Whistleblower Is the Real Embarrassment to Boeing

Opinion: David Coursey is much more concerned about the employee who blew the whistle on ex-CEO Harry Stonecipher than the affair itself. After all, isn't reading other people's e-mail a firing offense?

There is something troubling about the ouster of Harry Stonecipher at Boeing for violating the companys ethics code. Its not that the ex-CEO is gone, though strictly speaking I dont think employees consensual sex lives are an employers business. What bothers me is that the letter complaining about Stoneciphers affair with an employee included what is described as "a packet" of information documenting the affair, including copies of e-mails.

According to AP, "Stonecipher resigned Sunday at the board of directors request after acknowledging the affair, which was initially reported to company officials in a letter from an employee that was accompanied by a packet of material as evidence.

"Boeing officials have not disclosed more details. But the company source said Wednesday that inappropriate e-mail exchanges between the two, included in the tipsters packet, played a part in Stoneciphers ouster," the wire service said.

Am I mistaken, or does this suggest the "whistleblower" in this case somehow acquired e-mail messages that werent intended for him or her? And, if so, how does one come into possession of such messages without violating the same ethical rules Stonecipher himself violated, an omnibus clause that forbade doing anything that might "cause embarrassment to the company."

Strictly speaking, its not the affair that made the company look bad so much as the whistleblower "helpfully" making it public by informing the Boeings board, an ethically reborn bunch of hair-trigger moralists. And its not that Boeings board is concerned about morals, its that the loss of government contracts forced them down the straight-and-narrow. Where was Boeings board when the real misdeeds were committed?

As for the new rules, Id love to see Boeings "morals" clause tested in court. That policy—which Stonecipher implemented to help clean up scandal-ridden Boeing—is supposed to have been signed by 160,000 Boeing workers, some of whom probably thought they were being treated like children because their big bosses had slimed everyones good name.

That might make someone angry enough to take a shot at a huge target, which indeed Stonecipher had become. This is, after all, a man whose previous business strategy had earned him the nickname "Hatchet Harry." Given a chance to take the guy down, I bet there would have been a long line of volunteers.


For more insights from David Coursey, check out his Weblog.

I think Hatchet Harry got what he had coming. Not because of the affair—thats between the parties involved— but because he wasnt smart enough to realize what a target hed become. If youre going to shake up a company on morality issues, youd better lead by example, if for no other reason than because there will be unhappy people aiming for your back.

But Stonecipher still gets credit. When confronted with the evidence he confessed and resigned. The real slime in this matter is the whistleblower, who, in taking the rules into his or her own hands, committed a far greater sin than Hatchet Harry.

I am much more concerned about authorized access to company information—regardless of how its used short of reporting a felony—than I am about Harry and his friend. There are worse things than reading other peoples e-mail, but its still a firing offense. Even at companies without Boeings moral fervor.

Contributing Editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. Former executive producer of DEMO and other industry events, he also operates a technology consulting and event management business. A full bio and contact information may be found on his Web site, www.coursey.com.