How to Keep HR Off the Front Page of the Newspaper

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Feb 17, 2015

Last week, the head of Human Resources for my city’s public school district resigned after it became public she exchanged text messages with a subordinate regarding other employees and their weight, age, and race.

To add further insult, when asked (via text message) if the texts were subject to open records laws, she mocked whether anybody could “find” the messages or figure out how to get copies of them.

I have a lot of faith in the students coming out of this school district and am pretty certain any high school sophomore could skip a day of school, binge watch 10 episodes of Scandal, and come away knowing that text messages can be “found” and traced. After all, these kids are pretty smart.

Advice for HR practitioners

Insulting and demeaning your employees is a terrible strategy for achieving success in HR and in business. Those of us who have worked in HR have a saying for situations like this: “You can’t make this stuff up.” Except we have a more colorful word than “stuff.”

I hardly know where to start with my comments on this situation, because there are so many things I want to say about the lack of leadership, integrity, and professionalism.

Organizational culture at its lowest is when the most senior HR executive not only fails to put a stop to disrespectful behavior, but participates in it as well.

Here’s some career advice for HR practitioners:

1. Integrity is the price of admission for an HR career

That’s especially true for the most senior HR leadership position in the organization.

It is not news that there are people in the business world and in HR departments who lack integrity. You are going to have to work with them and sometimes stand up to them. Figure out early in your career whether you plan to take the high road of integrity or the low road of engaging in their antics.

People with integrity are respected and admired because they are consistent; they regularly act with integrity when faced with those moments of choice that provide a choice for how to act or respond. You will have days where you have a thousand moments of choice. They exist in every difficult situation (or text message) you see.

Engaging with colleagues in text exchanges that demean and ridicule employees is a low road; failing to ask team members to keep the conversation professional and respectful is even lower. What road will you choose?

2. You don’t have to play by their rules

It is hard to change someone else’s ethics, especially if they don’t have many to begin with, but that doesn’t mean you have to play by their rules.

Instead of trying to change someone, change the rules of engagement by adhering to an ethical decision-making model for handling the most difficult situations.

A General Counsel I once worked with had a great perspective on ethics following Enron. His view was that people end up acting in an unethical way because they talk themselves into it; they rationalize their behavior in some crazy or convoluted way (“But we were making SOOOO much money. Our shareholders loved us!”).

He encouraged people to apply a simple ethics litmus test to situations they encountered by asking, “What would our [insert: clients, customers, employees, shareholders, leadership, competitors, parents, kids or any other important group] think if this were to show up on the front page of the newspaper?

This simple question can help guide your actions for 85-90 percent of the challenging situations you will encounter in business and in life honestly.

3. Learn from a good employment law counsel

HR people either love lawyers or hate lawyers (and hey, both HR and lawyers are a necessary evil, so really we should all get along a whole lot better).

Employment lawyers are looking out for the organization and trying to keep it out of newspapers and courtrooms (both of which can require lots of money to make things better). One of the most important things I learned from working with employment lawyers is that HR’s duty and responsibility is to the organization and not to any individual leader or executive.

This lesson is helpful when you are faced with a bully executive, and if you have a good lawyer on your side the bully will usually back down.

4. Don’t forget: Culture eats strategy for lunch

The chips are stacked against any success for HR in an organization where it is acceptable for senior leaders to ridicule and demean employees.

This story of an HR executive’s departure is merely a symptom of a culture run amok; lift the kimono a bit and you will likely see bigger diseases plaguing the HR department and the district.

Be on the lookout for cues in your career of whether the organization for which you work supports you … or not. If you don’t see any signs of support for your work, or if you only see negative clues that the organization may undermine HR by allowing unacceptable behavior, take your professional self somewhere else.

By the sounds of it, there is an HR job opening in Dallas for a senior level HR executive position. With this blog, I put out a call to my HR colleagues as they develop their careers.

Let’s keep HR off the front page of the newspaper.

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.