Lessons For HR From The Penn State Scandal


Unless one has been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks, it is impossible NOT to be familiar with the Penn State saga. Jerry Sandusky, the former Defensive Coordinator for Joe Paterno's football team was accused of molesting young boys, some of which occurred in the Penn State facilities and virtually all of it was accomplished with Penn State resources by offering the boys such things as hats, jerseys, access, etc.) My ethics class had a great time identifying the moral failures that were exhibited by a number of characters in the system and they identified some critical principles for dealing with ethical scandals. While one hopes never to see such a scandal in the C-suite, given some of the corporate scandals that have occurred over the last decade, I do think there might be some cautionary notes for CHROs and other senior HR professionals.

Involve the Bureaucracy, but Don't be Limited to It. Every organization has some due process for investigating ethical complaints and HR leaders who discover ethical or legal breaches have to use the process. However, in some cases it is simply not enough to leave it at that. Joe Paterno and graduate assistant Mike McQueery were both criticized for reporting the incident (where McQueery had apparently caught Sandusky molesting a young boy) to the relevant individuals within the university bureaucracy, but then leaving it alone after that. They suggested that these individuals had an obligation to at least follow up with those administrators to see what action had been taken, and at most to also notify the local police.

Plausible Deniability may Protect you Legally, but it Exposes you Morally. When one considers the corporate scandals such as Enron, Tyco, etc., a question often arises as to "Where was HR?" In most cases I would guess that the HR leader had a suspicion that something was amiss, but did not want to dig deep in order to maintain some plausible deniability. While such deniability may fulfill one's legal requirements, the moral guilt for thousands of investors losing their wealth and thousands of employees losing their pensions and jobs is not avoided. A number of the students noted that Joe Paterno must have had an inkling that something was going on. Sandusky had been contacted by police years before about an incident in the shower, and within a year or so he had retired in spite of being in line to succeed Paterno as the head coach. Some wondered if his "retirement" had in any way been linked to his behavior, and if so, then they wondered what did Joe really know (or at least had reason to be suspicious of)?

Loyalty Has to Have Limits. The relationship between a CHRO and CEO is often a very close one, and the CHRO has to be seen as "loyal" in order to develop the level of trust that enables the CHRO to effectively coach the CEO. The failure of many not to fully investigate and reveal the Jerry Sandusky events was probably due in large part to loyalty. It may have been loyalty to Penn State not to tarnish its name (as Dr. Phil would say, "How's that working for you?"), to Joe Paterno not to trash his reputation, or to Sandusky himself. Loyalty creates tremendous pressure to ignore wrongdoing, but there has to be a limit.

Kevin Cox of American Express recently talked in a program for potential CHROs about the importance of courage. He noted that courage entails doing what is right when there is risk of tremendous cost. With the increasing pressures on CEOs and other senior leaders to play in the gray areas, the need for courage among senior leaders grows more intense, and the Penn State affair illustrates what happens when that courage is missing.