What Constitutes a Firing Offense, Anyway?

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I don’t normally stray into politics in this space; I leave that to the swamp creatures (and I provide a link because I’m a good colleague, not because they need my help in the traffic department…trafficwise, Swampland is Disneyland and Work in Progress is the cubicle down the hall with the mini-Snickers in the jar).

But a comment by Tony Snow the other day struck me. In referring to Paul Wolfowitz arranging for a raise and promotion for his g.f., Snow said the White House didn’t consider his actions “firing offenses.” Here, the White House transcript of the exchange at the press conference (bolds mine):

Q Tony, on Wolfowitz. ABC was reporting that — on Wolfowitz’s future — “all options are on the table,” and second, that it’s an “open question” whether he should stay. Does that reflect the White House views?

MR. SNOW: Let me explain. There are two separate things going on. Number one, there is an inquiry right now — I believe Mr. Wolfowitz today is talking to the World Bank, presenting his side — on personnel matters. And what we’ve said all along is, first, we do support Paul Wolfowitz.

But the second thing is, you need to separate these into separate inquiries, and a lot of times I think they get bundled together. He has made it clear that he made mistakes. It is pretty clear also that there were problems, in terms of communicating the proper ways of dealing with personnel issues — as you know, originally he tried to recuse himself, then an ethics board said that he ought to get himself involved. The fact is that he made mistake; they’re not, in our view, firing offenses.

Which got me to thinking. What exactly does make up a firing offense these days, anyway? One thing seems clear to me: there’s the set of rules for the high-level executives, and then there’s the other set for the minions.

That’s fine with me, so long as the rules for the leaders are stricter–even draconian. Let’s navel-gaze for a minute. Chris Albrecht, the CEO of our sister company HBO, was fired last week for assaulting his own g.f. in a parking lot. His ouster took Hollywood and the media biz by surprise; he was, after all, the explosively successful rainmaker who had made HBO a cultural and economic powerhouse. The strange thing was that he had suffered no apparent career repercussions for a similar incident in 1991.

What changed? I’m not sure, but it seems to me that the private lives–and private mistakes–of business leaders are increasingly in the public domain. Andres Martinez, the editor of the L.A. Times editorial page, recently resigned in a kerfuffle involving, again, a lady friend; in his case, the g.f. was a former employee of Brian Grazer, whom Martinez had hired to guest-edit the opinion page. Though the accounts differ, in the end the connection was seen as a conflict of interest and Martinez lost his job.

And then there’s the tragic case of Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at MIT who had to leave her job when lies were discovered in her résumé. TIME columnist Michael Kinsley argued in a recent issue that hers was, in fact, not a firing offense; a number of you argued that, too, right here.

I disagree. What the cases have in common is not the offense, but the subsequent breach of trust once the offense became public. No public company–or university or global, quasi-governmental institution–can these days afford that kind of collateral damage to their reputations. We–the shareholders, the consumers, the bloggers–will vote with our feet.

As for Wolfowitz and the World Bank, not only did he breach public trust but also explicit rules regarding conflict of interest. So how is that not a firing offense? Ought not the likes of World Bank leaders be held to even higher standards than the rest of us?

UPDATE: you all know by now that Wolfowitz agreed to resign yesterday.