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By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management, American Public University
During the last few weeks, I have read about two different situations involving individuals who were groomed to lead their organizations. These individuals have been covered in the press due to their biased behavior. Without demonizing anyone, I wanted to share some of my observations and perspectives regarding factors that are influencing their situations.
With these individuals, behavioral situations arose and were not handled appropriately. As a result, these individuals were forced to make a decision about their future with the company.
Typically, going through this type of process can be stressful and it usually involves more than the individual’s reputation. At worst, specific cases are a public relations nightmare for the organization.
Pizza Restaurant Chain Founder John Schnatter Raises Controversy with Racial Slur
During a media training session, for example, Papa John’s John Schnatter reportedly uttered a racial slur on a conference call. As a result of the ensuing uproar, he resigned as chairman of the board, but retained his seat on the board.
Now, Schnatter says quitting was a mistake. He is questioning the board’s investigation of how he used the racial slur.
Uber’s Human Resources Officer Resigns Due to Accusations of Discrimination Mishandling
A group of Uber employees went public to accuse Uber’s chief Human Resources Officer, Liane Hornsey, of improperly handling discrimination complaints, especially in cases involving race. As a result, she resigned from her position.
Lessons to Learn from These Senior Leadership Mistakes
What do I believe happened in each of these situations? What are the lessons we can learn from these examples of senior leadership?
Schnatter did use a racial slur and it was inappropriate. To now argue that there may be a problem with how the incident was investigated as well as how he used the word is irrelevant. He said it and there were witnesses.
The board chairman of a large organization should know better. That’s my etiquette argument. My economic position is that his actions led to Papa John’s losing endorsements and money. Someone has to be held accountable for that.
Besides, this is not the first time that Schnatter has been involved in controversy. Schnatter was involved in a similar situation in November 2017 when he aired his personal views at the expense of the organization he was supposed to serve.
Schnatter blamed the National Football League (NFL) and the #TakeTheKnee controversy for Papa John’s weak sales. He then cut ties with the NFL for not forcing players to take part in the national anthem.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but there is a thin line between whether you share those thoughts in public or not. This is especially true when you are viewed by the public as an industry leader.
A common goal of many boards is for the chair to help develop and manage relationships and communicating with stakeholders and the public, not alienate them. A good leader will always put the interests of the organization ahead of personal views.
It’s like a parent-child relationship. Parents are supposed to put the welfare of their children over their own.
Based on Schnatter’s recent outburst, the question becomes does he have the proper demeanor and traits to be the chairman of the board and to represent the company regardless of his personal political/social opinions? A person at that senior leadership level should be able to exercise some restraint, especially when there may be a backlash from those whom the chairman is paid to represent.
My initial response to hearing of Liane Hornsey’s ordeal was, “You have to be kidding! How does a chief HR officer overlook discrimination allegations?”
I watched her earlier presentations on YouTube and reviewed her LinkedIn profile. To someone whose first career was in HR – and who still takes the job seriously – I thought her remarks and profile were flawless. Given all the work that Hornsey was attempting to accomplish by changing Uber’s culture, how could she miss another critical aspect of HR work?
What conclusions did I come to about Hornsey? First, the HR portfolio is so broad that many professionals tend to specialize even when they reach the top levels of an organization. It appears that Hornsey considered herself a leading expert in change management and employee engagement, which fall under the categories of organizational behavior and development. That’s the area in which she excelled.
However, like Schnatter, some of her methods of communication set the stage for her departure. For example, the group that made the allegations public implied that Hornsey used discriminatory language and made derogatory comments about the head of diversity and inclusion. She also threatened a high-level minority employee.
Is this the same person that I saw on YouTube and LinkedIn? Yes, it is. She is an individual who seeks to change a culture, but may have some issues about people who believe they are being treated differently. She may even feel as if there is no need for diversity.
How can that be? Organizational change and diversity and inclusion are two different areas of the human resource management and development function. Here was an individual with a resume of success and notable contributions to the HR field, and she rose to the top based on past performance.
What’s wrong with that? Nothing, as long as she manages areas where she has been successful. The problem occurs when we allow senior leadership individuals to be in charge of areas where they have no experience or may not be the best fit to manage.
Some organizations will bundle functions together to:
1. Justify the individual’s salary
2. Have one leader overseeing similar areas under one umbrella
3. Limit the number of high-level positions
However, that strategy may not be the best solution for the situation. I do not believe that is the best way to hire an individual. It could be setting the person up for failure.
Instead, organizations may want to consider taking an approach that will identify candidates who have potential based on present versus past performance. What is that person doing today? How does that tie into what you want the candidate to do, especially if the new tasks involve engagement with employees?
Does Past Performance Guarantee Future Success?
Past performance does not always guarantee future success. You have to allow for the possibility that external factors will alter the desired outcome.
Life happens. Circumstances can occur that may adversely affect someone’s performance, resulting in consequences that were not predicted or anticipated. In Schnatter’s case, the decline of sales due to the NFL controversy may have blinded him with anger and that anger probably caused a harmful outburst. In Hornsey’s case, her idea of what constitutes discrimination may not accord with the general definition of discrimination.
You never know what triggers senior leadership people to react out of character and against their best interests. But if the reactions of senior leadership do not measure up to ethical behavior, businesses – like Papa John’s and Uber – will pay a heavy price in terms of public relations and finances.
About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and influential leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.
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