When HP announced the stunning resignation of Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President Mark Hurd on Friday, it seemingly wanted the world to think it took the moral high road.
In its press release, the company said a probe into possible sexual harassment charges against Hurd and HP by a former contractor to HP found no violation of HP’s sexual harassment policy, “but did find violations of HP’s Standards of Business Conduct.”
So, basically the company and Board were saying that ethics trumps performance, even when it comes to the guy widely credited for turning around the company.
The populists applauded, hoping that some companies have higher standards than, maybe, Wall Street, where the people who brought us the global financial crisis and caused millions of innocent people to lose their jobs also wound up being rewarded with huge bonuses.
However, these hopes were quickly dashed when we learned that poor Mark Hurd-who joins the growing ranks of the unemployed–will walk away with close to $30 million in severance.
So much for taking the high moral ground.
Now, defenders of Hurd’s package say his employment contract calls for this arrangement. It’s that simple. And a contract is a contract. Blah blah blah.
However, the reality is that if he were fired “with cause,” the company could have been off the hook from paying him anything. Hurd would have received zilch. Then their firing for breaching ethics would have had meat.
In most “with cause” cases, all the company needs to cite is an intentional breach of any of the company’s policies.
Of course, Hurd could have contested this decision and sued the company. But, that would have placed the onus on Hurd and enabled HP to take an even firmer ethical stand, which given its size and stature would have sent a loud and emphatic message to the business community.
But, alas, this was not the route HP’s Board wanted to go. In fact, the beginning of its press release announcing Hurd’s departure, says: “Hurd has decided with the Board of Directors to resign his positions effective immediately.”
On its subsequent conference call, the company reportedly said there was a legal settlement.
What does this mean? Either the company did not want Hurd to walk away with nothing. It could also mean it did not have a good case. It could also mean there were other undisclosed issues involved or Hurd might have some dirt on the company if there were a lawsuit and depositions were taken, even if it did not go to trial.
Of course, HP has its free market right to make a deal with Hurd.
However, don’t try to tell us you’re taking the high moral ground.