graphic for The 2018 Index of Predictive Tools in HRTech: The Emergence of Intelligent Software


Kris Dunn | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Kris Dunn | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Please welcome Kris Dunn back to The HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board. Who is Kris Dunn? That’s an easy question. Kris is the Chief Human Resources Officer for Kinetix, a RPO firm dedicated to growth companies. Prior to becoming a part of Kinetix, Kris has served as a VP of HR for DAXKO, a VP of HR for SourceMedical, a Regional VP of HR for Charter Communications, a HR Manager for BellSouth Mobility (subsequently known as Cingular and AT&T based on which round of consolidation you are referring to), and a Project Manager in the market research division of Aragon Consulting (gobbled up by IBM Global Services). With that track record in mind, he can say what he thought he never would – he has almost 15 years in the HR biz. Full Bio…

Sex and the CEO: You’ll Need Street Cred
by Kris Dunn

From time to time, I get to do a column/post for the good people at HR Examiner.  Although I’m never at a loss for topics, here’s what the brain trust at HR Examiner wanted me to break down for you this time around:

“You are the VP of HR of a private company (less than 5K employees–big, not huge, lots of work/responsibility). There is an unusually high attrition rate for the CEO’s personal assistant. There have been rumors that she has been sexually harassing at least one of her assistants. What do you do?”

HR Examiner – breaking all stereotypes one by one.  Woman CEO – check.  Personal assistant who’s male (Yes – I’m making that assumption for purposes of this column) – Check. 

Nice, right?  I’d do the following if faced with that situation:

 A. Make sure all the personal assistants we hire are single and coded as “available” on their Facebook account.

 B. Ensure that all personal assistants understand that it’s their responsibility to report behavior they consider to be unwanted.  “Jimmy, let’s say an attractive 40-something started giving you a shoulder massage and asked you what your favorite drink was to unwind as you were trying to work on her travel plans… You’re expected to report that if you don’t want that to continue.. Sign here indicating you understand this”…

 C. Do group interviews for all applicants and have them dance it off like the candidates in this video:


Of course, I’m kidding. Maybe. What’s the bottom line here? You’ve got a sensitive situation to talk to your CEO about.  It’s about your CEO and what she would consider her personal life.  You’re smart enough to tread carefully, because if you get it wrong, it’s going to affect your relationship with your CEO and possibly impact your career.

Here’s the secret. Your ability to have a conversation about the topic with your CEO has nothing to do with today.  It has everything to do with yesterday, with last month and last year. 

Translation: You can’t interject yourself into this situation unless you’ve built street credibility as part of your relationship with your CEO.

Street credibility is an HR leader’s currency that buys the right to interject themselves into sticky situations where people might think you don’t belong.  It’s built over time and involves a good bit of give and take, and no SHRM program is going to show you how to do it.

Build street credibility the right way with your CEO, and she’s going to say, “Kris has my back. When he tells me something is about to blow up, including things involving me, I’d better listen.”

Here are 5 ways a killer HR leader builds street credibility with a CEO over time:

1.  The HR leader helps the CEO bury the body/issue/situation.  From time to time, there’s going to be a big, nasty situation that’s going to rise up and have the need to be dealt with. You’re going to look at the situation and want to lecture someone, including your CEO.  Don’t do it.  Even if you’re judging them while you’re grabbing the shovel, shut your mouth and be a practical advisor, a consigliere like Robert Duval’s character in the Godfather.  Help them deal with the situation and get it done.  Need a visual other than The Godfather?  Think “the Wolf” from Pulp Fiction. 

2.  The HR leader protects the CEO before she knows she’s in trouble. Street cred is also built by looking at a street corner and knowing something is messed up before gunplay breaks out.  The smart HR leader isn’t neutral like Switzerland (you might be surprised how many are – er… maybe you wouldn’t), she’s on the lookout for situations where being proactive is called for.  Do that enough times in situations that could have potentially impacted your CEO, and your CEO will know that you’ve got her back.

3.  Never lecture or start a sermon.  Seriously. I said it before related to burying the body/issue/situation and I’ll say it again.  You can’t ever talk down to your CEO, even if you think you’re the expert.  The CEO’s body will reject the advice based on the way it is provided.  If you think everyone gets this, you’re wrong.  It’s one of the main reasons that competent line HR pros will never work for a CEO.  They have to keep working for other HR people, because they’re way too preachy.

4.  Be the CEO’s agent, not an employment attorney. This is the senior level course on how HR leaders should interact with their CEO.  The good ones just naturally know that they should never lecture, they help bury bodies/situations and protect their CEOs before they know they’re at risk.  Once that’s done and proven over time, they’ve got an opening to truly give their opinion to the CEO on anything they want.  But – being the smart people they are – the savvy HR pro ALWAYS provides the opinion from the perspective of being the CEO’s agent rather than being an expert in HR.  Providing all opinion and unsolicited advice from the perspective of protecting the CEO from harm is the only way to maximize the probability the advice will be listened to.

Wrong:  “If you don’t stop sleeping with your personal assistants, you’re going to get sued.”

