Ximena chairs a government utility business that operates large primary industrial processes and is also involved in construction of new assets. Safety is a key issue and the board have zero appetite for any physical harm to staff, contractors or innocent bystanders. As board Chair Ximena also chairs the remuneration committee and has recently incorporated some nominations work into the charter and activities to better support the government with their desire to involve boards in director succession planning.
The HR Director recently asked Ximena for a meeting at which she told Ximena that staff were concerned by the CEO’s activities outside of work. Specifically the CEO is involved in White Collar Boxing and the HR director feels this is not appropriate given the culture of the workplace and the visible support the organisation, and many other government companies, has given to anti-domestic violence campaigns. The HR Director also checked the terms of the company’s key man insurance policy and discovered that this would be voided for injuries or death resulting from action sports activities that include boxing. The HR Director has asked that Ximena talk to the CEO about ceasing his involvement with the sport.
Ximena is concerned but cautious. She knows that the CEO, who was brought in from commercial industry, and the HR Director, a long serving public sector employee, have often differed in their opinions and that, whilst both are professional, there is scant respect and less regard between them. But she has to admit that a boxing CEO might not sit well with the ‘A Fight is Never Right’ campaign the company has just sponsored.
Is this the CEO’s private business or an issue for the company and its board: What should Ximena do?
Broadly, Ximena has four options:
1. To ignore the HR Director’s appeal, by pushing back. However, this may see the issue ‘leaked’ to the public domain, especially given the HRD’s lack of respect towards to the CEO. If this were to occur, the board may be faced with a bigger problem - a damage control action. This option also provides tacit endorsement of the CEO’s actions.
2. A private conversation will enable Ximena to hear the CEO’s perspective, ask questions and make suggestions. The CEO may not see the matter as a problem! Contingent on the quality of the working relationship, the chairman should be able explore options, present the wider perspective and reach an agreement over how best to proceed.
3. To ask the CEO to meet with a board committee does two things. It signals to the CEO that the board is treating the matter seriously, in pursuit of a workable solution. However, it also sets a precedent whereby staff can approach the board directly. Staff need to take their concerns to the CEO first.
4. To launch a full (presumably formal) investigation. This is probably an over-reaction.
The most tenable option is probably the private conversation. While legal private activities are not and should not be the concern of the company, activities that may be considered to be incompatible with the company’s purposes, values or culture, or may call the company’s reputation into question or bring it into disrepute need to be curbed - particularly as the CEO is a highly visible role. Through their actions, they set the cultural tone of the organisation.
Notwithstanding which option is eventually selected, the tension between the CEO and the HRD is a problem that needs to be resolved. The scant respect and regard is a harbinger of low trust, empathy and teamwork; thus rendering the working relationship difficult, at best. Whether the two parties are able to work together productively in the future is probably moot, especially as the HRD went around the CEO to the chairman directly. The HR Director probably needs to consider her tenure with the business.