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It Doesn’t Take Courage To Stand Up For Your Beliefs

One thing I’ve never understood about many human resource professionals is how much we pat each other on the back for doing things that should be standard practice. Oh, so you’re actually standing up to your peers and saying they have to treat employees fairly? Good for you! That’s your job.

So when I heard the story about the ousted CEO of AIG Robert Willumstad rejecting his 22 million dollar severance package (which he was contractually obligated to receiving), I was like “Hey, someone wants a pat on the back for doing their job”:

Willumstad, 63, served as the chief executive officer of ailing insurance giant American International Group from June until he was replaced earlier this month. He was eligible for a severance package of $22 million, but in a Sunday e-mail to his successor, Edward Liddy, he said that he would decline the package.

“I prefer not to receive severance payments while shareholders and employees have lost considerable value in their AIG shares,” he wrote in an e-mail, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Given this year’s turmoil in the stock and credit markets, AIG is far from the only firm to see massive drops in share value. But don’t expect executives from other financial firms to follow Willumstad’s example, at least not voluntarily, said Robert Reich, the former U.S. labor secretary under President Clinton and a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

My views on this are pretty simple:

  1. Willumstad had every legal right to take the money. I believe that as a squishy capitalist and as an American. He negotiated a great deal. Good for him.
  2. Willumstad’s job is to create value for the owners (i.e. shareholders). Willumstad felt he had failed in this duty (he had three months so who really knows how much he could have done).
  3. Willumstad didn’t do his job so he didn’t take the money that he was supposed to get for doing his job. That’s the ethical thing to do.

Willumstad put his money where his mouth is and stood up for his beliefs. It wasn’t brave, it was right. It was both the least and the most he could possibly do. In the world of executive compensation, this is big news.

What would have been more difficult? If you have the same beliefs as Willumstad, the difficult thing would be taking the money and feeling like you didn’t do anything for the people who had the bottom dropped out of their 401k or stock portfolios. It may be a small gesture in the larger scheme of things but it was probably one of the least difficult decisions of his life.

So I guess when HR people pat each other on the back for doing things like making a difference in an organization (things they should already be doing), I have to question what exactly is so hard about this? And of course, I get my answer from the above story.

The reason that this is a big deal in the HR world is because it is uncommon and unusual that HR brings tremendous value to the table.

It doesn’t take courage to stand up for your beliefs. You just have to do it. It takes more courage to sit in the back and cry about it because then you have to have the guts to admit you’ll never be up there. You’ll have to admit that you work in a field that has more limits than a calculus class (maybe I should have used a different analogy for HR people). I am tired of HR people limiting themselves from doing their job because they don’t have the courage to do their job.

If the typical company was Christmas dinner, HR would be stuck at the kids table. We’ll be there as long as stuff like “HR understands an organization’s people needs and delivers” is front page news in the industry.

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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