What Can We Learn From Patricia Dunn & HP?

The news is aflutter recently regarding Hewlett-Packard’s chair, Patricia Dunn’s, alleged spying on board members in an apparent effort to see who had leaked information. In the highly unlikely event that you haven’t read any of the multitude of articles on this case, here is one grabbed at random to give you a general overview.

Two things have struck me about this case. The first is how sadly Patricia Dunn’s behavior appears to have been at odds with HP’s well constructed values statement and Standards of Business Conduct. (Mind you, she might have chosen to hide behind their standard that says, “HP safeguards its business and technical information, … and uses it exclusively for HP business purposes.” However, her alleged actions would still seem to be jarringly at odds with another of their standards saying, “While working for the best interests of HP, we must be ethical and lawful in our dealings with … fellow employees.”)

In the ‘credit where credit is due’ department, HP has a proud and well-earned history of fair business practices although their reputation had certainly already been tarnished by fallout from the Compaq merger. Does Patricia Dunn’s inappropriate behavior – if proven – indict the whole company? Certainly not. Not even the entire board. But you can bet that the whole company will suffer due to one person’s appearance of malfeasance, regardless of the final legal outcome. Sure, a proven case will always be worse for business until the public-relations nightmares are put to rest. But simply raising the public’s suspicions can have a broad, negative impact even in the absense of proven ethical compromises. And, of course, one needs to wonder what the impact will be on employees’ willingness to follow company leadership if they cannot trust behavior at the top.

The second thing that has struck me is how underwhelmed I am by the hum in the press regarding what we can learn from this newest scandal. When asked for commentary, I have admittedly not had much to say. I just don’t see anything in the way of startling new lessons here. It seems to me that we already knew that if you do something wrong and get caught, that there will be – and should be – a price to pay. Is that really news or am I missing something?

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