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It is better
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John Sumser

is more
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John Gall


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Guilt By Association

(September 23, 2002) - Witch hunts are a standard American method of dealing with changes in the economy and culture. As a country, when things don't go well, we look for a scapegoat. We get particularly enthusiastic about large groups of scapegoats. For nearly a generation, the government, as a consequence of Vietnam and the Nixon disgrace, sufficed as the national scapegoat. It was a weird time during which a politician could expect to get elected by proclaiming an anti-government bias. Witch-hunts produce that sort of double-speak.

One need look no further than CNN to understand the full embrace that mainstream media is giving the current frenzy. We haven't given the membership of Al Queda this much attention. By focusing the attention on CEOs and deal makers, we're able to focus our frustrations and feelings of helplessness on scoundrels who deserve a public execution. That's just the way it was in Salem. Today's witches are every bit as guilty as they have been in the other famous witch hunts of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Somehow, life is just better when there's someone to blame.

We believe that the current spate of revisionism and prosecution has its roots in a deeper cultural shift. After a generation of anti-government rhetoric, we are shifting back towards the center. The culture, following the disruption of our culture last September, has realized that the role of government has been shortchanged. Effective leadership or not, inherently corrupt or not, there are a number of things that only government can accomplish. Witch Hunts often signal these sorts of seismic shifts in public attitudes.

The anti-business witch hunt is going to be around for a while.

As it matures, we should be asking ourselves how deep and long it will run. As members of the same class (Business People), are we liable to be tarnished with the stink and disruption of the National purge? We know that the question sounds silly at first but ask that you suspend judgment for a moment and consider the possibility. Certainly, the high-talent class of government employees who joined in the early 1960s (at the pinnacle of the older view that Government employment was a very positive contribution) were eternally surprised and frustrated at the way their choice was tarnished by the post-Watergate view of government as incompetent at best. 

It could happen to us. It's worth considering and preparing for if the risk is real. We see real risk in two areas of the Human Capital Management function: Compensation and Recruiting. 

After all, who do you think signed off on Jack Welch's paperwork? Who processed the loans at Tyco? Whose signature is on the bonus authorizations? Well, it's most likely going to turn out that the HR executive had to approve the compensation variances, relocation loans and bonus plans. That same HR executive held bottom-line responsibility for the pension plans and 401Ks. How far will pleading "I was just following orders" go towards chasing the witch-prosecutors away?

Compensation policy, audits, compliance and benchmarking are about to come into their own as spotlight issues.

In the Recruiting world, it is standard practice to wink at the difference between what is promised and what is delivered. This behavior, which is called fraud when it involves much smaller purchasing decisions (like a car, house or appliance), has been the hallmark of the sleazy end of the business. But, it also happens less intentionally when a generalist recruiter is telling the company story to a specialist who is about to be hired. In current Recruiting departments, there simply isn't adequate staff for everyone to know all of the details about all of the company. It's easy to imagine well-intentioned, hard working Recruiters exceeding the boundaries of propriety (and fraud statutes) in the interest of winning the heart of a potential hire. Unfortunately, staff shortages and good intentions are not a useful defense in a civil action.

It's important to remember how witch hunts work. The standard witch identification involved holding the suspect's head under water for five minutes. If she lived, she was a witch. If she died, it was a shame.

 -John Sumser

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Materials written by John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.
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