November 1, 2014

Best Buy CEO Resigns: a Lesson in Workplace Relationships

Best Buy was in the news recently as it announced a $1.7 billion quarterly loss, along with layoffs and the closure of 50 of its 1100 stores.  And then came the news that Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn had resigned upon mutual agreement.  If you weren’t listening carefully, you might have assumed the usual story:  poor financial results led to his forced resignation.

Best Buy

In fact, that isn’t the reason (at least not the main reason) he is gone.  The Board revealed that it was investigating an alleged inappropriate relationship Dunn had with a 29-year-old female subordinate.  The Board’s action involves claims that company assets were misused in that relationship — whatever that means.   It’s not clear how much money or assets are involved — whether it was a case of buying her gifts and padding the expense account, or paying her an exhorbitant salary she wouldn’t otherwise have merited, or something else.

Oh, did I forget to say Dunn is married?  Well he is, although he certainly wouldn’t be the first CEO who has had an affair — and with a subordinate.

But affairs with subordinates are tricky situations.  You might be tempted to think that in the 21st century, a relationship is a personal matter.  However, every relationship between a manager and a subordinate is the company’s business, to a degree.

Why Workplace Relationships Become the Company’s Business

First, workplace relationships between manager and subordinate can open up a company to a claim of sexual harassment.  A relationship may well start out consensual (at least consensual in the CEO’s or manager’s eyes).  But if the subordinate has second thoughts later or the relationship sours, it may lead to a claim of harassment.  It is not uncommon for so-called consensual arrangements to end in sexual harassment claims.

Second, how other employees see things is often very different from the way the parties involved in the relationship see it.  A relationship at the CEO level with a subordinate often sets off a ripple effect of suspicions of favoritism, poor morale and churn — especially when a company is under fiscal stress like Best Buy.  The CEO is a very visible person.  All eyes are on him or her.  Employees and the Board lose confidence, secretly thinking “no wonder the company is going down the tubes and layoffs are imminent — your brain is somewhere else, Mr. CEO, and not on the company.”   Jealous co-workers or those on the outs with the CEO will be eager to rat out the CEO to the CEO’s boss, the Board.

That’s why publicly-traded companies take such allegations so seriously.  The whole situation is fraught with issues.  They may have no choice but to launch a major investigation, sometimes using outside law firms  — even if neither party in the relationship is complaining.

In Best Buy’s case, that relationship has had an impact well beyond two people.  Now it means more stress on a company already reeling.  Instead of focusing on fixing its business model, the company will be spending the next six months to a year recruiting a new CEO.

For Dunn, it will impact his and his family’s financial situation. Leaving a publicly traded company at age 51 as opposed to making it to retirement age, could be a loss of “hundreds of millions of dollars” according to commentator TJ Walker on Forbes.  And it’s not clear the impact on the subordinate, but I can tell you from past experience as Vice President of HR in the corporate world, at the very least it may put a cloud on her career, even if the company does not take adverse action against her.

Workplace Relationship Lessons for Small Businesses

So what does all this have to do with small businesses?  There are a few lessons.  A small business owner may not have to worry about a Board of Directors swooping in and forcing a resignation.  But consider the churn that may be going on under the surface.  It’s incredibly hard to keep a relationship a secret for long in the workplace.

And it’s not just the owner’s relationships I am talking about.  Any manager who has a workplace relationship with a subordinate can put the company at risk, opening it up to a harassment claim that would be expensive to defend, or might cause the business to go under.  Most small businesses do not have insurance to cover such claims, or are underinsured, according to Bolt Insurance Agency.

Small business workplaces tend to be filled with people who have relationships.  It may be a family business.  And in small businesses it tends to be natural to hire people with whom you have relationships.

What can you do? Make sure managers know what sexual harassment is so they can avoid leaving themselves and the company open to a claim.  Keep your eyes open to budding relationships.  Take steps to take important decisions about the subordinate (such as pay raises) out of the hands of the manager, or when possible transfer the employee to another supervisor — yet stay fair to both parties.  In a small workplace it may be tough to take such steps, but you need to protect the business.

The Best Buy situation is a reminder that workplace relationships are full of issues that go well beyond the two people in a relationship.

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Anita Campbell - CEO


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses, and also serves as CEO of TweakYourBiz.com.

9 Reactions

  1. Thanks for letting the Small Business Trends Community know how this went down.

    And, I thought it was because of the X-Mas fiasco, (couldn’t ship gifts out in time for the holiday) and online business changes.

    WOW.

    The Franchise King®

    • Joel, it’s an all too familiar story, and it happens more frequently than most people realize. We only hear about the most highly publicized cases, such as Mark Hurd at HP from a few years ago, and now Best Buy.

      But I personally know of a situation that happened at another company. It was kept hush hush because the executive involved was fairly high level. I was told that it started out as a consensual relationship but then the woman involved reported it to the Board of Directors because she was “suffering from guilt.” She had recorded voice mail messages that were highly incriminating. Turns out, when the executive hired a private investigator, it was a shakedown — she had done it before at a different company.

      – Anita

      • I guess that sometimes, “It takes two to tango…?”

        Some, I’d guess, have turned into marriages…

        The Franchise King®

      • Joel, yes it does take two to tango. In that case both of them lost their jobs, because both were at fault. So both paid the price.

        And imagine how stupid he must have felt, knowing that not only had he jeopardized his career and his family (he was married), but he had been made a fool of, too. I didn’t know either of them personally but I remember at the time thinking “what a waste of an executive’s career.” I could have sympathized had it been a case of true love in which neither side could help falling in love, and eventually went off and got married — but clearly it wasn’t. Who could have confidence in an executive who made such poor judgment calls?

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