Caked in mud

HR practice found itself the centre of attention again this week in New Zealand.

Unless you’ve been out of the country, or perhaps don’t live here, you would have heard about the ground breaking award made to a lady called Karen Hammond by the Human Rights Review Tribunal. It was front page news this week.

Ms Hammond was awarded a staggering $168,000 for a breach of her privacy by her previous employer, NZ Credit Union Baywide. Just to put that in context, the most you might get in damages for winning a personal grievance is $20-30,000.

shutterstock_227545405The facts are relatively straightforward. After leaving the company, Ms Hammond attended a private dinner party to mark the “mutually agreed” departure of another colleague and baked a cake for the occasion on which she iced the F and C words in derogatory comments about NZCU.

What followed was a catalogue of poor leadership decisions, judgement and actions by senior staff at NZCU, including the CEO, COO and HR Manager, in which they systematically tried to derail Ms Hammond’s future career prospects following her sharing a picture of the cake with her friends on Facebook. The Tribunal ruled that her privacy had been significantly breached. If you’ve got time, I urge you read the judgement for the full picture of what occurred. It makes extraordinary reading. And by the way, Ms Hammond represented herself at the hearing because she was apparently left in a position where she could not afford legal representation.

I don’t know Louise Alexandra, the HR Manager in question, although we’ve corresponded on Twitter I think and may have met briefly at a conference. Despite what transpired at NZCU three years ago, I find myself with a degree of sympathy for her plight.

It appears she has left her job in the wake of the judgement and her career in HR will I am sure be pretty much over. At this point in time the CEO and COO both appear to still be employed by NZCU. Her evidence at the Tribunal was not consistent with that given by her COO. The Tribunal commented that their contradictory evidence was “defensive and in disarray.”

Was she just professionally incompetent, or was she subjected to pressure from her senior colleagues to take actions she said in evidence she was uncomfortable with? Could and should she have done more to push back and challenge what she was being asked to do, or was she a willing participant or just possibly naive? Has she become the scapegoat for her senior colleagues?

It probably doesn’t matter now.

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us who have worked in HR for any length of time have found ourselves at some point in our careers being asked to do things we don’t agree with or are uncomfortable with. Hand on heart, who of you reading this has not at some stage been asked to do something that is potentially illegal or unethical, or have seen colleagues do such things? Who has not seen colleagues so angry at the actions of a staff member that they lose all sense of perspective?

Any one of us could have found ourselves in that situation and possibly made the same or similar decisions and mistakes without fully thinking through all the implications. Although you would hope not.

It is how we as HR professionals respond (or fail to respond) to situations and cultures like that that set us apart, and why we need to continue to raise the bar and demand better from our ourselves and our colleagues in the profession. It is why some of us are trying to change the game and why we need to challenge leadership behaviours we see that may be outdated, arrogant, unethical or bullying in nature.

I hope this case will be mandatory reading for all young HR practitioners coming into the profession in this country as a warning on the consequences of getting it wrong, and a case study for all aspiring C-suite executives who don’t think culture starts with them.

It’s also another reminder that in this social and transparent new era we find ourselves in, there really is nowhere to hide.

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