Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mark Hurd and “Mad Men”

Don Draper forgot his keys. The same week, H-P CEO Mark Hurd resigned on the heels of sexual harassment charges.

Have attitudes and life style changed – or just the ramifications of getting caught? Technology and societal attitudes are driving new thoughts about what constitutes harassment and new approaches to enforcing ethical behavior in the workplace.

In Mad Men , the ad men drink at work, cavort with their secretaries. Woman are openly disrespected. These were the days before Title VII. There were virtually no checks on office behavior. Most everyone in the office is white as well, except for the occasional black repair men or elevator operator. These were the days of openly coercive sexual exploits at work and racial discrimination. That was part of American culture and those days are not so long ago.

H-P’s investigation found that Hurd violated HP’s “Standards of Business Conduct". It seems like Hurd, who is married (at least for now), was entangled in a personal relationship with a hired contractor— an affair he tried to obfuscate with some fudged expense reports. Hard of know since we still don't have the full story of his relationship with actress/reality show contestant/Congressional staffer/marketing consultant/real estate executive Jodie Fisher. The 50-year-old Fisher has appeared on a reality TV show, and in a string of movies that place her on the fringes of Hollywood fame. Her acting resume includes such films as “Intimate Obsession” (1992), “Body of Influence 2″ (1996), “Sheer Passion” (1998) and a bunch of other movies that might be hard to explain to your spouse if they popped up on the pay-per-view cable bill.

As The Atlantic points out, Mad Men bombards us with how bad it was Back Then in very obvious ways (including blatant sexual advances in the workplace) while allowing some viewers to gloss over the aspects that are still with us, in the workplace and beyond:

Our inability to identify misogyny, even on a show that presents it so melodramatically, points to the truth behind sexism, and oppression at large. To people who actually lived through the 1960s, the sexism of their culture didn't seem dramatic; the men who objectified and infantilized women probably bore no specific malice, and the vast majority of the women who found their lives constrained by those men didn't imagine that things could be different. Their oppression was invisible, because it was normal. In other words, they were like us. Sexism is still around, and in the vast majority of instances it doesn't present itself as some portentous, shocking occurrence. It's just the fabric of daily life, a little ugliness that we take for granted.

Calling out that ugliness, piece by piece, and separating it from what we consider standard operating behavior is the first step.

So….$10 billion in share value evaporated as the news broke. Is Hurd accountable?
Many people are objecting to Hurd's severance package, which may be worth as much as $50 million. While most CEO contracts exempt poor performance as a reason for "termination for cause," there is no reason to permit a departure following an ethics violation to be characterized as a resignation - when the result is a $50 million payout that would otherwise stay in the corporate bank account.

Hurd's contract makes it clear that he is an "at-will" employee who can be terminated at any time. It describes the consequences of termination for cause (eliminating most severance payments) without defining it. There is nothing to prevent the board from sending Hurd a letter telling him he has been fired and then stopping payment on all those severance checks.

In the post-Enron, post-meltdown world, the government insists on seeing how violators are treated. And if a middle manager would be fired for fiddling with his reimbursements, then the guy who's been paid more than $100 million has to be fired, too. Beyond that is the actual (not just apparent) tone at the top, which is the board's responsibility. They cannot keep in place an executive who has demonstrated such a failure of judgment and responsibility. They cannot keep in place an executive they cannot trust.

These days, harassment is (usually) not about the stuff you see on Mad Men, and it's not chasing the secretary around the desk. "It's rare now that somebody in the office says, 'Sleep with me or you're fired,'" says David Bowman, a labor and employment partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. "Now it's about managers being very flirtatious at the holiday party. It's about getting drunk together at happy hour and something inappropriate being said or done. People are now aware that certain things are not acceptable, but they still stumble over the subtle areas."

Much of the problem is that newer technology — e-mail, IM, texting or posting on social-networking sites — makes it much easier for comments to be misconstrued on many levels. If you admire an employee's new haircut while she is in your office, she can read your tone and body language; and you can read hers. However, a late-night text message admiring your employee's new haircut can take on a lascivious tone, even if that is not the intention.

Social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace can be another potential source of trouble. Innocent vacation photos of you in your bikini may unwittingly draw unwanted attention at work. Brenner recommends having separate profiles for professional and personal contacts, or just sticking to a professional site like LinkedIn for your work colleagues.

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