

9 thoughts on “The Deadliest Rationalization Of All?

  1. Maybe “NO CHEATING” signs posted in federal offices would help? Maybe in the Cincinnati IRS office? Or the NSA offices? The State Department? The White House?

      • Hah! Tiger? When everyone else tells him, “Go ahead Tiger, cheat. We need you for our purses and TV ratings?”

        Do you ever wonder whether rules are for losers? (Didn’t Leo DeRocher say that or something similar?) Isn’t the US an essentailly Mythical/Classical Greek society where the powerful misbehave but get rewarded for it while the meek observe the rules and sit in the back of the bus? See, eg., the Clintons, Tiger Woods, LIBOR fixers, NBA floppers. The Mother Theresas of the world are just out there to distract the unwitting masses while the Titans go on about their games above, amassing huge fortunes and screwing anything and everything that isn’t bolted down.

        • Rules are for losers? I’m not so sure the world is divided into winners and losers with the losers following the rules. Maybe the losers (in the sense I believe you are defining them) are are just a subcategory for people with a conscience. Anyway, I don’t think an adult can just wake up one day and decide to not folllow the rules without some huge psychological inflictions on the conscience otherwise I would have stopped following the rules long ago. I think it would be much easier to just lie and cheat to get what I want rather than work as hard as I do. I think I would make an awesome televangelist and I would be raking in the money, have a five million dollar summer home on a tropical island, to which I would fly on my private jet. My stupid conscience! Always holding me back in life.

  2. How quickly we forget lessons learned from the movie, Fatal Attraction, with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close. I was young at the time the movie came out so I wasn’t in the work force…but the movie resonates with me now that I am older. There are a lot of “bunny boilers” out there. Job training should include viewing this film as a cautionary tale. What the heart wants could be a “bunny boiler”.

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