Office Sex Almost Never Puts Ceos Out Of Work

Around the dinner table, on the talk-show circuit and in editorial board meetings, it's been a constant refrain: "If President Clinton were a CEO, he'd be fired."

But is it true?

A genuine apples-to-apples comparison between Clinton, the ultimate public figure, and top chief executives in the private sector is impossible.

For one thing, many observers say, no public board would have spent $40 million investigating its CEO. And even if the scandal were to go public, the story likely wouldn't make it off the business page.

That said, counselors, analysts, lawyers and Northwest business leaders insist that even when sexual indiscretions become known to the company, CEOs rarely are fired.

Those affairs are typically discreet, and policies totally prohibiting workplace romance are rare. Unless they feel betrayed by lies, attacked by unrelenting publicity or faced with an out-of-control workplace, corporate directors are loathe to interfere in a top executive's private life.

But in the vast majority of cases, observers say, financial performance trumps moral outrage when determining whether a CEO stays or goes.

"With consensual sex, it's very hard to get fired," says Laura Brown, a psychologist who has testified in numerous sexual harassment cases.

One of the few publicized relationships between a CEO and a subordinate involved William Agee of Michigan-based Bendix almost 20 years ago. Questioned by the board about his relationship with Mary Cunningham, a 29-year-old Harvard Business School graduate, he said they were "very, very good friends."

After Agee promoted Cunningham to vice president, the Bendix board fired her. The two divorced their respective mates and married. A failed takeover bid ultimately prompted Agee to resign.

Of course, Cunningham was a highly paid MBA, and Monica Lewinsky was an unpaid intern.

Some people believe that Clinton, because of his age and power advantage, had a duty to protect Lewinsky and that because of those differences, her consent was irrelevant. Others say that's ridiculous.

"I consider (the relationship) to be emotionally exploitative," says Brown. "But legally, it was consensual on both ends. Young women have agency. They can make choices."

Love contracts

The dearth of CEOs captured in sex scandals doesn't mean they're not having affairs, says Lana Staheli, a Seattle counselor and author.

Studies of successful men, including top executives, indicate that about 80 percent admitted to some kind of infidelity during their married life, she says.

Romance on the job is so common, in fact, that Littler Mendelson, a law firm based in San Francisco, has drawn up a "love contract" for client companies that attempts to boil down a budding relationship into terse legalese.

Meant to be signed by prospective corporate lovebirds, the "acknowledgement and agreement" has the two lovers certify that their "Social Relationship" is "completely and entirely welcome, voluntary and consensual."

Employees signing the document also agree to forgo "sexual or amorous" conduct or speech in the workplace, including "romantic or sexually suggestive speech or communications." They also agree, says Kathy Cooper Franklin, Seattle office manager for Littler Mendelson, that they are not in a supervisory-subordinate relationship.

`Consent is amorphous'

Employment lawyers keep a sharp eye on that line between sexual relationships that are truly consensual and those that threaten to trigger lawsuits.

The corporate world is replete with examples of nasty, embarrassing and expensive lawsuits involving unwanted attentions or retaliation for denial of sexual favors. And experts warn that the line separating welcome from unwelcome advances can be just a single phone call or e-mail.

Mark Busto, a Bellevue lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law, has three cases in which CEOs had relationships with employees. In each case, the CEOs believed the relationship was consensual, but after things went sour, the employee claimed coercion.

"Once you have a superior-subordinate relationship," he says, "consent is amorphous." Legally speaking, he says, any kind of affair has the potential to become "very dangerous for the company and for the CEO personally."

After making a pass last year at a top saleswoman during a retreat, for example, the CEO of a one Puget Sound company was asked to leave by board members who were told by the woman of his unwelcome advances. The board gave him a generous severance package and six months to find another job, Staheli recalls.

Most companies have established policies to deal with sexual harassment. Consensual affairs, however, present a much thornier problem.

According to a poll of 600 organizations conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 72 percent do not have a written policy to address workplace romance.

At Safeco, even trying to have a romantic relationship with someone whom you supervise or whose salary you authorize could be grounds for dismissal, according to a company spokeswoman.

A spokesman for Weyerhaeuser said there are no "hard rules about it," but employees who date each other should not work in the same chain of command. Microsoft has a policy that prevents managers from dating those who directly report to them. But inter-office relationships are largely uncontroversial; Bill Gates dated and eventually married a Microsoft subordinate.

Even allegations of unwanted attentions don't necessarily result in a CEO's being dismissed, observers say. But, some add, lying to your board, as Clinton lied to the American people, might.

"I think the board of directors would really be outraged by having been misled so long, so consistently, and in so many different ways," says John Aslin, a partner in the labor and employment law section of the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie. "I feel pretty comfortable that in corporate America he'd be gone."

Bad publicity is a problem

Observers also say that long runs of negative publicity or internal morale problems linked to the top executive's behavior could result in dismissal.

"The Clinton situation is so visible," says Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business. "If a CEO became that visible, I don't know if he'd be able to survive."

On the other hand, there's Larry Ellison. Chief executive of Silicon Valley-based Oracle, Ellison presents a telling example of the different standards for the leader of a global company vs. the leader of the free world.

As CEO, Ellison developed a reputation as a bombastic, intensely competitive technologist. He is also known to have dated women at the company, often more than one at a time. One them sued Ellison for wrongful termination, failure to prevent discrimination and negligent mental distress in a 1993 lawsuit. Ellison eventually prevailed in court.

Jack Kemp, one-time Republican presidential contender and co-director of the conservative advocacy group Empower America, sits on Oracle's board of directors. Although Kemp has refrained from publicly addressing Ellison's personal affairs, he has called for Congress to investigate Clinton's conduct, calling it an "unfortunate, tragic incident."

It is unlikely the board of directors would ever seek to remove Ellison for reasons related strictly to his personal life, say analysts of the company.

The board of directors is legally bound to safeguard shareholders' investments, not enforce a moral code.

"When you remove someone and the stock goes down, what have you accomplished?" asked John Puricelli, an analyst with A.G. Edwards.

So far, most Americans appear to have similar considerations when it comes to the president, polls show.

Susan Webb, a nationally recognized expert on sexual harassment, says many people see two sides to the crisis.

On one hand, people say Clinton should be held to higher standards because he's the nation's top executive. But, with unemployment low, stocks high, and confidence up, they also ask: "Do you want to knock the legs out of the economy by firing the CEO of the free world?"

Alex Fryer's phone: 206-464-8124. E-mail:

Carol M. Ostrom's phone: 206-464-2249. E-mail: