How Do You Handle a Company With HR-Challenged Senior Management?

The man behind the offensive e-mail: now former Tribune chief innovation officer Lee Abrams. He resigned late Friday.
The man behind the (racy) memo: Tribune chief innovation officer Lee Abrams

* See five (5) updates below, including Abrams’ resignation.

What do you say when a senior executive of your company – the chief innovation officer, no less — e-mails a memo to the entire company that includes off-color satirical videos, “including one labeled ‘Sluts’ in which a gyrating woman appears to pour liquor on her bare breasts?”

If you’re the editor of this company’s flagship property, the Chicago Tribune, you pick up the phone and say something like “get me the HR Department – fast!”

Here’s the background, according to Chicago Breaking News:

The note to employees in Chicago and elsewhere from Lee Abrams, Tribune Co.’s chief innovation officer (editor’s note: that’s Abrams pictured here), came less than a week after an unflattering New York Times front-page story characterized the Chicago-based media concern’s top management as fostering a poisonous, sexist “frat house” atmosphere.

Abrams’ memo spurred complaints to Tribune Co.’s human resources department from Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern and others, upset at the sexual content. Abrams was not immediately available for comment.

‘I thought it was offensive and I thought it was completely inappropriate to be sent out in a workplace setting to everyone in this company,’ Kern said Tuesday. “We’ve had some employees complain as well, and I took it to HR.” Kern also said he complained to Abrams.”

Did The New York Times REALLY get it right?

What is interesting here is the reaction to last week’s New York Times story (I mentioned it in my Weekly Wrap here at TLNT ) by Tribune leadership. I called the Times’ piece “an up close look at a management culture that’s gone off the rails,” and it pulled together a number of stories and incidents about Tribune management that seemed (at least to a knowledgeable observer like me) to support the notion that it was indicative of the company’s “frat house” culture.

Well, Tribune CEO Randy Michaels sent out a memo before the Times’ published its article, trying to discredit the story with a pre-emptive strike, claiming that the piece would contain “events, distortions and rumors more than two years old. (Reporter David Carr) will apparently paint the work environment at Tribune as hostile, sexist and otherwise inappropriate.” And he added:

Many of the rumors Mr. Carr referenced were spread by an ex-Chicago Tribune employee who is now a contributing writer to the New York Times. Mr. Carr has made clear that he is digging up these old allegations because he believes that decisions about the company’s management are about to be made, and he wants to influence those decisions. Mr. Carr knows that an outside firm investigated the most substantial of these allegations, and that they were found to be without substance. Mr. Carr intends to use them anyway….

As you know, it is our intention to create a fun, non-linear creative environment. I am tremendously proud of the results of that creative culture…A creative culture must be built on a foundation of respect for each other. Our goal is an environment where people are free to speak up, free to challenge authority, and free to fail on the way to success. Our culture is NOT about being offensive or hurtful. This is supported by our Harassment Policy. It’s in the Employee Handbook which is posted on TribLink—Section 3.”

Somehow, having a high-ranking executive of the company send around a memo that contains “off-color satirical videos … (including) one in which a gyrating woman appears to pour liquor on her bare breasts” goes well beyond creating “a fun, non-linear creative environment.” And is there a section in that employee handbook that mentions what happens when somebody send out a memo like this, non-linear or not?

In HR, “sometimes the job sucks”

If you are in HR, you probably will have a strong reaction to having an issue like this dumped in your lap, and HR pro Kris Dunn probably said it best when he wrote about the Brett Favre incident over at his HR Capitalist blog. His comments apply equally well to this tawdry affair.

The story provides a great illustration related to being a leader in HR. Sometimes the job sucks.

You have no desire to do what happens next related to questioning/investigation. But you’re the one with the skills…

At the end of the day, if the judgment impacted other employees, you have to investigate it and determine outcomes… You’re the one who gets to call people into a room and ask some very pointed, tough questions. HR is a lonely place.”

Yes, HR IS a very lonely place sometimes. What would you do if you’re the one in HR who got the call from the Editor of the Chicago Tribune dumping all of this into YOUR lap?

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UPDATE No.5: Abrams gives his side of why he sent out his now infamous e-mail as well as what REALLY happened to him at Tribune. He was done in by old media dinosaurs who don’t want to change, he says. Kevin Roderick at LAObserved.com isn’t buying it.

UPDATE No. 4: When a company gets a lot of nasty press for bad management and organizational issues, usually some high-ranking executive (or two) gets canned or pushed out the door. At Tribune Company, that lucky person is Lee Abrams, who resigned Friday after being suspended during a full week of bad press for his poor judgment in sending that now infamous e-mail and offensive video around to the rest of the company. LAObserved rightly questions the timing of the announcement of Abrams resignation — promptly at 5 pm Friday EDT. If you are trying to bury a story, releasing it at the end of the day Friday is the preferred way to do it.

UPDATE No. 3: Well, there actually may be some consequences for out-of-line executive actions at Tribune. Lee Abrams, the guy who sent the questionable e-mail, actually got suspended for it. My guess is that there was just too much outrage in too many corners about this to just let it go, as is normal Tribune practice. But this makes you wonder: is this wild memo out of  character for a character like Abrams? Sadly, no, as Gawker points out in “The 10 Dumbest Things Lee Abrams has Ever Said.”

UPDATE No. 2: Veteran Chicago media watcher Robert Feder weighs in on the reported shenanigans going on at Tribune Company, and asks “what took so long?” for the media to start covering this.

Why did it take almost three years and the glaring spotlight of The New York Times to force the (ChicagoTribune finally to confront what’s been going on inside its own house? … Except for a few artfully worded posts on (Tribune media columnist Phil) Rosenthal’s blog, the sordid reign of Michaels & Co. has been all but ignored by the World’s Greatest Newspaper and its numerous print and broadcast confederates…

What’s ultimately at stake is the credibility and authority of the Tribune to exert its influence over all the other institutions it covers. In the aftermath of the New York Times piece last week, Kern posted a memo in which he extolled his newsroom’s “highest professional, ethical and moral standards.” Confronting Abrams on Tuesday was another step in the right direction. But I’m afraid both moves are too little, too late.

It’ll take more than a good housecleaning in Tribune Tower to remove the stench left by Randy and his pals.”

UPDATE: Lee Abrams did a mea culpa about his now infamous memo, according to LAObserved.com. He said in part:

I would like to take this opportunity to personally apologize to everyone who was offended by one of the videos in yesterday’s Think Piece. It was poor judgment on my part and I’m sorry…

The video in bad taste was a parody of a cable-type reality show. It is not something that we would ever air on our TV stations — in fact quite the opposite — we show this as an example of what NOT to do.

But still, I understand that it was very inappropriate to distribute a link to the video to a wider audience, and I have asked our technology department to delete the email from our servers. Again, I’m sorry for offending anyone, and I promise to make sure that my future emails contain nothing like this video ever again.”

My guess is that Abrams will barely get slapped on the wrist for sending this out to everyone in the company. And it raises the question many may have after hearing about this and reading the earlier New York Times story: Is there no action offensive enough to get a Tribune executive fired???

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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