If you’re an HR professional, you don’t need to be told that you have a difficult job. You also probably don’t need to be told that no one cares about the fact that you have a difficult job. It’s a cruel world, and you already know it doesn’t matter that you ensure workplace safety, investigate harassment and discrimination claims and sometimes provide a shoulder to cry on.
Sadly, it wouldn’t matter if you had a thousand shoulders for a thousand weeping employees — the fact remains that when a worker gets a write up, reprimand, or walking papers — it often happens in your office. That’s what people remember about HR.
And when a company goes off the rails due to scandal, it’s often perceived as a failure of HR. While more analytical minds know that only so much of a company’s failings can be attributed to the HR department, it’s still fun to look back on major company disasters with a sentimental touch of schadenfreude—especially for those of us who spent time getting written up in the HR department.
The following list contains some of the more epic HR failures in recent memory. The purpose of compiling these corporate debacles isn’t to point fingers and decide how much of a company scandal should (or shouldn’t) be attributed to your friendly neighborhood HR manager. But rather to get a burst of endorphins from reading about someone else’s misfortune from behind the safe space of a glowing computer screen. Hopefully, you might also learn a thing or two about how to avoid a similar disaster at your company.
So here it is. Enjoy.
Employee Live-Tweets Mass Layoff
In 2013, the British entertainment retailer HMV planned to lay off 190 workers. The company didn’t however plan for the actual layoff to be beamed out to a worldwide audience. But that’s exactly what happened.
On the afternoon of January 31, 2013, 60 employees were told they were being let go. Unfortunately, HMV failed to follow a sensible layoff protocol and change the passwords to the company Twitter account before dropping the axe.
So a disgruntled employee did what any reasonable disgruntled person with access to a Twitter account would do — they beamed the world a play-by-play breakdown of the proceedings.
It started with:
We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!!
And then there was this:
There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution of loyal employees who love the brand.
But one of the best Tweets to go out before the anonymous Tweeter was silenced:
Just heard our Marketing Director (he’s staying, folks) ask, “How do I shut down Twitter?
A good question indeed. And something that should have been considered before the firing squad convened.
HR Companies… with Benefits
Sometimes HR disasters happen to companies that provide HR products to other companies (let that sink in for a minute). Witness the Silicon Valley startup Zenefits, which in the past year has experienced more than a few disasters thanks to what many see as a typically permissive startup culture.
In February of 2016, it was reported that the company sent out an email to its employees banning office sex after management discovered that cigarettes, plastic cups filled with beer, used condoms (hork) were found in the stairwells.
“Do not use the stairwells to smoke, drink, eat, or have sex,” the email stated.
Aside from possible stairwell orgies, the company has also dealt with other public embarrassment stemming from questionable leadership.
While the company was once considered a rising star in the world of startups, it soon garnered a different kind of attention from the California Department of Insurance. Vanity Fair reported last year that the state department began an investigation into Zenefits due to allegations that the company skirted compliance laws. The company was accused of allowing its health insurance brokers to use a software program making it appear as if they had completed mandatory licensing courses when in fact they hadn’t.
Conrad Parker, the CEO who helmed the company during its ascent to a valuation of $4.5 million, resigned shortly after admitting the company had made missteps. The company was forced to pay a series of fines in multiple states, including $7 million in California, as a result of those missteps.
According to an article written by Vanity Fair author Emily Jane Fox, there’s a unique culture to the companies of the Silicon Valley startup world that could be to blame for some of the negative media attention they get.
“Silicon Valley has its own value system, and its most successful companies have been regarded for their ability to operate outside the confines of the status quo,” Fox wrote. This culture reportedly affects other Silicon Valley businesses as well, including companies like ride sharing giant Uber. Speaking of Uber, they made this list — keep reading.
Uber, Where Ridesharing Isn’t Caring
Though Uber has dealt with a number of HR scandals since its 2009 founding, this particular scandal is still brewing. Last month, former Uber site reliability engineer Susan Fowler published an open letter on her blog, in which she detailed sexual harassment at the hands of a company manager. Whether the allegations will ever be confirmed with any legal certainty remains uncertain. But regardless of whether or not this happens, Fowler’s story remains a cautionary tale in how ignoring HR complaints, can lead to public embarrassment.
