When Hands-On Bosses Go Too Far

When people complain about bosses who push them around, they usually are not speaking literally. But sometimes they are.

On a June morning three years ago, eBay CEO Meg Whitman was preparing for an interview with Reuters about the virtual world Second Life. A recently hired employee, Young Mi Kim, was writing talking points on a white board. Whitman was nervous about the interview, according to reports. Her nerves turned to anger, and Kim was an easy target.

While no one witnessed the incident, several former eBay employees told The New York Times that Whitman forcefully pushed Kim in addition to using expletives. Now Whitman wants to become the next governor of California, and her opponent, state Attorney General Jerry Brown, may use the incident to stain her image as a capable and successful businesswoman.

Whitman is not the first person to be driven to violence by fear of the press. In August 1973, as the Watergate scandal began to engulf his presidency, Richard Nixon panicked when faced with a crowd of hostile reporters and pushed his press secretary Ron Ziegler into the spotlight while he took shelter behind closed doors. “I don’t want any press with me and you take care of it,” Nixon reportedly said. Unfortunately, the press was already there, and a CBS camera crew captured the entire incident.

Presidents and corporate chieftains are still human beings, and they are bound to make mistakes. A good leader is not a person who never makes mistakes, but rather someone who is able to admit those mistakes and do what must be done to correct them. In these incidents, Whitman and Nixon both did what they needed to do to make things right.

By Ziegler’s account, Nixon apologized in front of the entire staff shortly after the incident took place. Ziegler reported that Nixon “said ‘Look, I’m sorry that happened back there.’” Years later, the one-time press secretary explained to The Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger, “We were facing horrendous problems. It was merely a matter of Nixon venting some of this frustration on me.” Ziegler continued to work for Nixon following the incident. Even as others distanced themselves from Nixon after his fall from power, Ziegler remained on friendly terms with the former president.

Whitman also was strong enough to ’fess up to her mistake, and, according to Kim, the incident was resolved “in a way that speaks well for [Whitman] and for eBay.” Kim and Whitman would not comment specifically on the terms of their agreement, but a former eBay employee close to Kim reportedly said that Whitman made several attempts to reach out to Kim to apologize during the weeks following the incident. Unlike Ziegler, Kim wasn’t satisfied with just words. She also got a monetary settlement of “around $200,000,” according to one former employee. While Kim and Whitman may still not be the best of friends, Kim returned to eBay after just four months and is now a senior manager for corporate and executive communications.

Of course, bosses should not shove their employees around. People in powerful positions should keep in mind that their workplace relationships are inherently imbalanced, which makes it easy to cross the line into abuse. Sometimes, however, even ordinarily vigilant bosses can allow a situation to get the better of them. Frequently what matters most is what happens next.

When push comes shove and shoving comes to politics, California voters will ultimately have to decide which says more about Meg Whitman: the fact that she once got inappropriately physical with an employee or the fact that she had the business acumen and personal tact to make things right.

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About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

2 Comments on When Hands-On Bosses Go Too Far

  1. Meg Whitman made $60,000 dollars an hour for her work at EBay. I know the top person should get paid more, but $60,000 an hour? She said they company had to cut costs, so she said well let's ship thousand of job oversea and pay the workers their low wages, but she did not take a cut in pay to help out the company, even though she made as much in one second as most worker make in an hour. How many now out of work US EBay workers would like a 17 dollar an hour job, thousands, who many US EBay jobs could have been saved if they cut at the top and not just the bottom. Whey you get paid nearly half a million dollars a day it does go to you head and you do get pushy. How do the CEOs get paid such unGodly amount, they sit on each others corporate boards of directors, and the vote for each other grossly overpaid compensation packages.

  2. "mistake"? understate much?

    There is no excuse for violence, if Whitman can't control her temper, she won't be fit to lock up others in California jails for lesser offences

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