The strange and awful story of one company’s toxic culture, where a troubled HR department turns out to be just one man.
The toxic culture of Dallas Basketball Ltd, billionaire Mark Cuban’s business that operates basketball team the Dallas Mavericks, has been the subject of news stories since it first came to light earlier this year.
The attention began with the original report by Sports Illustrated (SI) into several allegations of sexual harassment, in particular by former CEO Terdema Ussery. It’s made headlines more recently following the results of an independent investigation, which interviewed 215 witnesses and reviewed 1.6 million documents.
Something interesting to come out of the report (that has not being widely talked about) is that the HR department of Dallas Basketball, referred to in several articles as ineffective, was for a long time represented by a single man.
Which is to say, it’s misleading to call it a ‘department’.
For instance, in the original SI report it says: “When discussing the office culture to SI, former Mavericks employees – male and female – cited the team’s HR office as part of the problem”.
The independent investigation found the same thing regarding complaints against Ussery, with one crucial disclaimer which HRM has emphasised.
“We find that employees did not report the harassment, and that within the organisation there was a sense of futility with respect to making complaints to Pittman, the head of Human Resources and, at the time, the only Human Resources employee.”
The bulk of the investigation report is taken up with allegations and findings into three specific individuals. The first addressed is the former CEO.
As the report summarises, Ussery was actually the subject of another investigation into allegations of sexual harassment back in 1998, when the company was under different ownership. The attorneys who conducted it remember ordering Ussery to attend counselling, warning him that further incidents would result in termination, and requiring the organisation to hire an HR manager.
They hired Buddy Pittman, who would remain with the organisation until the SI article came out in February this year, when Cuban fired him. Pittman is described by the investigative team as having been a “close personal friend” of Ussery, to whom people felt it was futile to complain.
Judging from the behaviour he is alleged to have engaged in, this was an appropriate feeling.
How not to handle a complaint
The report found 13 credible allegations against Ussery from 2000 to 2015. They include behaviour such as:
- long, unwanted hugs (one employee claimed he did so while saying “mmm, mmm, mmm” into her ear)
- touching thighs, including under the table during meetings
- telling an employee that he would leave his wife for her
- commenting on employees’ appearance, including telling a new staff member that she was “sexy”
- escalating inappropriate touching with that same employee, including on one occasion grabbing her face and forcibly kissing her
Ussery denies the allegations. In testing the credibility of complainants, the investigative team took into account such things as common threads between the complaints. Like the fact that several employees said that Ussery “subtly made a swirling motion with his finger when his hand was on them”.
So how did Pittman deal with this CEO? One of the most damning allegations is that he tried to protect Ussery. On one occasion he called an employee, whose allegation the report substantiated, into his office and closed the door. Pittman informed her that he’d received reports that she’d been coming on to Ussery.
“Pittman then said, “Well that didn’t happen, did it?” He continued, “Because he’s a married man. You know he’s a good Christian man. He would never do that.” Former Employee 31 said that she was overwhelmed that Ussery’s inappropriate conduct was being turned around against her. Pittman then asked Former Employee 31, “That didn’t happen, right?” Former Employee 31 believed that Pittman was protecting Ussery and that Pittman wanted her to say that nothing had happened. And so, in response to his question, she said that “nothing had happened.”
The employee cried during the meeting. In response Pittman hugged her and made the joke “Now you’re not going to report me, are you?”
After leaving the meeting, the employee spoke to a colleague about what she’d just experienced. That same colleague was then called into a meeting with Pittman who said to her, “If you hear anything else about this rumor, shut it down.”
To recap, a woman who was talking about being sexually harassed by the CEO had Pittman accuse her of being the harasser. And when she cried during the meeting, he hugged her and made a joke about sexual harassment complaints.
With friends like these
So Pittman, as described in the report, was obviously not great at the whole complaints management thing, and it seems clear the company should have done something about that. Oddly, Ussery would’ve been the first to agree with you.
From the report: “In October 2008, for example, Ussery wrote to Cuban that Pittman ‘needs to reestablish that he’s here to work with the employees on personnel issues’ and advised Cuban that many employees did not go to Pittman with such issues ‘because they didn’t think he’d help them work through the issues to a resolution.’”
Five years later, the report reveals, “Ussery similarly wrote to Cuban in a succession plan that ‘[we] are going to need a stronger HR guy going forward’”.
Let that sit for a moment. The CEO who Pittman is said to have protected from harassment complaints thought Pittman was bad at handling complaints.
Other troubling behaviour
If you want a depressing read about how badly someone in HR can act, read the full report. But to get a sense of it, understand that Pittman is accused of a lot of problematic behaviour. Whether that’s sending unsolicited emails regarding his political opinions to staff or failing to appropriately address the conduct of a top salesman who:
- flirted with new hires
- watched pornography openly on the office computer
- in a conversation about mass shootings threatened to “take out” co-workers
Pittman’s explanation to the investigation was that, being the sole HR employee, he had a “hopeless situation” where he didn’t have the scope to do his job well. Taking into account Pittman’s “passive response to serious personnel issues” and his decision to intervene on his CEO’s behalf, the report found the excuse insufficient.
And if you thought it couldn’t get worse, it does. Pittman himself is accused of inappropriate sexual misconduct. According to one employee, he repeatedly asked her if she sunbathed toppless when on holiday. He is said to have told another employee, “Good thing you didn’t wear that dress all day or [we] wouldn’t get any work done.” He did this while rubbing her shoulders.
HR is not a single person
It’s interesting to note how little has been made of the fact that for a long time HR at Dallas Basketball was actually just one man named Buddy. Recently the website Inc. wrote about the situation. Regarding an incident HRM has not mentioned they said, “When one visibly battered employee told HR that her boyfriend, a co-worker, had assaulted her, no action was taken as a result.”
Again, “HR” here is not a team or a department, but a single person. And when HR is a single person, it’s probably appropriate to point that out.
Examine the role HR plays in managing ethics in your organisation and learn to use a case-based approach to resolve complex ethical dilemmas at work, with the AHRI short course ‘Workplace ethics’.