A really disturbing front-page story on the NY Times the other day profiled some of the goings-on at Chicago-based Tribune Co., the storied media giant that was taken over by real-estate mogul Sam Zell back in 2007. As the story notes, it’s all been downhill—WAY downhill—for the once-proud Tribune Co. ever since. Zell chose to make the purchase (piling enormous debt onto the company in the process) right before the newspaper market cratered.
The company filed for bankruptcy protection less than a year after Zell bought it, yet he and his management team were still able to persuade the bankruptcy judge overseeing the case to sign off on more than $50 million worth of bonuses for top managers earlier this year.
Possible financial shenanigans aside, the story’s big revelation (based on interviews with numerous former Tribune employees) is the allegedly depraved corporate culture that Zell and his people have allowed to flourish at the company.
Two former Tribune execs told NYT writer David Carr that Randy Michaels, one of Zell’s hand-picked minions to run the company (who has a history of sexual-harassment claims filed against him at his former employer), met them in a bar soon after joining the company and is accused of offering a female bartender $100 to show him her breasts. (Michaels has denied doing this).
Michaels and his lieutenants at one point allegedly stood on a balcony overlooking a work area and made loud remarks about the sexual attributes of various employees, within hearing distance of everyone. There’s plenty more, of course.
But for me, what really takes the cake is this little gem, from a rewritten version of the company’s employee handbook that was apparently one of the new team’s first priorities, according to the story:
“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook warned. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process.” It then added, “This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”
Wow—management actually went ahead and redefined harassment. Brilliant! So the obvious question is: Where was HR when this new handbook was approved and distributed to employees? How could any HR leader possibly sign off on this?
For a quick answer, I checked the archives of our People section and discovered that Luis E. Lewin served as Tribune’s senior VP of corporate human resources from 2000 to 2008. In other words, Lewin (who’s currently the CHRO at Purdue University) left Tribune right as Zell and his team were in the midst of making their changes at the company.
I don’t know Mr. Lewin or the actual circumstances of his departure, but I’d really like to think that it was because he would not be part of a management team that apparently had so little respect for the employees who worked there. I’d also like to think that most HR leaders would, upon failing to convince a CEO that their policies were similarly misguided, do the right thing and tender their resignation.
Times may be tough, but principles are priceless.