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Vicki Larson Headshot

Should You Lose Your Job Over An Affair?

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When does your sex life become anyone else's business (other than, obviously, the person you're sleeping with)?

Apparently when you're a retired four-star general and the director of the CIA.

Many were shocked at David Petraeus' announcement last week that he was resigning because of an extramarital affair. Some were surprised that the celebrated 60-year-old had been sleeping with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, a 40-year-old married mother of two young boys. Some were shocked because he was resigning and that he had an affair after 38 years of marriage. And yet others were astounded that he was stepping down over what essentially is a very private issue.

Is an affair an indication of one's ability -- or inability -- to perform his or her job? Or is it a very personal matter between the spouses and their family?

The answer depends on the circumstances. Sometimes you're just not going to be able to perform your job if you're schtupping some attractive young thing and sometimes you are. It's important to distinguish between the two.

By all appearances, Petraeus was doing his job in the year that he and Broadwell were messing around. And since even President Obama doesn't believe there's been any evidence of a national security breach because of the affair, Petraeus probably didn't have to resign.

Not so for Christopher Kubasik. Just hours after Petraeus announced his resignation, Kubasik, Lockheed Martin's incoming chief executive and a married man, was ousted for having a "lengthy, close personal relationship" with a subordinate. Clearly, Kubasik had to go.

What's the difference? There are all sorts of complications when you sleep with a subordinate. Even if you don't end up fired, fooling around on the job can lead to declines in work performance, a loss of respect and credibility and lower office morale -- not to mention whiffs of favoritism and sexual harassment charges if the relationship goes south, according to Amy Nicole Salvaggio, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa.

Petraeus and Broadwell weren't co-workers, she was not his subordinate, spending time with her wasn't a show of favoritism, and he had no say in her ability to rise up the ranks of her profession. It was just your basic, plain ol' vanilla affair.

And that's a big difference.

As a society, we're not big on infidelity -- in theory anyway. A good 92 percent of us believe it's immoral for a married man or woman to have an affair. Most of us -- 64 percent -- wouldn't forgive a spouse for having an extramarital affair, and 62 percent would get a divorce if we discovered our spouse was cheating. Yet, infidelity continues to occur -- most likely by many of the same people who say they're adamantly against it. We say we believe in monogamy and we marry expecting it, but our behavior proves otherwise.

We may lose our marriage over infidelity, but do we have to lose our job, too? In a very unscientific online poll, 75 percent of respondents said they didn't think infidelity should end someone's career.

It's clear that a lot depends on the circumstances.

The majority of people cheating -- our friends, co-workers and neighbors, maybe even our spouses -- most likely aren't losing their jobs over their extramarital sexual escapades. They're perfectly able to do their work, coach their kids' Little League team, volunteer at the food bank, entertain family and friends at backyard barbecues, sit on the board of their local Friends of the Library and still have a romp in the sack with their spouse (if only not to raise suspicion). Sure, they may be distracted -- it's intoxicating to think about the next tryst and the lovely little lacy lingerie that will be worn, only to be quickly discarded -- but they're probably much more distracted at the office by checking Facebook, playing Words With Friends and texting back and forth with their kid who just got his driver's permit and wants to borrow the car.

But it's different for people who have power, whose decisions may impact society in serious ways or whose dalliances would create a major conflict of interest. Insisting that we don't give a darn what a public figure does in his or her private sexual life doesn't quite cut it because obviously we do care. We worry that someone who can so easily lie to his or her spouse and family could just as easily deceive and lie to the rest of us.

Yet we have a long history of cheating among the married powers that be. Of course, we have no way to know if men like Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, etc., would have made better or worse decisions if they were being faithful or if our safety was somehow being compromised by the fact that they weren't. It appears as if they were doing fine.

And that's the big question no one quite has the answer to: does having an affair lead you to make bad decisions across the board? Does it impact your ability to lead, manage or govern, or just your ability to stick to your marital vows? And if it doesn't impact your ability to lead, manage or govern, why would you have to resign or be ousted?

You don't have to be an adulterer to show incredibly poor judgment, an utter disregard of morals and a lack of character; Enron's Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow sure are proof of that, as is Bernie Madoff.

Affairs are complicated, messy things -- just like sexuality and, while we're at it, marriage. Petraeus isn't the first person to cheat on his spouse and he won't be the last. Infidelity probably isn't the smartest idea if you're married (and want to stay married), but it doesn't mean you're an idiot when it comes to every other aspect of your life, including your job.

I don't think people like Petraeus, who are capable of cheating and doing their job, should lose their jobs; people like Kubasik should.

What do you think?