Talent or Ethics: Which Side Are You On?

11/10/17

I spent last week leading the “The Modern CHRO Role” program aimed at developing potential successors to the CHRO. Between the 23 participants and 5 current or former CHROs teaching, the topic of “Where was HR?” in the allegations of patterns of sexual harassment by top executives at Uber, Weinstein Company, Amazon Studios, etc. came up. In addition, over the past few weeks I’ve received numerous requests from the press to address this issue, and it is clear that their assumption is that HR failed.  

I don’t disagree that HR failed in these specific cases, but I think it’s more important to understand why. My reading of these incidents points to one common denominator: Talent. In every case that has hit the press over the past few months, the alleged harasser was viewed as “critical talent” within the organization. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to infer that these individuals were held to a different standard because of their high potential/performance. My guess is that 90% of the employees in these organizations would have been dismissed for exhibiting the same behavior these individuals seemed to get away with over what seems like a prolonged period of time.

This is not to blame the HR executives involved. It could be that they feared bringing disciplinary action against these individuals…if so, shame on them. However, it could also be that they courageously raised the issues, and were simply overruled or ignored by those with the final decision-making power. If that is the case, then the next step seems to be to convince those at the top of the long-term organizational and personal consequences of avoiding taking action. Organizationally, failing to act only reinforces the harasser’s self-perceived importance, and the belief that he can get away with anything. Personally, Travis Kalanick was pushed out of Uber for his failure to control the culture, and Jeff Bezos' personal brand has taken a serious hit. Do those decision makers understand their own personal risk?

I do not claim to know what it is like to have to decide the tradeoff between adhering to ethical values by disciplining, or even dismissing someone on whom the future of the organization may rest and downplaying or ignoring their bad behavior as a way to retain that talent. But I do know that these tradeoffs should be discussed and debated before the situation arises, lest it be easier to make the latter, rather than the former, choice.