Right: “I’m your right hand (wo)man, and you need to know that there are rumors out there that the turnover among your AAs is due to you dating them.  I know – crazy.  But the rumors might hurt you, so let’s talk about how you can stop the catty gossip.”

Then I’d hire a killer candidate for the role.  That candidate would be a woman, significantly older than my CEO, much less attractive than the previous fodder, and would also weigh about 250 pounds.  She’d be a rockstar at the job, but all the other stuff is what it would take to kill the rumors, be they true or be they false.  I’d send a picture out of her and the CEO when I announced Marge joining the company.

Check. Mate.

Of course, I never get the chance to impose my hiring/rumor killing chops if steps #1 through #4 aren’t embedded in the DNA of who I am related to my CEO, over the course of a couple of years.

Most HR pros can’t be what I outlined above.  Those who can get to work for the CEO.  They also get to make seemingly meaningless yet strategic hires like Marge, because the CEO respects their street cred.

graphic for The 2018 Index of Predictive Tools in HRTech: The Emergence of Intelligent Software

  • Trish McFarlane

    Brilliant and true.  The last paragraph captures it perfectly! 

  •  Ring ring.  This is the ’60s calling.  We want our HR leadership back!  Kris, you know I love you, but you’re off the mark.  

    If you’re a VP, SVP or EVP of HR, you are a steward of the company.  You will never control your CEO’s behavior. You can plead, lecture, counsel all you want.  If your CEO is having an affair with an employee (these days, it’s more likely to be the VP of Marketing than the AA), he or she has crossed an ethical line that puts the company at risk.  As a steward of the company, it’s your job to work with legal and advise the board of directors about your CEO’s risky behavior.  

    If you have the right “street cred” your CEO would expect nothing less of you. He or she knows that you take your job and your reputation seriously, and that you will behave like any other respected steward of the company.  You cannot be threatened, and even if the CEO decides to fire you, you will take appropriate action.  You will not work in an environment where ethics are compromised at the highest levels.

    I have seen something like this play out.  I watched a senior HR person voice concerns through appropriate channels. I watched the executive in question fire her.  I watched her walk out the door with her head held high.  I watched a competing company recruit her quickly.  I watched the company beg her to come back, as they fired the lecherous executive and managed the legal nightmare that followed.  The HR person continues to enjoy her badass professional street cred.  

    I am not even going to address your suggestion about hiring the ugly duckling.  That’s the stuff of sitcoms, not worthy of badass HR leaders.

  • David

     I’d like to point out that the example scenario involved a private company rather than a public entity.  No way do they operate anywhere the same in the real world.  Let’s presume for a moment that the CEO in question was the founder or majority stockholder.  In that case, I’m with Kris’ advice all day long.  In private and/or closely-held entities ensuring “cultural fit” is absolutely a part of why there’s a need for a “Marge” now and then.  

  • approved

    John Sumser
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  • Well said…street cred is the ONLY way you move from passenger to co-pilot  

  • Joe

    It’s important not to treat the CEO differently than the rest of the employees because he/she is at the top of line.  Often we are expected to act a certain way because of a person’s role in the company.  If we can voice our disagreement vehemently with the President of the United States without the fear of revoke of citizenship, then we can do the same to the CEO of a company without the fear of losing our job.  Sure, let the CEO know they are rumors and help control the problem.  But be careful if the behavior is recurring (which it was).  While the CEO might pass on Marge, that’s doesn’t mean she won’t find someone else to harass – another subordinate or equal.  Here’s the question I would like answered – why were males continued to be hired? 

  • Casi35

    Chris, I work for a union and follow your blog because ….usually…. you display great common sense and role model what HR practitioners should be doing!  But.. you have totally missed the mark with this one in a way that is not only so ‘left of field’ for you but which reinforces many peoples perceptions of why HR is the enemy.  If you are seriously suggesting protecting the CEO who has done immoral, unethical and potenitally illegal things is the right thing to do in this situation, then I have to seriously question your ethics and values as well.  Why is it that this behaviour would get almost anyone else fired but because it’s the CEO, the same standards don’t apply?  Is it that the proteciton of power really is more important than the protection of people and ethical beahviour in corporates after all?  Or is HR officers preserving their own jobs the motivation. 

    As for the suggestion of the attributes needed in the new hire – that approach truely belongs in a by gone era.

    I wouldn;t normally do this but I would suggest pone of two things is happening here – you are baiting us to start a great conversation or alternatively, you need to commune with your maker a bit more and question some of your own morales and values because in this case they certainly don’t align with the faith you occassionally tell us you possess.      

  • Shari

    In a privately held company, your job as top HR is to protect the company which translates to protecting the CEO.  Stop the behavior by bringing it to her/his attention (it was never stated that there was an actual complaint, just a rumor), and do what is possible to mitigate it happening again.  If you don’t like it, don’t work for a private company. 

  • Pragmatic advice = absolutely. 
    Breaking down stereotypes = nope, unfortunately perpetuated them.
    but hell–that’s why they’re stereotypes.  Now about that 250 pound hire…..  

  • Pingback: HR as the Wingman of Business, Part II | Accidental Entrepreneur()

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