As a new year begins, two 2016 stories that touch on the professional behaviour of HR are not showing any sign of going away. They both relate to governance issues within media companies and follow complaints to HR by employees, and raise the question of where HR’s allegiance rests.
Following media reports by The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald last week with more detailed revelations about a 2014 Deloitte investigation into credit card spending at Seven, much is now known about the Seven West case.
In addition, the Seven board announced just before Christmas that it was conducting an independent investigation to take a second look into possible credit card misuse and criminal behaviour at the company during work hours. Though the terms of reference are believed to contain a bias towards investigating monetary matters, in the wake of the affair between CEO Tim Worner and executive assistant Amber Harrison, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some male executives, including chief executives, still believe that female employees down the food chain are there to enable executives to get a bit of easy sex on the side.
Amber Harrison, the complainant in the Seven West case, had set out her grievances to the head of HR. Harrison insists they were not complaints about the consensual two-year affair with the chief executive, but about the circumstances surrounding an investigation into use of her company credit card.
That she made the complaint to HR is not disputed. What is in question is her allegation that the HR advice she was given was designed to persuade her to drop her complaint and to simply go quietly. The alleged HR advice included asking questions like these: Do you really want to be another Monica Lewinsky, who never recovered from her dalliance with Bill Clinton? Do you realise the woman who complained about harassment by the David Jones’ CEO has not worked since? And, do you want to become known as the woman who was used as a sexual plaything for two years at Seven West?
If true, these allegations could be seen as the CHRO offering helpful, practical information about what Amber Harrison was getting herself into. Alternatively, they could be seen as a more disturbing attempt by the CHRO to side with the CEO in response to her complaint, and to move her along and out.
The second case involves NewsCorp’s Victorian newspaper The Herald Sun.
In February last year, an investigative journalist called Lucie Morris-Marr wrote a story that The Herald Sun published as a front-page splash which attracted widespread national coverage. It referred to an ongoing investigation into Cardinal George Pell by the Victoria Police about personal child sexual abuse matters.
On the Monday following her story prominent Herald Sun columnist, Andrew Bolt, a colleague of Morris-Marr at the time, attacked the story as a vicious and shameful smear, calling it part of a sinister campaign to destroy Cardinal Pell, and he claimed that the leak that gave rise to her story was from elements within Victoria Police.
According to tweets from Morris-Marr on Boxing Day and since, three things then happened. The first was that the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) was asked to investigate leaks to her from the Victoria Police, placing in jeopardy her sources. The second was that the Herald-Sun contract renewal she had been allegedly promised turned into a termination of her contract. And the third, was that a complaint she made to HR about Bolt was not seen by him, on his own admission.
The HR complaint included an allegation that Bolt’s friendship with the cardinal influenced his professional judgment. The Morris-Marr tweets were picked up during the Christmas break period in reports by The Guardian, SkyNews, and The Herald Sun.
It is not for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of the HR complaint or on the detail of Morris-Marr’s allegations.
That said, let me state the fundamental general principle that all employees, regardless of their level within an organisation, are entitled to have their right to be treated fairly respected. That is particularly the case where there is evidence of a power imbalance between the parties in the event of a complaint.
If formal HR complaints are not passed on or are not communicated promptly, ethical problems arise with respect to HR’s allegiance, transparency for both parties and right of reply, and the party accused may be precluded from offering a timely defence.
Any failure to respect an employee’s right to fair treatment invites workplace cynicism. Apart from the parties directly involved, other employees may justifiably fear their fair treatment could be adversely affected, with resultant impact on engagement and productivity.
The tendency for CHROs to side with those in power, and to move people on who make management uncomfortable, is old game and not new game. HR’s job is to work for the good of the company, which is not always served by simply pleasing the boss.
Good HR practice involves CHROs being sufficiently professional to exercise the courage and skill required to state the facts as they see them. In some cases, that may mean by-passing conflicted senior management and reporting directly to the board.
Peter Wilson AM FCPHR is chairman of the Australian HR Institute, and world president of the Washington DC-based 93-nation World Federation of People Management Associations.