As I write this, a former icon of the NFL, broadcast media, and pop culture, Jon Gruden is recently unemployed. The media firestorm about his communications via email to a senior executive at the Washington Football Club is at a fever pitch. This scandal raises a few issues that are very pertinent to human resources leadership.
The “gruesome” Gruden emails are a great example of the cliché about “equal opportunity offenders.” The email contains racist, homophobic, and misogynistic tropes and seem to be filled with the kind of anger you would expect of a person who felt life had somehow done them wrong. But Gruden is an unparalleled success. A man who lived a dream as a Super Bowl–winning coach, business executive, and sportscaster. This proves that being narrow-minded and bigotry do not fit a particular profile. That any executive could harbor opinions that are contrary to the evolution we all hope we are achieving.
I have often stated that I believe that racism exists, but I do not ascribe to the freely attached adjective of “systemic.” Most HR executives have heard the mass media talk incessantly about the “systemic racism” of the corporate world. I have spoken to a number of CHROs about my belief that the word systemic is misused. Take the case of Gruden, there aren’t any rules in the NFL or at ESPN (Walt Disney) that allow racism. There are no policies that promote hate speech, racism, or misogyny. There are no laws governing the employment practices, operations, or decision-making in Washington, DC or Tampa Bay or Los Angeles that protect and enshrine racist behavior. In fact, the rules, policies, and laws all say the exact opposite. The “system” is not the problem. Racism is contrary to the rules, policies, and law of the “system.” What HR faces is ten times harder to root out. It is “insidious” racism: the individual who exhibits behaviors that reveal bigotry or intolerance. These people have to be identified, investigated, and documented for multiple instances before any corrective action can be taken. Insidious racism is much, much harder to eradicate.
As I said earlier, I am not arguing that racism does not exist. It does and some of it may relate to unconscious biases and social contexts that also need to be identified and corrected. However, the system says the kind of things we saw in these recently published emails are flagrant violations of policies designed to promote inclusivity and promote tolerance. For HR, a few other questions need to be answered. First, why did it take 10 years to be addressed? And, why is no one talking about why the owner of the Washington Football Club did not call out the behavior to the NFL or, at least, respond to Gruden saying that his comments were unacceptable? That discussion about how these emails lay dormant for 10 years could be a back door argument to the use of the word “systemic.”
HR leaders are not only responsible for rooting out executives who harbor these kinds of unacceptable attitudes, but also for protecting the organization. Did Gruden miss the day at executive school about not putting what he may have considered “jokes” (and yes offensive ones) in an email? HR executives should not be teaching people how to sweep problems under the rug: Operating executives will damage the reputation and employment brands of their organizations when these kinds of offensive messages come to light. How many times must business leaders be told to not put anything in an email they would not say in public? A great many people at these organizations who did not deserve to be splashed with mud from this incident will be subjected to questions about their character. Unfortunately for them it cannot be helped.
One would think that the NFL, part of the incredibly diverse industry of professional sports, would not be a haven for people with these kinds of objectionable attitudes, but, sadly that is the big challenge. Insidious racism is ugly, it is secretive, and it is very much on display in the past few weeks. We need to stop hearing chatter about “systemic” and figure out better ways to counteract and eradicate “insidious.”