What Do You Do When the Boss is an HR Nightmare?

Would you want to work for Donald Sterling, a walking, talking HR problem?
Would you want to work for Donald Sterling, a walking, talking HR problem?

I’m one of those managers who believes that actions speak louder than words.

But, I also know that there are a number of high level managers and executives who don’t follow that line of thinking. The ones I’m referring to are the type who generally say one thing then do something 180 degrees opposite, or, they make comments and references that would get anyone else working for them reprimanded or perhaps even fired.

You know what I’m talking about: the boss who is a walking, talking HR nightmare.

Meet Donald Sterling, HR nightmare

I was thinking about this when reading about Donald Sterling, the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. Sterling is a mass of contradictions that’s hard to categorize.

On the one hand, he’s a highly-successful (aka, rich) Southern California real estate developer. He’s also recognized as a humanitarian with a charitable foundation that hands out millions of dollars to underprivileged children and other needy charities.

So, why does he sit courtside and heckle one of his star players, something that would get anyone else working for him summarily terminated with extreme prejudice?

As Yahoo Sports describes it:

It’s not uncommon to hear Los Angeles Clippers fans heckle Baron Davis(notes). Of late, however, the jeers directed at the team’s struggling point guard are coming from a far more surprising source: The man paying Davis, Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Sterling has expressed his displeasure about Davis’ play by taunting him from his courtside seat at Clippers’ home games, several sources told Yahoo! Sports. Among Sterling’s verbal barbs:

  • “Why are you in the game?”
  • “Why did you take that shot?”
  • You’re out of shape!”

There’s nothing I can say,” Davis said of Sterling’s taunts. “I have no comment on that. You just get to this point where it’s a fight every day. It’s a fight. You’re fighting unnecessary battles. I’m fighting unnecessary battles.”

Not your typical workplace

Now, professional basketball isn’t your typical workplace, and taunting players (especially by fans) is part of the deal players and coaches accept when they decide to play for pay. Plus, guys who have the means to buy an NBA team usually aren’t shrinking violets and are frequently known to have volatile, controlling personalities.

Yes, that’s the subtext of professional sports. But, what do you do if you are the HR chief of the Los Angeles Clippers and have to deal with inappropriate behavior by the owner – the big boss – that would probably get anyone else on the staff fired?

Here’s what I wrote about this a couple of years ago about another big boss, in another context, who also was making an ass out of himself:

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All of this raises an interesting question for managers and executives: Just what do you tell your workers when you have an owner or top boss like Sam Zell who frequently says things that would get most other employees reprimanded or fired? At the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune paper, senior managers went so far as to send out a memo saying that despite what Sam Zell says (or how he says it) “the fundamental rules of decorum and decency apply.” The memo went on to add, “Sam is a force of a nature; the rest of us are bound by the normal conventions of society.”

I understand forces of nature. What I don’t get are guys who get to the top who think that rules are something for everyone except them. And if you work for a guy like this? Well, you only have two options: grin and bear it as you put up with the rantings, or find another job where the top boss has a more reasonable way with words.”

Can you ever control the boss?

Yes, Donald Sterling is another one of those wild and crazy bosses (labeled by one website as “the most evil man in sports”) that HR can’t control, only put up with. And, it must be a full-time job dealing with Sterling given that he not only has the worst team and organization in professional sports (according to Sports Illustrated) but also has had to pay out millions of dollars in discrimination charges over his rental apartment operation.

You can’t blame Clippers management for not doing everything to try to control their out-of-control boss. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Team employees would try to talk to the owner about the (heckling and) comments but felt it was an exercise in futility.”

Yes, trying to control the boss and make them live by company standards can be a problem if they don’t seem to understand that in the best companies, the top people set the proper example for everyone else to follow. It also makes it tough when employees point to the behavior of the big boss and ask why they can do something that would get rank-and-file workers canned. I’ve yet to hear an HR professional come up with a great response to THAT question.

The answer? Just grin and bear it

So how do you deal with a Donald Sterling? If you are in HR, you don’t. You grin, bear it, and know that this is part of your lot in life for as long as you can put up with it. Ultimately, the out of control boss needs to change themselves, but getting them to do that is a difficult task.

One blogger seemed to have a good handle on this problem, and he imparted this advice that is well worth heeding:

Part of creating a culture to succeed is to have open communication and hold people accountable for their mistakes. It’s okay for Sterling to be critical of Baron (Davis), but if he really wants his team to win and isn’t just looking to temporarily align himself with the upset fans, he needs to change himself. He needs to find clarity in his confusion, realize that he is that rich kid that can’t complain about being broke, he is the owner of the Clippers and very responsible for more than just the play and the signings, he’s responsible for the perception of the team. Unfortunately for Clippers fans, that’s a problem that doesn’t seem like it’ll be fixed any time soon.”

I don’t know of an HR pro who could have summarized the issue here any better. Yes, everyone needs to be held accountable — even (and especially) if you are the big boss and own the damn team.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


5 Comments on “What Do You Do When the Boss is an HR Nightmare?

  1. Unfortunately, there a lot of people like Donald Sterling. You would only hope his anger and name calling is only meant to make his players more determined to play better, but for some people that kind of criticism is hard to take. I wouldn’t tolerate my boss talking to me like that, but sometimes you have to grin and bear it.

  2. He’s the freakin’ owner – he can do what he wants. While others may analyze him and apply some psycho mumbo-jumbo to his methods, the basketball team is an ego toy for him. Let him do what he wants and if the team self-destructs – so be it. So many of these ego-inflated owners have ruined their teams several times over (See George Steinbrenner, Ted Turner, Robert Irsay, etc.). Most however, have been stellar businessmen. Sports teams are candy and fluff for these guys. Don’t make it into something it isn’t.

  3. Good post John. I clicked on some of the links to the Yahoo sports article and another one that was also three years old. That’s the sad part. It took a complete “self-destruct” crisis for anyone to act. I don’t agree with LEU about letting someone like this do what they want because of all the collateral damage that’s done to people and, potentially, the broader brand and image of the sport beyond the individual team. Destructive behavior needs rooted out and dealt with long before it explodes. It’s easy to sound tough and accountable when everyone agrees the behavior is totally unacceptable but what about 3 years ago?

    I agree with grinning and bearing it but I usually tell people frustrated with their boss (or the culture of their org) they either 1) need to partner with at least one other person to begin to drive change in some form, even if it’s their own work area, or 2) decide it’s too far gone and leave, or 3) grin and bear it as you say.

  4. Unaccountable boss who creates a company culture nightmare? Don’t use that person as your excuse not to grow and develop in your career unless you enjoy running in place. I agree with @timkuppler:disqus about what to do when you are frustrated with your boss. Use every opportunity to avoid getting sucked in and look for ways to develop and move on to a boss with a brain and an organization that deserves you.

  5. One would image that a man with such success, would be unsettled by the failure of the team. However it also appears that ignorance plays a role in the way Sterling thinks, I am sure that he believes that his actions has no impact on the teams performance and that it’s down to their inability to perform. I work in the field of smart data analytics and one way to gain the attention ‘on how his behaviour is inappropriate and impacting performance’ is through data. You cannot hide from data, it is as it is, then he can either listen or continue to accept the fact that he is a failure in parts of his life.

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