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Julie Roehm: Did the Walmart Scandal Shatter Her Career?


A recent New York Times article details the story of two former Walmart executives—Julie Roehm and Sean Womack—accused of engaging in an affair while hunting for new ad agencies for the uber-retailer. Walmart made the claims in a court filing and, the Times story says, Julie Roehm and Sean Womack pursued employment with one of the agencies they ended up recommending.

According to the March 20 article on the Walmart scandal:

“Instead of working solely in WalMart’s interest,” the company said, Ms. Roehm “frequently put her own first. She did not merely fail to avoid conflicts of interest, she invited them.”

WalMart backed up its assertions with what it said were e-mail messages sent by Ms. Roehm and Mr. Womack, both married, from their work and private accounts.

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“I hate not being able to call you or write you,” Ms. Roehm wrote early last fall, according to an e-mail message Mr. Womack’s wife provided to WalMart. “I think about us together all the time. Little moments like watching your face when you kiss me.”

Reached yesterday in Las Vegas, Ms. Roehm denied WalMart’s accusations of an affair with Mr. Womack, and she said she had not had job discussions with Draft FCB.

“There was never any discussions about us going to work with them full time,” said Ms. Roehm. “I know what e-mails they have, and that’s not at all what they prove.”

The fallout between Wal-Mart and Ms. Roehm, considered by many to be a rising star in marketing, shook the advertising world because Ms. Roehm had overseen Wal-Mart’s $580 million ad agency selection in the fall. After Wal-Mart fired Ms. Roehm, it also fired Draft FCB, the Interpublic Group agency she had selected for the most important part of the assignment. Wal-Mart has since reassigned the business.

Ms. Roehm sued Wal-Mart for firing her shortly after her dismissal, asserting that the company had not given a valid reason and owed her money under her contract with Wal-Mart. …

In its filing, WalMart described Ms. Roehm and Mr. Womack as executives determined to advance their careers, even at the expense of WalMart’s reputation — by, for example, accepting expensive bottles of vodka and dinner at exclusive restaurants.

Ms. Roehm, in responding to WalMart’s assertions, said that she was hoping to “settle this amicably and move on.”

Julie Roehm BusinessWeek Story

A Feb. 12 BusinessWeek story presents more of Julie Roehm’s perspective on the Walmart Scandal:

As Julie Roehm tells it, hers is a cautionary tale of what happens when a self-described change agent goes to work for a company that needs to reinvent itself but can’t. … Roehm acknowledges mistakes, among them moving too quickly and not adapting to her new workplace. But she also paints a picture of warring fiefdoms and a passive-aggressive culture that was hostile to outsiders.

Does Scandal=Career Sabotage?

Whether Julie Roehm and Sean Womack are guilty as Walmart charges, whether Walmart is a stodgy employer that’s unfriendly to neophytes, as Roehm suggests in BusinessWeek, one thing is sure: the story smacks of career peril.

Or does it?

The Times story says Roehm and Womack, who were fired by Walmart, are now working together part time, as marketing consultants. So maybe their careers aren’t shattered. Maybe the ill-fame will catapult their careers to new glory, earning them better salaries. It may be too soon to tell, but they seem fine in the short-run.

In the United States—and abroad—scandal doesn’t always mean doomsday for one’s career. Consider President Clinton, Marion Barry and Silvio Berlusconi. Some might say they have Teflon qualities that reject taint. Others, like former Congressmen Mark Foley and Gary Condit, haven’t proven as lucky.

If there is takeaway moral from these stories, I think it’s that scandals are best avoided when it comes to your career.

What’s your take on this story. Would you avoid an inter-office romance if you knew it could cost you your job?

Matt Schneider
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