Human Resource Management and the CBC

One of the biggest stories in work & organizations in Canada right now is the ongoing workplace scandals at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. At first, attention was focused on the firing of former radio host Jian Ghomeshi.  In the first week of 2015, Ghomeshi was charged with three more counts of assault, and  two CBC executives were placed on indefinite “leaves of absence”. But now another controversy has arisen that involves a different CBC employee – senior business correspondent Amanda Lang. According to a report quoting another CBC reporter, Lang intervened in the CBC’s coverage of a news story involving a company that Lang was paid to give speeches to; she also had a personal relationship with an executive at that company.

Before last week, it might have been possible to attribute CBC management’s ineffective strategy of dealing with Ghomeshi – which seemed to be to ignore or downplay signs of trouble for as long as possible – to the challenges of an exceptional situation that even the most experienced executive would have trouble handling. But the news about Lang’s alleged behaviour – which the CBC again seemed to manage by denial and by downplaying dissent – raises the very serious possibility that CBC has a systemic and widespread problem with its workplace culture and its human resource management practices.

A reader of this blog contacted me to point out one part of the CBC story that has largely gone unnoticed. This part involves Todd Spencer, who is CBC’s “executive director, people and culture” and is one of the two executives currently on leave. The “executive director, people and culture” position includes responsibility for CBC’s human resource management and industrial relations. But according to Spencer’s LinkedIn profile, his work experience has been almost entirely in news production, and his undergraduate degrees are in broadcasting and political science. In other words, CBC’s executive director for human resource management and industrial relations appears to have no formal training in either area.

Todd Spencer. (credit: LinkedIn)

Todd Spencer. (credit: LinkedIn)

From my own experience of working in media, I can see how this could happen. Managing journalists with quirky personalities, in a workplace with relentless deadlines, is extremely difficult.  Successfully managing a news operation definitely requires a nuanced understanding of how newsrooms and news production work, and why they work the way they do. And Spencer’s news background would likely have given him on-the-job experience in the human resource and industrial relations functions of that kind of management.

But the CBC is not just a newsroom. It has nearly 8000 employees. It has English-language and French-language divisions. It broadcasts on radio and television in both languages, in addition to maintaining an extensive social media presence. It produces original programming. It operates businesses such as its own merchandising and its own record label. It has offices right across Canada. And its employees are represented by 13 different unions. Managing human resources and industrial relations in this incredibly vast and complex organization would be a huge challenge for anyone – but it would be a particularly huge challenge for someone without any formal training in human resource management.

I’m not a huge fan of  how the human resource management profession structures and operates its certification process, so I’m not about to argue that only someone with a CHRP (certified human resource professional) designation would have been able to resolve the CBC’s workplace problems. Meaningfully addressing the Ghomeshi and Lang situations, and the workplace culture that allowed them to happen, will take a concerted effort on the part of many individuals with different qualifications within the CBC. But I do agree with my reader that it was irresponsible, at best, for the CBC to appoint someone who apparently has no formal human resource management training as the CBC senior executive in charge of human resource management and industrial relations.

This appointment was not only a disservice to the individual – likely making it very difficult for him to perform the job effectively – but also a disservice to the organization and those it serves. The CBC provides important services to Canada and to Canadians, and – like any organization – it can only do that effectively by managing its employees fairly, respectfully, and competently. The Ghomeshi and Lang situations indicate that the CBC has serious problems with its workplace culture. It would be no surprise at all if the CBC’s apparent disregard for the importance of qualifed human resource management leadership is part of those problems.


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