Dating a Coworker: What’s the Big Deal? A cautionary tale from Darren Huston
The CEO of Priceline Group, Darren Huston, has stepped down because of a "personal conduct issue," according to a release from the company.
"Mr. Huston resigned following an investigation overseen by independent members of the Board of Directors of the facts and circumstances surrounding a personal relationship that Mr. Huston had with an employee of the Company who was not under his direct supervision," the release said.
Huston had been CEO of the group, which includes the travel and booking sites Kayak, Priceline, Booking.com, and OpenTable, since 2014 after serving as the CEO of Booking.com since 2011.
Under Huston the company grew revenue from $4.3 billion in 2011 to $6.5 billion in 2015.
Over the same time the stock tripled, going from about $440 a share at the start of 2011 to about $1,350 a share today. Shares are down about $14 a share, or 1%, in premarket trading.
Huston will be replaced on an interim basis by Jeffrey Boyd, who served as CEO of the company from 2002 to 2013, until a new CEO is found.
So he dated a Coworker: what’s the Big Deal?
Chas Rampenthal, who serves as General Counsel for LegalZoom.com, suggests that under some circumstances it may be permissible for one employee to date another, but he warns:
If you have a “C” (think CEO, CFO, COO) or VP in your title, you should always think twice about dating anyone in the workplace, even if he or she is not a direct report or within your chain of command.
But it’s not just the C-suite executive’s interests that are on the line in a workplace relationship. It’s the company’s brand, financial standing, and ethical culture that hang in the balance.
Former Priceline CEO Darren Huston, who is married, was having an affair with an employee.
That employee was not under Huston’s direct supervision, but Huston’s behavior was inconsistent with the Board’s expectations for executive conduct.
The Priceline Group’s Code of Conduct for employees, publicly available here and stamped with the slogan, “The Right Results the Right Way,” doesn’t single out extramarital affairs as contrary to the company’s values, but it does call upon employees who observe troubling behavior to use one of several whistleblower options, and that apparently is what precipitated Huston’s downfall.
An investigation by the board confirmed the whistleblower’s report, and Huston lost not only his plum job but over $13 million in stock grants.
When the CEO acts dishonorably, it creates a yawning gap between what the company says it’s about and the character of its top leader.
Self-restraint is a crucial value for everyone in the organization, but it’s an invisible trait, noticeable only when it’s violated.
Darren Huston’s story is a cautionary tale, and ethically intelligent leaders will say to themselves not only, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but also, “That doesn’t have to happen to me.”
The ethical culture, reputation, and market valuation of their companies depend on it.