HR Hero Line

Governor LePage: an HR case study on senior managers behaving badly

by Daniel C. Stockford
What would you do if a senior manager in your company was prone to making the types of controversial and incendiary remarks for which Maine Governor Paul LePage has become famous? In this article, we will examine the governor’s history of controversial statements and explore what can be done when a senior manager behaves badly.

Governor LePage’s numerous off-color statements and miscues have helped put Maine in the headlines. The media recently reported that the governor now keeps a roll of duct tape on his desk as a reminder to keep his mouth shut. According to LePage, he has promised his staff that from “now ’til Election Day, when I want to say something that is off-color, I’m going to tape my mouth shut.”

Below are some of Governor LePage’s most controversial statements since he took office in January 2011.

The NAACP ‘can kiss my butt’
At the beginning of his term, LePage was criticized for refusing to attend Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Portland and Orono and refusing to meet with Maine representatives of the NAACP. In response to questions from the media, he said he would not be “held hostage” by special interest groups. He laughingly told a reporter, “Tell them they can kiss my butt.”

The mural incident
In March 2011, a couple of months into his term, LePage announced plans to remove a mural depicting the history of Maine’s labor movement from a waiting room in the Maine Department of Labor’s offices in Augusta. The governor said he received a written complaint about the mural from a “secret admirer” and complaints that the mural was hostile to business from business owners.

The mural includes depictions of a 1937 shoe workers’ strike in Lewiston and Auburn, Rosie the Riveter at Bath Iron Works, and a 1986 papermill strike in Jay. The mural’s removal led to criticism from both art and labor groups as well as a federal lawsuit that ultimately was rejected by the courts.

Maine’s middle management ‘corrupt’
In April 2012, LePage was asked about excessive government fees at a town hall meeting in Newport. He responded by saying, “The problem is the middle management of the state is about as corrupt as you can be. Believe me, we’re trying to get them to go to work, but it’s hard.”

The governor’s spokesperson later said that he was not referring to bribery or criminal activity but to a “lack of integrity” by state employees who want to uphold the status quo and delay progress. LePage’s comment was criticized by the state employees’ union and legislators in his own party.

IRS is the ‘new Gestapo’
In July 2012, LePage referred to the IRS as “the new Gestapo” while discussing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) during his weekly radio address. When asked at a meeting if he knew what the Gestapo did, LePage said that he knew they “killed a lot of people” and that he thought the IRS, while not there yet, was headed toward killing many people as well. He clarified that he did not think the IRS would intentionally kill anyone. Instead, he meant the IRS would eventually ration medical care, which would result in deaths.

After LePage’s comments received strong criticism from Jewish and other groups, he publicly apologized during his next weekly radio address. He also met privately with and apologized to representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.

Moving his office out of the State House
In May 2013, LePage announced that he would move his office out of the state capitol because of what he described as efforts by Democrats in the Maine Legislature to censor his speech. LePage was upset by the Appropriations Committee’s refusal to allow him to address it on May 19 and by the Legislative Council’s request that LePage remove a TV from outside his office that displayed the number of days since his budget had been proposed.

Maine law requires the governor to have his office in the capitol building. LePage announced, “My staff will continue to do their work in their current offices until such time as the partisan leaders of the legislature choose to evict them.” After several days of working from the Blaine House, the governor’s official residence, LePage returned to his office in the State House while continuing to criticize what he called censorship by the legislature.

Vaseline
In June 2013, LePage responded to criticism from Senator Troy Dale Jackson, the Democratic assistant majority leader, by stating that Jackson “claims to be for the people but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” LePage continued by stating that Jackson, a logger from Aroostook County, “ought to go back into the woods and cut trees and let someone with a brain come down here and do some good work.”

Public officials on both sides of the aisle as well as religious and women’s groups strongly criticized the governor’s Vaseline statement. LePage later apologized to anyone who was offended by his remark and to loggers in general, but he declined to apologize to Jackson.

Blow up the Portland Press Herald’s building?
Recently, while using a flight simulator at the Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine plant in North Berwick, LePage was asked what he wanted to do in the simulator. He responded, “I want to find the Portland Press Herald building and blow it up.” When he was asked by a television reporter if he had any targets, the governor answered, “The Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News.”

LePage later tweeted that the comment was a joke. The Press Herald printed a statement from its publisher saying the governor had “a misguided sense of humor” and calling the remark “irresponsible” when it comes from the leader of the state.

President Obama ‘doesn’t like white people’
In August, LePage found himself in hot water again when two Republican state legislators told a reporter that he stated that President Barack Obama “hates white people” at a fundraiser in Belgrade. Others in attendance claimed that LePage said Obama “doesn’t like white people,” while still others stated that they did not hear the remark.