The harassment began, Fowler alleged, after completing her training in late 2015. She described receiving a series of direct messages over the company chat system from a manager who claimed to be in an open relationship with his girlfriend. The manager said he was on the look out for new sexual partners. Fowler immediately took screenshots of the messages and reported the inappropriate comments to HR.
Fowler’s supervisors reportedly told her she could move to another team, or continue with the same team, but expect poor performance reviews from the harasser she reported. He wouldn’t be reprimanded, supervisors told her, as this had been his first offense. Fowler decided to move to another team. After speaking with other women in the company, Fowler said she heard more stories about her alleged harasser’s inappropriate behavior.
“Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company,” Fowler wrote.
Currently, both Fowler and Uber have hired legal representation while the company investigates Fowler’s claims.
While this issue continues to brew, the company received more negative attention when video surfaced in February of CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver who had complained about the company cutting rates. While nothing caught on video was criminal or even horribly offensive, it was one more mark against a company who’s been accused of suffering from culture issues. Kalanick has since announced his intention to hire a COO to help with the management of the company.
While armchair HR experts can theorize ad nauseum about what creates toxic company culture, blogger John Hollon over at Fistful of Talent has as good a theory as anyone. He notes that the Uber model succeeded on its ability to disrupt a long-established taxi industry and skirt laws and regulations in municipalities across the country and the world.
Hollon writes, “I don’t know if Uber ever truly planned for the dysfunctional culture they have today, but that’s how it goes when it comes to company culture. You usually get the one you deserve.”
National Park Nightmare
In 2016 The Huffington Post chronicled the story of Cheyenne Szydlo, a 33-year-old wildlife biologist with the National Park Service. She found herself harassed repeatedly during a nine-day excursion down the Colorado River in the remote regions of the Grand Canyon by a male boat operator. The man had a history of harassing women.
The article went on to detail a number of problems the park service had over the years with harassment despite it’s reputation as a “benign progressive” institution. In 2014, a group of female employees filed a class action suit—the fourth such suit in 35 years. They described a
“long-standing culture of sexual harassment, disparity in hiring and promotion, and retaliation against those who complained.”
In one case, a female dispatcher reported being assaulted by a manager. While the manager was made to resign, the Forest Service attempted to rekindle a professional relationship with him six months later. In 2008, a male supervisor with the same agency reportedly made disparaging comments about a black female employee and stated that he wanted to shoot subordinates. The employee reported the comment, but was told by a district ranger to ignore him.
In 2016, the US Department of the Interior released a report that found female employees of the River District of the Grand Canyon had for years suffered sexual harassment. According to the report, regional administrators knew about the harassment, and failed to stop it.
Want to avoid HR disasters and lawsuits? Take complaints seriously. Don’t be like the National Park Service. You don’t want to get a letter from someone like us. 🙂
Abercrombie Hijab Kerfuffle
In 2008, fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire 17-year-old Samantha Elauf because she wore a hijab. In its response to a discrimination lawsuit filed by Elauf, Abercrombie said it refused to hire Elauf because the head covering clashed with the company’s dress code — a “classic East Coast collegiate style.”
Though Elauf was awarded $20,000 by a jury, Abercrombie appealed the decision, and the verdict was overturned. The US Court of Appeals for the 10th District ruled that the lower court should have dismissed the case because Elauf didn’t inform Abercrombie that she wore the headscarf for religious reasons.
Long story short, after the District court ruling, Elauf’s case made its way to the Supreme Court, where none other than ultra-conservative (now dead) jurist Antonin Scalia delivered a decision in Elauf’s favor from the bench (hooray!). Bear in mind, this is a judge who during a hearing on affirmative action once suggested African-American students might do better in slower-track schools.
The New York Times reported that Scalia didn’t buy the company’s argument that it didn’t know about the religious affiliation. He stated that the company suspected she wore the headscarf for religious reasons, and that the decision not to hire her was motivated “by a desire to avoid accommodating her religious practices.” Committing an act of discrimination so egregious that Justice Scalia takes you to task? Now there’s an HR fail for the record books.