Another day, another sex scandal. For most of this week Channel Seven CEO Tim Worner has been in the news thanks to his extra-marital affair with a former member of staff becoming public knowledge.
It is a spectacle you wouldn’t wish upon anyone; as a general rule most would probably prefer to have the explicit and salacious details of any tryst private.
Yet it is difficult to cast the coverage of Worner and Amber Harrison’s affair as merely titillating fodder for the gossip pages. In some cases there is little legitimate public interest in the extra-curricular activities of consenting adults, but not here.
A relationship between the CEO of a publicly listed company and a junior member of staff, where there are alleged pay-outs and expense peculiarities involved, is not a purely private matter.
As Tony Boyd writes in the Financial Review today:
‘This is more than just a harmless office relationship that has ended in a dispute over compensation and breaches of confidentiality.
The office affair has lifted the lid on unusual credit card usage at the highest levels of the organisation.
Did shareholders pay for the hotel bills and taxis when Worner and Harrison were meeting for sex? What are the accounting systems at the company like when it is possible for an accounting firm to find more than $250,000 in excessive claims, most of which were later allegedly disputed or found to be appropriate?
Shareholders have every reason to question whether Worner was fulfilling his contractual obligations given the amount of time spent thinking about being with Harrison or actually being with her.”
The company attempted to keep this matter shielded from the public eye. The only reason it came to light is because Harrison lifted the lid after negotiations stalled, which in itself raises questions for the company to answer.
Worner has admitted the affair took place but has not confirmed a number of serious allegations made by Harrison.
According to her statement of claim, Harrison was encouraged by an executive at the company to keep quiet lest she become Australia’s answer to Monica Lewinsky.
“Do you really want to be that girl and have this all come out in public?” Harrison was allegedly asked. “You are just some girl who slept with a guy at work. This isn’t worth more than what we are offering you.”
It is as dispiriting as it is predictable: saddle the junior party with the responsibility for the affair and let the powerful party continue unencumbered by any adverse consequences.
Aside from the injustice inherent in that proposition it begs this question: at what point does a person’s judgement in a personal realm – to engage in an affair with a junior member of staff – impede their ability to lead a company?
If an individual, charged with executing the strategic direction of a large company, is capable of behaving in a manner the company has described as “completely unacceptable”, over an extended period of time, how is their performance affected?
Or are we expected to believe that a person can simultaneously make compromised decisions in a personal sense, whilst exercising superior judgement commercially? It tests the bounds of logic.
Of course, no one is perfect: we all make mistakes. The difference, however, is that we are not all chief executives, hired and paid handsomely to operate at a higher level than the rest of us.