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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 to 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.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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