Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

What Have We Learned From the Mark Hurd Letter?

It’s been a few days since the world devoured and digested the contents of the June 2010 letter to then-Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd, alleging a pattern of sexual harassment of a marketing contractor during a period running from 2007 to 2009.

The facts are pretty simple: HP investigated, found that its sexual harassment policies hadn’t been violated, but in the process found irregularities with expense reports that made HP’s board of directors lose their trust in Hurd. He resigned on August 6, 2010, following a settlement with the contractor, Jodie Fisher, who wrote a letter saying there were unspecified “inaccuracies” in the original letter.

So what have we learned from this visit back to the summer of 2010? And, are there any larger implications for Hurd or for his current employer, Oracle? Or, moreover, for the world at large?

The short answer to the second question is, of course, no. Immediately in the wake of Hurd’s departure from HP, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison rushed to Hurd’s defense, then offered him a job. There’s no indication that any of the new revelations have tarnished Hurd’s standing with Ellison or within Oracle.

So long as Ellison is happy with Hurd as Oracle’s co-president, Hurd is secure. The way Ellison appears to see it, HP was dumb to let Hurd go over what was ultimately a problem with expense reports. Hurd is human, but on game day he plays to win, so Ellison made space for him on team Oracle. The day Hurd doesn’t play to win is another matter.

HP investors can now evaluate and debate whether that company’s board of directors overreacted to the matter, although in reality it doesn’t matter. What’s done is done, and HP’s new CEO, Meg Whitman, has plenty on her plate for the year ahead, not the least of which is undoing some of the damage to its share price done under Hurd’s replacement, Léo Apotheker.

What else have we learned? Hurd’s not the first, nor sadly the last, senior executive to be accused of sexual harassment. For every letter like this one that sees the light of day, there are thousands more that the public never reads.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has tracked the number of sexual harassment claims it investigates each year since 1997, when there were 15,889 cases. It is perhaps encouraging to learn that the number of such cases investigated by the EEOC has dropped by 26 percent to 11,717 as of 2010. (And here’s an interesting fact — 16 percent of these claims were from males.)

On average, these investigations lead to about $50 million each year in monetary benefits paid to the people who file claims, and these don’t include cases that go to court.

And the fact remains that HP’s own internal investigation exonerated Hurd of sexual harassment, and Fisher has stipulated that there were “inaccuracies” in the original letter.

Still, none of it has to be true for the contents of the letter to be a perfect case study in what not to do. As such, it should be required reading for executives at every level of seniority. In that sense, painful and tawdry as it must have been for those concerned, the letter’s release constitutes a public service.

(And speaking of public service, the image above is the early 1990s-vintage graphic from NBC’s public service announcement campaign.)


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