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Originally published Wednesday, March 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

L'affaire Boeing troubling

Let's review what Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher did to get himself ousted. He dated a midlevel manager at his own company, then reportedly...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Let's review what Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher did to get himself ousted.

He dated a midlevel manager at his own company, then reportedly hooked up with another employee. Then he reunited with the midlevel manager and married her. Wait. That wasn't Stonecipher. That was Bill Gates.

As you know, Gates still has his job at Microsoft, so Stonecipher must have done something far tawdrier, right?

He simultaneously dated three employees, one of whom sued the company when the tryst went sour?

No, that was Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, also still on the job.

He had sex with a job applicant, who then sued alleging he refused to hire her unless she had more sex with him?

Nope, that was Sara Lee chief Steven McMillan, since shunted aside as CEO but still board chairman until October.

What Boeing's top boss did, if official accounts are to be believed, is have an office romance — a short consensual affair with a fellow executive.

So why is Harry the one to get the hatchet?

Because he's married? Maybe the company known as Lazy B or Sleazy B has become so puritanical it deserves a new name: the Church of B.

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More likely: Boeing isn't telling the full story to its employees or the public. Kind of ironic, and troubling, given that this is a story about ethics.

"What exactly did Stonecipher do that was ethically inappropriate?" said Michael Hoffman, executive director of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College in Massachusetts. "Boeing hasn't said. It's a problem for them, because it makes no sense he would be pushed out just for having a consensual affair."

The company says it's not a tale of harassment or favoritism. The dalliance didn't alter the woman's employment or salary, or have any effect on the business of making airplanes. There's not even a cover-up: Stonecipher copped to the affair when asked.

The board says only that "The CEO must set the standard for unimpeachable professional and personal behavior."

That explanation gives me the willies. Professional behavior, fine. But personal? When all it's about is consensual sex?

"It leaves you wondering if we're off on a witch hunt in judgment of the personal morality of employees," Hoffman said. "This is not a road the business world wants to go down. It creates more ethical problems than it resolves."

Such as: What are the rest of Boeing's workers supposed to think now? Is office romance forbidden? Is it a problem only if you're married?

What other "personal behaviors" might embarrass the company, even if they have no effect on the business? To what lengths will the company go to find out about them?

Boeing ought to settle these questions by explaining more completely what Stonecipher did wrong.

If they ousted him for adultery, or a workplace affair, then employees ought to know what the new rules are.

If it was something else, then everyone can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to being human.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday.

Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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