Why the Harvard president scandal is a cautionary tale for HR pros

When Claudine Gay resigned as president of Harvard University on Jan. 2, she did so amid a swirl of controversy that was not only damaging to her personally, but also to Harvard overall.

While Gay’s situation, which involved criticism over the university’s handling of antisemitism on campus and accusations of plagiarism, was highly unusual and unlike what most corporate leaders would ever face at one time, HR leaders can learn from her experience — and avoid the same happening at their companies, said Stephen Paskoff, CEO of Employment Learning Innovations (ELI) and a former EEOC and employment law attorney.

“The more powerful and prominent you are, and more serious the issues are, the less likely it is that you’re going to survive,” he said.

Not only can HR professionals work with leaders to re-enforce that message, but they can also turn them into allies in making sure that company goals and values are known across the board, to avoid anything remotely similar happening there.

Leaders need to know — and act on — an organization’s values

Gay was hit with two high-profile scandals that led to her resignation, both of which went against Harvard’s stated values, which include academic integrity and respecting the rights and dignity of others.

And while her resignation has also been controversial itself, especially among Harvard alumni, it still affected how people view Harvard as well as the institutional brand.

“Whoever is in a leadership role better live and practice those values and be able to articulate them very, very clearly,” Paskoff said. Otherwise, the leader may be vulnerable to scrutiny and damage the reputation of the organization they lead, too.

That’s especially true for people at the top of the corporate food chain, he added. “She was particularly vulnerable because of her prominence,” he said of Gay. When a leader is in that position, “they don’t get a mulligan. You make a mistake […] you’re going to end up paying some consequence.”

While not every organization is in the same position as Harvard, leaders can still be in a spotlight if they make a mistake, which is why making sure leadership understands the consequences of not upholding company values is so critical.

Working together to reinforce company culture and values

While HR managers can’t control every single thing every worker does, especially those in the C-suite, they can work towards reinforcing and maintaining a strong company culture by working with partners throughout an organization to get those messages across consistently.

HR professionals can be strong but also need to say “we can’t do this alone,” Paskoff said, and work with allies and colleagues to get the message to everyone in the organization. That means talking to leaders about HR’s policies and trainings and telling them how they can re-enforce the work HR is doing. Tell them “you as a leader must talk about this stuff in plain, organizational terms,” he said.

That also means working with leaders so they can talk about a company’s values in ways that relate to specific jobs — and more than once a year. “You talk about sales regularly if you’re in sales, or quality if you’re in production, safety if you’re dealing with manufacturing, because they’re so critical. You do it in a stream of work,” he said. “The same has got to be true with organizational values.”

Organizations already do this with a lot of messaging, he said. For example, at a company that makes beverages, no one working there would walk into the office holding a beverage from a competitor brand. It’s just not done. The same must be true of acting in ways that go against a company’s mission and values. HR pros can’t “do this alone,” he said. It has to be a companywide effort, including leadership.

Not only will this keep leaders (and corporate reputation) out of hot water, but it will lead to a better workforce, he added. “[HR has] to get allies, keep them involved and help them understand why an inclusive, collaborative culture will make them safer [and] more efficient,” he said — helping HR to minimize risks while attracting the best talent.