The XX Factor

What Really Happened to Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd?

A surprising candidate was added to the nation’s unemployment rolls Friday afternoon: Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd.  HP’s Board of Directors decided to separate Hurd from his position after HP marketing consultant (and occasional actress and reality show contestant) Jodie Fisher alleged he had sexually harassed her .

Even though HP investigators decided the charge against Hurd was baseless, they discovered in the course of looking into the situation that their now-former CEO had submitted bogus expense reports totaling $20,000 to the company for reimbursement. Then there were the payments to Fisher approved by Hurd that the San Jose Mercury News delicately described as having no “legitimate business purpose.”

Both Hurd and Fisher deny any sexual relationship ever occurred.  So what exactly did happen? Why did Hurd-as Fisher claims-come to a private settlement with Fisher and her attorney (the ever-ubiquitous Gloria Allred) even as HP found no evidence of sexual harassment? Was Hurd simply an unsuccessful lothario or was he an outright cad? Was Fisher a middling extortionist ( as some commenting on blogs would have it )? Or is she heroic single mom putting up with years of ill behavior because she didn’t have choice if she wanted to feed her child?  Did the HP Board of Directors have much more knowledge of the situation than has been publicly acknowledged, or did they act hastily?

With so much information still to come, it’s hard to say what really happened here. My best guess: a flirtation between a middle-aged man with too much power and not enough sense and a middle-aged woman who, like many of us in 2010, has moments of financial desperation, took a bad, bad turn. Soon there were lawyers, and corporate consultants, all of whom stood to make money from the mess. Everyone involved from the possible paramour to the professionals paid to make this go away lost their sense of perspective.  Soon you have one CEO minus a job.

When Stephanie Losee and I examined (the astonishingly common) liaisons between bosses and subordinates for our book Office Mate , we quickly came to the conclusion that unless you are Bill Gates and Melinda French, this is one romance not worth pursuing. Why? These relationships blow up over everything from conflict of interest and favoritism issues to, like in Hurd’s case, allegations of sexual harassment.

Hurd is, in fact, far from the only the corporate honcho to find himself caught up in a workplace relationship gone horrifically wrong. In recent years, the heads of organizations as varied as The American Red Cross to Starwood Hotels have found themselves permanently separated from their positions after accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct on the job. The IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn was somewhat luckier, keeping his title but still spending a chunk of the fall 2008-when he should have been concentrating on the world’s dire economic situation-instead facing internal investigation after an affair with a married subordinate.

In terms of the Hurd/Fisher imbroglio, there are numerous unresolved issues for intrepid reporters to uncover, beginning with a basic question of corporate governance: Why does a man accused of faking $20,000 in expense reports get goodbye gift of more than $12 million, with the potential to make millions more via stock purchases? No doubt Hurd will turn up at another corporation shortly. As for Fisher, I hope the private settlement with Hurd was a large one. I can’t imagine many corporations out there are going to hire her to assist with their marketing efforts and customer relations any time soon.

Photograph of Mark Hurd by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News.