Weekly Wrap: When You Need Heads to Roll, Why Does HR Take the Fall?

See update below.

Say what you will about whether HR should have a “seat at the table,” here’s a role that HR frequently gets, like it or not.

Yes, it’s HR as organizational fall guy (or gal).

Need a good example? Here’s one this week: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. — under siege for months by stockholders, the press, and the British government for the infamous phone hacking scandal — finally sacked a high-ranking News Corp executive.

No, it wasn’t James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and the guy everybody has been targeting. No, instead it was longtime News Corp. executive Beryl Cook.

Guess what her job was? You win the prize if you guessed Chief Human Resources Officer.

“Trusted colleague” decides to resign

Here’s the background, from The New York Times Media Decoder blog:

Beryl Cook, News Corporation’s chief human resources officer and a trusted colleague of James Murdoch, resigned on Thursday, the company said, and will return to the Asia Pacific region to be closer to her family. Jeff Mook, senior vice president for global compensation, will succeed her…

Ms. Cook was a confidante of James Murdoch, News Corporation’s deputy chief operating officer, when the two worked together at the British broadcaster BSkyB, according to one person with knowledge of the situation who would only discuss the matter anonymously. Ms. Cook has held her current post in the company’s New York headquarters since 2007.

James Murdoch has been under intense scrutiny since the summer, when it was revealed that the company’s British newspaper division, which he supervised, had been hacking the phones of British citizens. Next week he is scheduled to testify a second time before British lawmakers in a continuing investigation into hacking at the News of the World tabloid, now closed. James’s involvement in the scandal has raised questions about whether he will succeed his father, Rupert Murdoch, as the head of the company, which has a market capitalization of $44 billion and media assets across the globe.”

Company insiders are strongly denying that the departure of News Corp.’s HR chief has anything to do with the phone hacking scandal (see the update below for News Corp’s latest statement), but the Los Angeles Times notes that Beryl Cook was a close confidant of James Murdoch. It also added this:

The move is significant because Cook was seen within News Corp. as a key member of James Murdoch’s “shadow government” as he began to amass power within the global media conglomerate and was being groomed as a successor to his father, Rupert Murdoch. The elder Murdoch is chairman and chief executive at News Corp., and James serves as deputy chief operating officer.”

Need a sacrifice? Why not the HR chief?

Nobody will come out and say this, but here’s how this looks to me: James Murdoch is in trouble and people are calling for his head because of his role in this phone hacking scandal that has engulfed the family’s business. Somebody has to go to satisfy the growing public notion that something has to be done. So, why not can the HR chief?

Yes, when push comes to shove and someone has to go, let HR take the fall.

As far as I can tell, the only problem with Beryl Cook’s is that Beryl Cook was close to James Murdoch. He’s in up to his eyeballs in this, but if you can’t get rid of him, why not dump some other high level exec that is easily replaceable? Maybe THAT will satisfy the mob for a bit.

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This falls into the category of “be careful what you ask for.” Yes, HR wants a seat at the table, but when you get a seat with the power players, you also find that you are more expendable than many of those other power players.

Beryl Cook clearly had a seat at News Corp’s table. She was a successful, and probably a highly skilled, HR executive. But when a high-ranking executive had to go, well, goodbye Beryl.

Yes, be careful what you ask for. Those seats at the table can sometimes get a little hot.

Diversity in Silicon Valley?

Of course, there’s more than sacked HR executives in the news this week. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. I do it so you don’t have to

  •  Is their diversity in Silicon Valley? One prominent blogger/investor says there is not, and his perspective has caused a real flap, as CNNMoney reports. “Michael Arrington ignited a controversy with his comments about the visibility of minority-led companies. In the documentary, which airs November 13, Arrington talked about his difficulties finding African-American entrepreneurs to launch their ventures at his TechCrunch Disrupt conference — and suggested he would accept almost any black entrepreneur, regardless of merit. … It’s a remark that didn’t sit well with some in the tech community. Female and black entrepreneurs fired off tweets saying they didn’t want to be treated any differently because of their skin color or gender.”
  • Top companies for leaders. You may disagree with a lot of these like I did (IBM and their dog-eat-dog culture as No. 1?), but Fortune magazine’s list of the top companies for grooming and growing leadership talent will certainly give you a lot of food for thought — and discussion. They even have a regional breakout, too.
  • And, top companies in St. Louis, as well. This is something you don’t see enough of — a breakdown of the leading employers in a specific city or geographical area. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch just published this article on the top employers in the St. Louis area, and the hook was that these might be the places to hit up if you were looking for a job. And as the newspaper notes, “They aren’t necessarily representative of the larger workforce. But certain industries have been shaped by consolidations or benefit from economies of scale, with a few employers controlling a bulk of the jobs in their sectors. … anyone looking for work would do well to start with the organizations listed here.”

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UPDATE: News Corporation reached out to TLNT on Nov. 16 with this “on the record statement from a News Corp. spokesman” concerning the recent departure of Chief Human Resources Officer Beryl Cook:

Beryl Cook was not fired from News Corporation. Ms. Cook decided to return to the Asia-Pacific region to be closer to her family, but she will continue to work for the Company as an HR strategic adviser focusing on organizational and talent initiatives across the Company.”

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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