Three top human resources leaders were among nine executives ousted by Tribune Co. as the Chicago-based media giant continued its housecleaning after the October departure of CEO Randy Michaels, the central figure of an unflattering front-page New York Times story depicting a corporate culture run amok.
A Nov. 2 memo e-mailed to employees announced that the human resources department was being restructured and senior vice president of human resources Barb Buchwald along with HR vice presidents Ken Perry and Louise Sheard were let go. Tribune Co. owns TV stations and newspapers nationwide, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.
The memo, which was written by the four-member executive council that temporarily replaced Michaels, outlined plans to “restructure the company's human resources organization in a way that will allow us to share best practices and leverage the HR expertise residing in the corporate office and in our business units. We want employees to feel connected not only to their individual business units, but to Tribune as a whole.”
The executive council named three company leaders to head the reorganization of human resources: Gwen Murakami, senior vice president, administration for the Los Angeles Times; Janice Jacobs, vice president of human resources for the Chicago Tribune and Mike Bourgon, vice president of human resources for Tribune Co.
Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman declined to comment on plans for the division, saying only that “HR will not be outsourced. Other than the e-mail, no one will be commenting about the changes in HR.”
The developments have left some HR professionals wondering what role Tribune Co's. HR department played in what has been described as a fraternity house atmosphere. Michaels resigned Oct. 22 amid reports of boorish behavior from top Tribune executives and an unprofessional corporate culture.
Mary Lynn Fayoumi, CEO of the Management Association of Illinois, a not-for-profit organization that provides human resources service to employers, said that as a longtime Tribune reader and a human resources professional, she has followed the company's internal struggles.
Fayoumi said she was surprised by revisions to the employee handbook made by Michaels, which was included in the New York Times story.
“Working at the Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the handbook stated. “You might experience an attitude you don't share. You might hear a joke that you don't consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process.” It added, “This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”
“Did HR write that? Did they approve of it?” Fayoumi said, adding that she's received a lot of feedback from association members who were equally aghast. “Typically, the HR department, in addition to establishing and enforcing policy, is also responsible for helping organizations assess risk and make sure they are within the line legally. Given the long list of employee concerns, it appears that HR had little or no power or influence on senior managers, or they were part of the team.”
HR leaders at the Tribune were most likely “between a rock and a hard place,” said Ed Lawler, director of the Center for Effective Organizations at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. Lawler said HR's role in the decline of the company's culture depends on whether the HR department was a victim or a perpetrator.
“It's an issue of how front and center HR should be when there are sweeping changes within the organization,” he said. “I don't think HR should be portrayed as being responsible for it. They should coach management as to what to say, but ultimately they should not come forth and say, ‘Here's our strategy.' ”
Lawler didn't know the details of what happened at Tribune, but after reading revisions to the company's employee handbook said, “If I was in HR there, that's the point where I would get my résumé out.”