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Originally published Thursday, March 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

Let Stonecipher ousting be a message to his peers

He did not get fired for love — or whatever it was. Boeing made that point clear. Its chief executive, Harry Stonecipher, got the boot because his...

He did not get fired for love — or whatever it was. Boeing made that point clear. Its chief executive, Harry Stonecipher, got the boot because his extramarital affair showed poor judgment and might embarrass the company.

At age 68, Stonecipher was no young buck. And he apparently exchanged some raunchy e-mails. You can imagine the Viagra jokes.

Again, this was not about sex, or cheating on one's wife, or playing the old fool. It was about reckless endangerment of Boeing's good name, just as its reputation was emerging from the intensive-care unit. Most American companies look the other way when an employee hooks up sexually with a co-worker. This was a special case.

But let it be something more. Let this be a message for America's business leaders: The world is not your harem. Your love life says something about how you regard your female workers and consumers. (Women executives don't need to be told this. Female managers who routinely fool around with their male underlings would be considered somewhat strange.)

We're all flawed people. Some spouses have affairs and return home as loving helpmates. Marriages break up, and divorce no longer disqualifies one for the top job. But even by today's relaxed standards, there is personal conduct that hiring committees must regard as evidence of deep neurosis.

And so you wonder about Boeing. Its previous CEO, Phil Condit, had swashbuckled through four marriages and numerous affairs — some with Boeing employees. How could Boeing have put such a personally unstable man in charge? Condit was apparently a brilliant engineer. Fine, give him an office and a drawing board, then padlock the door. Making him leader over 160,000 employees, many female, was an act of insanity.

Bad things happened to Boeing on Condit's watch. A high executive allegedly offered a job to an Air Force officer, while trying to sell her a big airplane-tanker deal. Boeing was also found with stolen documents from rival Lockheed Martin. Two Boeing executives went to jail.

On top of that, Boeing was hit with a class-action suit accusing it of underpaying and under-promoting female employees. What company would want to defend itself in a sex-discrimination suit with its CEO marauding the female office pool?

Condit was shown the door in December 2003. Boeing desperately needed someone who could restore some ethical standards. Harry Stonecipher seemed to fill the bill. He was a "no-nonsense guy," according to his fans.

And under Stonecipher, Boeing appeared to be on a roll. The Pentagon had just lifted an ethics-related ban on bidding for Air Force rocket-launching contracts. And after Condit left, the company's stock price rose more than 50 percent.

Boeing has to consider the awful possibility that its new chief executive didn't take the job all that seriously. For starters, Stonecipher had been dragged out of retirement to take the helm. He was to retire soon again in May of next year. Perhaps he just regarded the Boeing job as a lark, a means to amass a few extra million between games of golf and afternoon romance.

When a board member asked him about the affair, he virtually shrugged. Sure, he was having an affair. And even the lowest member of middle management knows not to put incriminating evidence — whether business-related or love talk — into office e-mails. Boeing was already in hot water over internal e-mail related to the procurement scandal.

When asked whether he had advanced his lover's career, Stonecipher said, "absolutely false." Well, no board should have had to ask such questions, above all Boeing's.

It would appear that Stonecipher just didn't care. He said he fully understood Boeing's decision to show him the door. And as one of Boeing's biggest shareholders, Stonecipher profits from his own firing.

This is the 21st century, when American workers spend long hours on the job. Corporate America has tried hard to update its rules to allow affairs in the office — assuming that one trysting partner doesn't report to the other in the chain of command.

That such behavior squeaks by corporate guidelines doesn't make it smart. Some male executives may miss the days when they could regard their female workers as ripe for the picking. Viagra or no, those days are over.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

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