I just took an informal survey and discovered that a lot of people are under the impression that the American Red Cross is a religious organization. Maybe it's the cross that's throwing them (though it's really more of a plus sign), or maybe it's the fact that the 126-year-old disaster relief agency acted more like the morality police than an international humanitarian organization this week. After losing two presidents in the last six years -- Bernadine Healy resigned in 2001 amid accusations about the mishandling of donations for 9/11 victims; Martha J. Evans stepped down in 2005 after the Red Cross' response to Hurricane Katrina was deemed inadequate -- yet another leader has made a scandalous departure.
FOR THE RECORD:
FOR THE RECORD:
Red Cross: In Meghan Daum's Dec. 1, 2007, column, the description of Bernardine Healy's 2001 resignation as president of the Red Cross said she left "amid accusations of the mishandling of 9/11 donations." Healy resigned over multiple disagreements with the board and at a time when the organization was being criticized for using 9/11 donations for purposes other than direct 9/11 relief efforts. —
What was it this time? Were Red Cross blood drive volunteerscaught selling plasma on EBay?Did food packages intended for Mexican flood victims contain too many trans fats?No. For the first time in six years, all appeared to be running smoothly at the Red Cross. But then it was discovered that Mark Everson, who is 53, was having a "personal relationship" with a colleague. And for the Red Cross' board of governors, that was apparently as fireable an offense as botching a major relief effort. In a statement, the board said it had "concluded that the situation reflected poor judgment on Everson's part and diminished his ability to lead the organization in the future."
Except for people in Hollywood who use "personal relationship" to refer to affiliations with celebrities or high-powered executives they've met exactly once, it's pretty much accepted that the term is a euphemism for "sexual affair." And although Everson is hardly the first person in the world to engage in this kind of thing, it should be said that a) the woman in question was a subordinate and b) Everson is married.
The details are still trickling out. On Thursday, it was reported that the woman, who runs a Gulf Coast-based Red Cross chapter, is also married, and pregnant.
Obviously, this is not an ideal situation, but I'm not sure it warrants the man's immediate termination. Despite being a subordinate, the woman so far hasn't publicly claimed coercion, and no one has said anything about her getting an untoward raise or a new job title. Although adultery doesn't exactly fit the clean-cut (read: "hopelessly square") reputation of the Red Cross, firing someone for it without evidence of something more seems bizarrely antediluvian. Couldn't they have just suspended the guy?
If every act of adultery in the workplace was handled the same way, employee-retention rates in this country might start to resemble those on "The Apprentice." According to survey results released this year from the career information database the Vault, 33% of workers polled said they knew of married colleagues having affairs at the office. What's more, only 1% of managers said they would immediately fire employees for having workplace romances.
So why is the Red Cross taking time, resources and public attention away from cyclone victims in Bangladeshand people affected by the fires in California (an aid effort Everson was highly praised for) to wring its hands over what is ultimately a personal matter?
It's the sanctimony, stupid. Sure, we've always been a puritanical nation. But in the 1990s, when awareness of sexual harassment became widespread, a remarkable switcheroo occurred. "Progressive," politically correct folks got to act like prudish zealots by taking umbrage at anything white, male and/or privileged. Meanwhile, conservatives got to sit back and laugh at liberals' humorlessness and naivete, which, after all, is what "the elites" had been doing to conservatives for decades.
But then a funny thing happened. The preachiness of contemporary neoconservatism got in bed with the preachiness of 1990s-style political correctness. Suddenly, there was one rhetorical style, and it was a ballad of bumptious piety. It was as though we had finally been united by a single language. Religious conservatives bellyaching about abortion didn't sound all that different fromantiwar activistsgoing apoplectic about WMD lies. Of course, these two groups hate each other more than at any time in history. But don't we tend to reserve the most antipathy for those who remind us of ourselves? Don't we sometimes feel the most punitive toward mistakes that we fear could have been our own?
Whatever the details behind Everson's termination, what's convenient about his misdeed -- and what likely enabled the board's decision -- is that the family-values crowd can accuse him of poor moral leadership, the P.C. crowd can assume the woman was victimized, and everyone goes home satisfied, or at least self-satisfied.
But in the age of perpetual umbrage, convenient judgments made in the name of damage control could themselves be damaging. The Red Cross is an organization on which we rely in times of crisis. So it's troubling to watch it create so many of its own.