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Can HR do anything when a leader refuses to speak?

Recently Mark Zuckerberg’s silence after the Cambridge Analytica scandal made his employees complain, leak and lash out. Are there lessons for HR departments?

If you haven’t been following the Facebook scandal, essentially a third-party app created by Cambridge psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan called “thisisyourdigitallife” hoovered up the data from 50 million Facebook profiles without permission.

Violating Facebook’s policies, the data eventually found its way to Cambridge Analytica who apparently combined it with electoral voting roles and used it to influence the 2016 US election.

When your employees turn on you

The scandal has not been good for Facebook. Some consider it the worst crisis the tech giant has faced as it goes to the heart of whether the company’s business model is ethical.

In the aftermath Facebook’s share price dropped precipitously and many people deleted their profiles, including a recent employee – the co-founder of one of WhatsApp, one of Facebook’s biggest acquisitions. Not only that but figures in both the US and UK government are calling for investigations into Facebook, and regulation of its business.

But perhaps the most lasting damage will be to the reputation the company has with current employees and future candidates.

As described in a report by Business Insider, as the scandal broke, employees started losing morale and engaging in gallows humour. “Is this how the downfall of Myspace happened?” one asked. Another posted a message filled with siren and fire emojis then added, “Those are my thoughts”.

But as the story stayed in the headlines a further concern started to crop up. Leadership at the company, specifically Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg weren’t talking – neither to employees nor to the public. It was enough to make one former employee ask “Why are you guys letting us get grilled?”

Speaking out of turn

The lack of leadership was most obvious at the company’s internal brief dealing with the scandal. Employees were encouraged to come and ask questions. However, unlike at previous briefings, the CEO and COO weren’t there. Instead the meeting was lead by Paul Grewal, a Facebook attorney.

The decision to keep quiet internally is baffling. It caused staff to leak all sorts of stories (including about Zuckerberg “ghosting”), and gave space for Facebook’s chief security go on Twitter to defend the company in an unhelpful way.

Making the issue much worse is that there is no more tight – and tightly-knit – labour market in the world than the one in Silicon Valley. The top engineers in the Valley are hard to recruit and equally as hard to retain – the other tech giants are always eager to snap them up. So having your staff negatively react so publicly goes from being a bad look, to a terrible business decision.

When the five days of silence from Facebook was broken, Sandberg acknowledged they made a mistake. “If I could live this past week again, I would have definitely had Mark and myself out speaking earlier, but we were trying to get to the bottom of this,” she told CNBC.

But what can HR do?

Other than try to manage employee complaints as best as they can and advise leadership of what employees need, there’s not much HR can do if leadership refuses to talk.

In this situation, and in others like it, the reason leaders are keeping mum is that there’s a broad strategic shift taking place. So HR can’t even assume holding the company line is appropriate, as they don’t know if the company line will change.

The obvious answer to employees going rogue is to not just have HR on the leadership team, but keep them abreast of all critical issues. That way they can figure out the best way to communicate confidence to employees. HRM has interviewed a CEO who has done that and loved the results. We’ve also talked to an HR leader in the C-Suite about how they negotiate and influence change from the highest levels.

Facebook’s problems are not over, it was only recently revealed that the company took Android users’ call history and SMS data. But on this occasion, the company responded immediately.

Photo credit: TechCrunch  / CC BY

Learn how promote and uphold the highest levels of professionalism and integrity in the workplace, with AHRI’s eLearning modules on ‘Ethics and conduct’.

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