In My Words: Which straw will break the camel’s back? Bad behavior and job security

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of English Rosemary Haskell writes about the sometimes fuzzy logic that determines whether an executive is fired for bad behavior. The column was published by the Raleigh News & Observer, the Greensboro News & Record and the Burlington Times-News.

By Rosemary Haskell

The interim chancellor of East Carolina University, Dan Gerlach, suspended after video clips seem to show him at a bar, drinking and dancing with young people, is merely the most recent in a conga line of highly placed employees, local and national, swaying toward the exit.

Professor of English Rosemary Haskell

Recently Patrick Conway, the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, was asked to resign — i.e., was fired — from his top-tier position there. Why? At a glance, it looks as though he had to go because he had — last June — been charged with both DWI and misdemeanor child abuse. But that wasn’t the account provided by the company after parting ways with its top employee, months after the alleged offense.

Gerlach and Conway, for very different reasons, deserve our sympathy and understanding. But their situations raise questions going well beyond the personal and professional difficulties both are enduring.

Stealing company money usually spells the end, if you’re found out.

Seemingly, though, allegations about questionable sexual activity are not always enough to cause firings or resignations. True, Placido Domingo is now gone from the New York Metropolitan Opera Company: Did he fall or was he pushed?

However, reports of sexual irregularities were insufficient to displace two U. S. Presidents: Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Nor was Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court application derailed by the testimony of witnesses.

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Gerlach’s situation looks even more ambiguous, with the Twitter-verse arguing that in socializing with students, he gives the university’s administration a more engaging public face. He reportedly — in the bar — put his arms around young women: Will that be the subject-line on the ECU human resources memo?

So, there’s sex and, of course, alcohol.

At the extreme, many people who have “substance abuse” problems work for decades, in and out of treatment. Sometimes their colleagues know, help and perhaps enable, but often the problem is hidden. Still I would guess that someone at Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC knew, or suspected, that Conway might have had a “drinking problem.”

Now, everyone knows.

Conway himself tweeted that people trying for sobriety should be praised rather than blamed. Indeed, in popular culture, they frequently are. How many celebrities talk endlessly about their “struggles with addiction”: stories which we lap up and which become part of the interestingly wild-but-ultimately-redeemed persona sold to the fans? (Think: Elton John as “Rocket Man.”)

The Blue Cross CEO — who reportedly spent a month in rehab after his arrest — may have crossed the line into firing territory because his children were in the back seat of the car he was driving when arrested.

Putting yourself and anonymous others at risk is not as reprehensible, I infer, as rolling the dice with the lives of your own kith and kin. Driving drunk while alone may look more forgivable because the potential victims are cocooned in distant cars, invisible and anonymous. But having your kids in the back seat as you careen across the interstate? Not so much. If Conway had been alone, he might still have a job.

Curiously, though, his employers, after initially saying that he was too valuable to let go, are now using Conway’s belligerent and incoherent behavior after the police arrived as support for his firing. But they are foolish to do so: Of course he behaved weirdly, if he was in fact intoxicated.

Blue Cross’s rickety and illogical two-stage human-resources procedure shows us a couple of things. One: if you are deemed important enough, some sins and even crimes are forgivable, at least as long as they are confined to boardroom sanctums. Two: once the word is out, a new argument has to be made to support the initial secret decision to look the other way.

Now that a whistleblower’s report on President Trump’s phone call to the president of Ukraine has triggered Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment drive, all of us must be asking: What actions should constitute grounds for losing your job?

Whether it’s the leader of the free world, CEO of a huge North Carolina company, top university official, star opera singer — or teacher or plumber — when does the worker have to go?

Recent events demonstrate that we continue to find it difficult to think logically about these important questions.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.