Although LePage and his communications director denied the remark, the governor later wrote a statement to members of the Republican Party to apologize “for any difficulty that remarks recently reported in the press may have caused you.” He went on to state that he believes that President Obama does not dislike any racial group and blamed “politically motivated and powerful elitists” at newspapers for the controversy. He also cited the fact that French is his first language as a reason for his controversial statements.

Dealing with misconduct by senior management
Next year, Maine voters will have the opportunity to decide at the ballot box whether Governor LePage should be fired because of the statements and controversies described above. While some think LePage’s comments have brought embarrassment to the state, others praise him for his straight talk and blunt approach.

For better or worse, most senior managers are not evaluated at the ballot box. In the employment context, controversial statements and actions by senior managers create unique challenges for HR professionals and other leaders.

In some cases, senior managers can be viewed as untouchable because of the power they hold and their position in the organization. When an investigation of a senior manager is called for, there are difficult questions regarding who should investigate, how the results of the investigation should be reported, and to whom they should be reported.

From a legal perspective, it is especially important that senior managers’ actions be addressed in a deliberate and thorough manner. Because of the authority senior managers hold, their statements and actions can have far-reaching implications for employers, both in terms of legal risks and public relations.

Here are some suggestions for addressing performance issues with top managers in your organization.

Don’t ignore the problem
Problems involving senior managers often aren’t addressed in a timely fashion because of concerns that the individual is so powerful or so valuable to the organization that he is untouchable. Failing to promptly address problems with senior managers can put your organization at significant legal risk, however.

If there are concerns that a manager has engaged in unlawful behavior, such as discriminatory or harassing conduct, you have a legal obligation to promptly investigate and effectively address that behavior. Tiptoeing around a situation because of the perception that an employee is too powerful, or too valuable, is almost always a bad idea.

Allowing senior managers’ misconduct to fester also can create significant morale problems for your organization. We can only imagine the impact on state employee morale when Governor LePage announced last year that the state’s middle managers are “about as corrupt as you can be.” But even far less blatant behavior can negatively affect employee morale if there’s a perception that senior managers are immune from consequences for their behavior.

Most of us, at one time or another, have had bosses who acted badly, and we wondered why the organization let them get away with it. It may take some courage and resolve to address sensitive performance matters with senior managers, but your organization usually will be better off for having done so.

Identify the appropriate people to address the problem
Sometimes the most difficult challenge in confronting issues with senior managers is to determine who should address the problem. Other employees might be afraid of retaliation if they express concerns to, or file complaints about, a powerful manager.

It isn’t difficult to imagine that employees on Governor LePage’s staff may have been reluctant to tell him the plain, unvarnished truth about some of his statements and actions. For example, his decision to remove murals from an office of the Maine Department of Labor appears to have been implemented with little thought for the political and legal consequences, which included a lengthy legal battle that went up to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings apply to all Maine employers). Some of the governor’s missteps might have been avoided if others had been more willing to speak up when his actions were inadvisable.

Because it can be difficult for employees to speak frankly to a CEO or any other senior manager, you can benefit from establishing an internal process that gives your workers an opportunity to raise problems and concerns without fear of retaliation. Such a policy can be as simple as an “open-door” policy or as elaborate as a formal grievance process, but the important thing is that employees view the process as credible and effective.

When it’s necessary to investigate a senior manager, it’s best not to have an employee who is subordinate to the manager conduct the investigation. That places the subordinate in an awkward position because he may fear retaliation if the investigation finds wrongdoing. Having a subordinate conduct an investigation may reflect poorly on the credibility of the investigation for the same reason.

Consider assigning the investigation to a more senior manager or a peer who isn’t in the accused manager’s chain of command. If there are no good internal candidates, it may be advisable to bring in someone from outside the organization to conduct an investigation. That may be especially important when the allegations are serious or involve matters that could lead to legal exposure for the organization. For example, a complaint of sexual harassment against a senior official may justify hiring an independent investigator. That’s consistent with your legal obligation to promptly investigate and address harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Thoroughly evaluate the actions to be taken
Once all the facts have been gathered, you must give careful thought to the actions you will take. Failing to thoroughly evaluate your options can lead to trouble for your company. When an employee is considered irreplaceable or all-powerful, there’s a tendency to overlook or forgive conduct that’s very damaging and risky for the organization. On the other hand, quickly terminating an employee without considering all of the potential repercussions can lead to legal claims by the employee and morale problems of a different type.

While the general rule is that employers should act promptly when addressing workplace issues, it’s also essential to take the time to make sure the decision is well thought out and appropriate. Rushing to make a decision because it’s Friday afternoon, or because someone is about to go on vacation, can lead to poor decision making. It’s good practice to use a sounding board before implementing a decision on a thorny personnel issue. Discussing difficult issues with legal counsel before taking action often can help you avoid significantly higher legal costs down the road.

Daniel C. Stockford is a partner with Brann & Isaacson in the firm’s Lewiston, Maine, office. He may be contacted at dstockford@brannlaw.com.