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A Very Real Interview

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Two years ago I had occasion to interview a dozen top, retired human resource professionals. They had all been senior or executive vice presidents for Fortune 500 organizations. I think you’ll see from the excerpted responses why I’ve had to hide the their names and firms, and why I could never use this in any of my books. The response was from the first person I asked, but represents the great majority (9 of 12) of the group.

Me: What do you think of the human resource response to the terrible racial problems at Texaco?

Response: I wasn’t there, so it’s unfair for me to comment. Perhaps HR did everything it could but was shouted down. Or perhaps it would have been worse had they tried to intervene.

Me: Well, what about the horrible sexual harassment at Allergan? That originated with the CEO, was widespread, and finally resulted in top executives being fired and sued. Why didn’t HR blow the whistle to the board?

Response: I’m not familiar with it.

Me: You’re not familiar with it?! It was in all the papers and professional journals. How could you be in your former position and not know about it?

Response: You can’t keep up with everything.

Me: How much progress do you think HR still has to make before top HR executives are seen as peers of the top line executives?

Response: (Vehement) I’m sick of all this nonsense about “gaining a seat at the table.” We’ve been an integral part of top management strategy and meetings for many years now. This isn’t even an issue any more and doesn’t deserve discussion.

Me: What was the greatest HR error your former company committed, irrespective of your advice and counsel?

Response: I cannot talk about my former employer. They have been great to me and I would never discuss any negatives in public.

Me: Even if they are part of the public record, have since been corrected, and were committed by people no longer there?

Response: There is such a think as loyalty.

Me: What do you think HR should have done when Bob Allen, as CEO of AT&T, attempted to throw 40,000 people out of work to atone for terrible strategy decisions? This was stopped by public outcry, not HR.

Response: What could HR do? They undoubtedly tried to create as humane a separation policy as possible. That’s their job—to implement executive decisions.

I could go on (and did for nearly 40 transcribed pages) but you get the drift. These were presumably powerful, competent people, who reached the pinnacle of the HR profession. But those conversations certainly weren’t indicative of how other high level people speak. And I suspect they do represent the same timidity that landed Texaco and Allergan in mess they deserved.

© 2004 Alan Weiss

Alan Weiss, a regular contributor to and the author of 23 books appearing in six languages, including the 12-year best-seller, Million Dollar Consulting. Contact him at You can join his international destination for professionals and entrepreneurs at

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