Time and again, situations arise in the public eye that should serve as a warning to all employees, especially senior executives. One of those warnings: What you do (and say) in your free time is not always your business.
One recent example occurred last week, when television broadcasting company CBS fired its then-senior legal executive, Hayley Geftman-Gold, after she commented on Facebook in response to the Las Vegas massacre that she is “actually not even sympathetic [because] country music fans often are Republican gun toters.” Geftman-Gold later apologized for what she said was an “indefensible post,” but not before CBS fired her for violating the company’s standards.
Geftman-Gold’s firing was the second incident in less than a week in which a senior executive made headlines, and was consequently punished, for inappropriate behavior. In the second incident, KB Home CEO Jeffrey Mezger was caught on an audio recording spewing a profanity-laden rant against his neighbor, television comedian Kathy Griffin. Griffin and her boyfriend instigated the rant by calling police in the early evening hours of a Saturday night, lodging a complaint against Mezger’s young grandchildren for making too much noise while playing in the pool.
Whether an employee’s misconduct happens through words or personal actions, shareholders and the public alike take notice.
Justifiable or not, Mezger’s anger contained some colorful comments that reflected poorly on the company, prompting its board of directors to immediately respond accordingly. In a securities filing, KB Home’s board issued the following statement: “Jeffrey Mezger has always conducted himself in a professional manner during his tenure at KB Home. He has been a very effective CEO and a great leader for the company. Mr. Mezger has the full and complete confidence of the board. However, Mr. Mezger’s recent behavior in his personal dealings with a neighbor is unacceptable and a negative reflection on KB Home.” Consequently, the board reduced Mezger’s bonus payment for the current year by 25 percent. Additionally, the board warned Mezger “that if in the future there is any similar incident, he will be dismissed.”
Geftman-Gold and Mezger are just the latest in a long line of executives to have faced serious consequences for their personal actions outside the workplace. Many of these complaints continue to surround claims of sexual harassment and for promoting a toxic work culture, such as those against Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and most recently SoFI CEO Mike Cagney, who resigned in September.
In other instances, an employee’s physical behavior can be the cause of an individual’s professional demise, and not just in professional sports. One example of this was the case of Desmond Hague, CEO of food and beverage company Centerplate, who resigned after being caught on an elevator camera abusing a dog that was in his care.
Whether an employee’s misconduct happens through words or personal actions, shareholders and the public alike take notice. In fact, in a recent nationwide public perception survey of 1,554 individuals conducted by the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, 45 percent of respondents agreed that CEOs should be fired for unethical behavior. Although respondents cited violations of trust between company and customer as the most egregious ethical violation, the public was also quite critical of CEOs who engage in immoral or questionable behavior. The survey goes on to list numerous scenarios of CEO misconduct and ranks how they are perceived in the public eye.
Prudent ethics and compliance officers should review the Stanford University survey and further consider keeping a file of media clippings as tangible examples of all the unfortunate ways employees can place themselves in a bad spot for bad behavior. Such real-life examples—especially when reenacted through face-to-face or online training—are a valuable (and free) resource to use as educational material for employees and serve as simple reminders of why it is so important to act carefully, rather than react carelessly, in a situation that provokes strong emotions.