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HR Leadership Column

A Smart Career Move

When an HR executive is unable to change a corporate culture that is all too willing to accept illegal, immoral or unethical activities, it's time to consider the impact on his or her own career -- and move on.

Monday, August 8, 2011
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One of the advantages of working from home is that I can have the news on throughout the day, simply muting it when I need to take calls or concentrate. I'm a news junkie, and working from home lets me feed my habit.

Of course, there are some disadvantages, such as having to listen to reporters endlessly asking, "What happened to Caylee Anthony?" while providing a running commentary of her mother's trial and verdict.

In the past few weeks, it also meant listening to the coverage of the breaking scandal in the United Kingdom, where it was disclosed that members of the tabloid media had hacked into private citizens' phones in the pursuit of stories.

I watched as 80-year-old Rupert Murdoch was called to testify before Parliament over the scandal, which has engulfed his News Corp. media empire.

Murdoch started the session by saying, "This is the most humble day of my life," and then went on to tell the British lawmakers that he and his son didn't know about the phone-hacking or payments to police by staff at the News of the World tabloid.

When a lawmaker asked Murdoch, "Do you accept that, ultimately, you are responsible for this whole fiasco?" Murdoch, the CEO, replied "No." He wasn't responsible.

He wasn't responsible. Excuse me? Really?

Murdoch built his corporate empire over many years -- he didn't just join the company and inherit a culture. He played a key role in building the very culture that led to him to being questioned so critically by Parliament.

And while he may have told Members of Parliament that he didn't think he was ultimately responsible for the phone-hacking fiasco, the fact that he printed a personal apology to the victims suggests otherwise.

But I have to wonder what role HR executives may have played in shaping a culture at News Corp. What did HR do -- or not do -- that allowed these behaviors to thrive, and apparently be rewarded?

Or was the power of the Murdoch personality and competitive drive so strong that no amount of effort on the part of HR executives could -- or would -- have made a difference? I don't know enough about the inner workings of New Corp. or HR's role to speculate.

But I do know one thing: Sometimes, no matter how much an HR executive tries to ensure that executives in their organization behave appropriately -- ethically, legally or morally -- those leaders just won't change their behavior.

And once an HR executive realizes it, he or she has to make a decision: Stay and persevere in trying to bring about change, or go.

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My advice: Go. And go as quickly as you can.

It's nearly impossible to change someone's moral compass, and when a compass guides leaders to make unethical, illegal or immoral decisions, staying behind to try to "fix" it will be futile. And worse, it may be a waste of a career.

Years ago I was at a reception for a group of senior HR executives in Houston. It was shortly after Enron began to implode. There were two former Enron executives in attendance, both of whom had left Enron voluntarily: one to another position, one with no other job lined up.

I asked each of them, separately, why they had left Enron. Each, independently, told me that he grew tired of other executives walking up beside him, putting their arm around him, and then asking him to do something he felt uncomfortable doing -- all the while saying, "you want to be part of the team, right?"

They made a personal -- and career -- decision that Enron had a culture they wouldn't be able to change, and they needed to leave.

They made the right decision. It's not a failure to leave a company when you realize the leadership will never let you help change the culture. It's a smart career move.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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