Severance Without the ‘Sweetener’

Ever said or written something you wished you could take back? Then you probably have some idea how Lucy Adams might be feeling right now.

200275121-001In Adams’ case, it’s the word “sweetener” that’s currently plaguing the BBC HR director. If you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that current and former BBC officials were grilled earlier in the week by the MPs on the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee over controversial severance payments that were made to senior managers who were terminated between 2005 and 2013. Many of those payments reportedly exceeded what was spelled out in their employment contracts.

One of those officials marched before the committee is Adams, who is accused of using the word “sweeteners” to describe the payouts.

Here’s how the Guardian describes the hearing …

At Monday’s hearing Adams said she could not recall using the word ‘sweetener’—which she described as a ‘strange term’—when asked repeatedly by Stephen Barclay, the Conservative MP and PAC committee member who obtained the email.

However, when the MP said it came from a leaked email in his possession, she conceded: ‘I may have used the term by means of an incentive to get to a swift resolution.’ ”

In the Guardian story, Barclay is quoted describing the term as a “ ‘damning illustration of the attitude at the top of the BBC’ towards six- and seven-figure payouts to departing executives” and shining “a light on the real culture of the HR department which saw payments [that went beyond] contractual terms as simply perks of the job.”

According to the piece, Adams “denied that she had instructed HR staff to be lax about paying handsome severance deals in an effort to reduce the senior-management headcount at the BBC.”

As a result of the uproar over her alleged role in the matter and her choice of words, some have called for Adams to immediately step down from her role as the BBC’s HR chief, in advance of her recently announced departure next April.  Accusations by the MP against Adams, who has headed HR at the BBC since 2009, reportedly brought cheers to the BBC newsroom.

I imagine it hasn’t been one of the better years for the BBC HR chief, especially the last week or so. But I think  a strong case could also be made that BBC controversy—and the principal role Adams is alleged to have played in it—hasn’t done the HR profession as a whole any favors either, at least not in the U.K. (Here’s a slightly over-the-top-piece that appeared in the Telegraph.)

I’ve come to appreciate many of the British TV sagas that have made their ways to U.S. shores, like Downton Abbey and State of Play. But this is one real-world drama we all probably would have been better off without.

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