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When Your Executive is Blowing It

I sometimes wonder where my blog ideas come from. Oh wait, I live in Toronto. We know all about crisis in leadership. Enough said.

Seriously though, what can HR do when an Executive is blowing it, impacting his/her credibility as well as the organization’s?

In larger, publicly-held organizations, there are ways of taking the offending Executive out of the equation or putting in measures while the person gets help. This sort of extrication is typically led by the surviving Executive team or the shareholders. Strangely, HR may not even be directly involved, other than to pick up the pieces and support the communication strategy.

But what if it is an Executive of a private organization, where the CEO is the owner or substantial shareholder, or in an elected position, where there is no mechanism to take the person out? Do we in HR have any responsibility to lead or orchestrate in these circumstances? If so what is it? Stage an intervention? Prepare a distancing strategy?

For many in HR this is one of those conundrums. If you do nothing to try and change the situation, it looks like you condone the behaviour. Yet, do you dare state the case and risk being fired yourself? Is it even your role to deal with it? Can you support another Executive who can take the shot?

It would be awesome if HR folks were only allowed to work in well-run businesses with no challenges with leadership. They could spend their time building tidy ships where policies and procedures work in sync with organizational values. They would have time to put pretty bows on programs and hire engaged employees who could take sales and relationship building to a new level. Sadly, the organizations with big challenges outnumber the ones who don’t.

I’m not sure bad behaviour among Executives has changed that much in the last forty or so years. Just watch an episode of Mad Men and you’ll understand what I mean. Today’s violations are just a new generation of the atrocities of the past:

  • Executives who think they are excluded from certain rules, including safety procedures, and encourage lax or unsafe behaviours in others simply by coming across as cavalier about safety.
  • Executives who live beyond their means or who display a distasteful sense of wealth, especially in circumstances where they’ve positioned the pay or benefits of others “at market”, purely to keep up appearances.
  • Executives who are sexist or racist in their manner of dealing with employees, only half-heartedly masking their views by spilling the beans to HR thinking no one else notices.
  • Executives who are practice all sorts of indiscretions, believing that the way they conduct business is openly accepted by everyone. This includes excessive drinking in work-related contexts, drugs, sexual trysts with others who are not spouses or significant others, street racing, associating with a criminal element, tax evasion, texting while driving or gambling.

I once encountered an Executive who was hired to right a ship that was way off course. The Board was confident, and he was vested right away. Despite knowing the importance of his leadership, he left the office at lunchtime every day and went to a nearby bar where he spent a good part of the afternoon engaging in things he shouldn’t. The entire head office staff knew it. His Executive Assistant would try and cover for him but after a while she couldn’t. Smart employees started leaving in droves. HR did nothing. Eventually the Board came up with a clever way to clear a path for his exit, but not without cost, lost time and damage to the business’s reputation. Even with rebranding, I’m not sure they have fully recovered.

It seems a shame that it sometimes has to be that way. Perhaps the greatest thing the HR Professional can do is ensure there are contingencies to deal with these situations, clearly and quickly.

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