CEO "Crimes"--Treat Them Like Everyone Else?

Douglas Parker, US Airways CEO
Douglas Parker, US Airways CEO

There’s no question that the DUI arrest of US Airways Chief Executive Douglas Parker last month is making headlines in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened in decades past. CEO’s are no longer private citizens, and media scrutiny of corporate America has turned some of them into celebrities. Although the buck stops at the corner office, where should we draw the line?

On January 31, 2007 Douglas Parker was arrested for DUI, just hours after his company’s bid for Delta Airlineswas rejected. The 45 year old was pulled over after leaving a party at the FBR Open Golf Tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona.

According to a police report, Parker told police he had three beers during a two-hour period.

Word of the arrest stayed quiet until last Friday, but when it came out, a newspaper reported that Parker had a previous DUI conviction in 1991 and two other alcohol related incidents.

In a statement issued Friday night, Parker said “I was indeed irresponsible in my twenties… My mistake of last week was just that, a mistake, not a trend.”

Should the US Air Board of Directors exercise zero tolerance?

“A CEO’s should be the example for employees,” said Jonathan Bernstein, an expert in crisis communication at his own firm. “And I think he underplayed the seriousness of this in his comments to his employees.”

Bernstein thinks CEO Douglas Parker should be reviewed by his Board to see if this is an indication that he irresponsible in other ways as well. “I would question the way he’s responded to this more than the act itself. He truly has underplayed the seriousness of the situation in the eyes of the public.”

"I think he hoped this wouldn’t turn into a big mess,” added John Challenger, CEO of the Outplacement Firm Challenger Gray and Christmas. “He hoped to go to his Board and his employees and say ‘It happened, but it didn’t happen on the job. In fact US Airwaysstock performance has been quite strong under my leadership. So I’m asking some forgiveness here.’”

Parker is of course not the first CEO to face personal misconduct or legal issues. Former BoeingCEO Harry Stonechipher was caught in an affair with an employee and Former Radio Shack CEO David Edmondson seriously doctored his resume. The question becomes, "Which is worse, the crime or the cover-up?"

John Challenger doesn’t advocate zero tolerance. He says as a boss, if you let someone go, every time you learned of an affair, “You’d ruin your company, if you went that far.” But he adds, "As a CEO leader you need to recognize your behavior is a standard to everybody."