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Liberty University uproar raises questions about hiring talented applicants with baggage
Last month, Liberty University announced that it had hired as its new athletic director Ian McCaw, a former Baylor University athletic director who helped shape a football program that boasted a Heisman Trophy winner and two Big 12 championships.
But McCaw came with baggage: He left Baylor in the spring of 2016 after an investigation found that coaches and the athletic department took no action when they were told football players had been accused of multiple gang rapes and sexual assaults. Upon learning of McCaw's hiring, Liberty students—who must abide by the Christian school's strict code of behavior—posted outraged comments on the school's Facebook page.
How should any HR department respond if it has an outstanding job candidate who can contribute mightily to the organization but who has also led an organization where sexual harassment and other misconduct were not addressed?
[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Investigations: How should an HR professional proceed if a senior executive is accused of harassment or discrimination?]
"The adage 'Get in front of your communication before you are running after it' most definitely applies with a controversial decision" such as the one at Liberty, said Jacqueline Farrington of Los Angeles- and New York City-based Farrington Partners, an executive coaching firm. "Clearly with a hiring decision like this, there are students, parents and staff who will be deeply concerned. Both HR and internal communications can advise … on how the president, the candidate and the board should respond to these concerns. With social media platforms only a click away, the expectation is now for total transparency. Withholding or cleverly reshaping information is not an option when it comes to building trust."
Handling the Optics
After the student outrage, Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. wrote on the school's website that a university investigation had concluded that McCaw was not pushed out of Baylor but that his resignation "was his own choice." Falwell also wrote that if McCaw made mistakes at Baylor, "they appear to be technical and unintentional."
The optics of such a hiring should be handled deftly, said Steve Paskoff, president and CEO of ELI, an Atlanta-based company that helps organizations address bad behavior in the workplace. "If an individual has previously acted in some way improperly in a prior role, one option upon hiring that person is to communicate openly that there was an issue but [that] the individual has apologized or one way or another made amends and assured the new organization that the prior act was an aberration and will not be repeated," said Paskoff, who spoke generally and not specifically to the McCaw hiring.
Failing to do so could erode morale among employees or, worse, suggest to employees that they needn't hold themselves to high standards if their leaders haven't, said Karen Kruse, an employment law attorney in Seattle.
"The Liberty University uproar provides a good illustration of how these issues can impact an organization," Kruse said. "If stakeholder concerns about such a hiring decision are not appropriately acknowledged and addressed, the employer may undermine its own policies against sexual misconduct by implying to its stakeholders that those policies are just words on paper—not sincerely held organizational values."
HR's Voice in High-Level Hiring
While high-level hiring often falls to boards of directors or top executives, rather than the HR department, that shouldn't preclude HR from having a say in how to handle the hires, Paskoff said.
"HR should have an influential voice," he said. "There are many performers in business who are outstanding technically but whose behavior or reputation and conduct undermine their institution's commitment to its values. Each organization concerned with the credibility and operational viability of its values should consider this."
Some questions HR managers can put to those ultimately responsible for a high-level hire, he said, include:
*What was the candidate's role at the current or previous employer; how did he or she act; and what did he or she do to safeguard the values, policies and standards of the institution? "Leaders perpetuate an organization's culture to reflect its values," Paskoff said. "When they have failed to do so, that is a significant issue to consider in terms of any hire and particularly a senior-level individual whose actions, behavior and reputation will speak powerfully to the institution's commitment to its values."
* What was the individual's ability to get work done in line with the current or previous institution's goals and technical standards?
* What did the individual do to reinforce the values of and build the culture of the current or previous organization?
Kruse said things to consider when weighing whether to hire a valuable candidate with a checkered past include:
*The candidate's role in creating or maintaining the inappropriate culture.
*Whether the candidate took any action to change that culture and, if so, how effective that action was.
*Whether the candidate showed improved leadership in, and commitment to, preventing sexual misconduct and promptly addressing inappropriate behavior. "An employer should think long and hard before bringing on board a candidate whose track record creates a threat to the organization's culture of prohibiting sexual misconduct and promptly remedying inappropriate behavior," Kruse said.
Ultimately, Kruse said, if a candidate is hired despite questionable past leadership, "then HR must take steps to prevent this decision from undermining the organization's culture of not tolerating sexual misconduct." She said HR should work in tandem with the individual's manager to:
*Set clear expectations for the new hire about the need to foster and contribute to the organization's harassment-free atmosphere.
*Provide the new hire with training and coaching to heighten awareness of sexual misconduct issues and appropriate responses.
*Educate the new hire on the organization's resources for preventing and promptly addressing sexual misconduct concerns.
*Monitor how well the new hire performs the responsibility of fostering a harassment-free atmosphere. This should include input from people for whom the new hire has responsibility, perhaps through surveys or 360-degree reviews.
*Hold the new hire accountable for preventing or promptly addressing sexual misconduct, by both positively reinforcing appropriate leadership in this area and confronting or penalizing inappropriate responses or nonresponses.
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