Amid ongoing culture wars, a polarized political climate and debates about whether cancel culture exists, surely some conferences will have keynote or headline speakers that attendees — or potential attendees — can’t get behind.
But several HR pros have questioned whether there’s a more significant moral imperative when said conference is meant to educate attendees on best practices regarding inclusion, belonging and psychological safety in the workplace.
The Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference, which took place this year in unseasonably cool Las Vegas, had a few potentially controversial speakers on its roster. A big draw for its 2023 conference, alongside Janet Jackson, was former President Bill Clinton. Paid leave, degree requirement reform and talent pipelines were center stage in Clinton’s SHRM speech.
Talent acquisition professional Sarah Johnston wasn’t shy about expressing her concern and derision for Clinton’s presence at the conference. Her first reaction, she told HR Dive via email, was, “Wow! Do the event planners of the SHRM conference remember history differently?”
“Regardless of one's feelings about his political legacy and the work he did with immigration reform or FMLA, I hope that we can all agree that his time in office was a human resources nightmare,” Johnston, owner of career marketing and outplacement firm Briefcase Coach, said via email.
“He had sexual relations while in office with an intern. This was — borrowing Monica [Lewinksy]'s words — a gross abuse of power.”
‘The exact thing SHRM stands against’
Melanie Mitchell-Wexler, another career coach and former recruiter, keeps a close eye on SHRM because many of her clients are HR specialists. “When I heard that Clinton was going to speak at SHRM, the first thought I had was sincerely the irony of it all,” she told HR Dive via email, as she considers SHRM “the premier organization focused on HR and the management of employees within organizations.”
Having Bill Clinton headline the organization’s annual conference was “a misstep in judgment,” she said. “[H]e used his position of power to take advantage of a young woman. In any other situation, we define this as sexual harassment — the exact thing SHRM stands against, educates professionals on how to respond and answer to within their organizations.”
While it’s possible to showcase Clinton’s charitable work, Mitchell-Wexler said, she called on HR professionals to “not ignore the past” or the fact that, in her opinion, Clinton never fully accepted accountability for his behavior. “Simply put this is a poor choice for SHRM.”
While Johnston is not a SHRM member and Wexler is no longer one, Cody Bess, CEO and founder of people’s operations company Poprouser, is an active member, and has been for the past five years. And from his perspective, Clinton’s presence at the Las Vegas event was “highly inappropriate.”
Bess cited Clinton’s signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Clinton’s crime bill “facilitated generations of inequity via mass incarceration,” Bess said, pointing to it as a key reason to keep the former president from a conference centering on diversity, equity and inclusion. The HR professional also nodded to Clinton’s infamous 2008 “this guy would have been carrying our bags” comment about former President Barack Obama.
He also brought up Lewinsky, underscoring the irony of having a man who “lied to Americans to cover up his sexual harassment scandal, using power and influence to victimize a young woman” speak in an HR-focused space.
“To anyone who claims that he was the obvious choice due to his status and star power, go through the SHRM speakers bureau and look at how many amazing senior leaders could have headlined instead. Can we learn from former Pres. Clinton? Yes, I've read his books and have learned a lot,” Bess told HR Dive via email. “I even used the Spanish version of ‘My Life’ to learn Spanish. But should he headline a SHRM conference, especially at a time when HR is already frustratingly politicized? I don't think so.”
A broader pattern
HR pros have voiced similar concerns about other SHRM speakers as well. At this year’s conference, a lawyer at Greenberg Traurig, hosted a few sessions.
Just days before the event, a different attorney — one who was not part of the firm’s employment division and not slated to speak at SHRM — was the subject of abuse allegations involving a custody dispute.
On June 2, the firm released a statement via Facebook, announcing he had taken a voluntary leave of absence. Later in the month as the conference opened, it said he had resigned. Still, some questioned whether the firm should have been presenting at all. Karen Oakes, a retired long-time HR professional and former SHRM member, told HR Dive her knee-jerk reaction was “shame on SHRM.” But whether the organization should have taken action — for example, booted Greenberg Traurig off the bill — is a grey area, she said.
“To be fair, I'm sure that the law firm was booked at the conference months — if not a year — before any of this came out,” she acknowledged, adding that she’s often wary of “cancel culture.”
“Should SHRM have canceled the law firm’s participation in the conference, at that point, it would have left a big hole in their offerings,” Oakes continued. While torn about what she thought SHRM should have done, she said she hopes that the viral nature of the story brings more visibility to fraught custody battles.
Speaking on cancel culture, she added, “You’re immediately guilty until proven innocent, which is the opposite of our justice system. It reminds me a lot of McCarthyism in the ‘50s.”
Greenberg Traurig declined to offer information beyond what was shared in a June 12 Facebook post. At the 2023 conference, a SHRM spokesperson told HR Dive that the organization is declining to comment on the Kassenoff misinformation.
Bess’ concerns predate the 2023 lineup. He told HR Dive he was “really intent on going this year.” But twice in a row, SHRM’s platforming of certain speakers has affected his decision to attend.
“Last year, former President George W. Bush was invited to speak at the conference in New Orleans, and I really felt strongly against it — for reasons my fellow Iraq war vets and millennials entering the workforce around the time of the [global financial crisis] will understand,” Bess said.”
“But I understand why they did it.” Bess added. “Making that mistake twice in a row kind of killed it for me this year.”
HR Dive reached out to SHRM for comment on Bush’s and Clinton’s presence at the annual conferences.
“SHRM is non-partisan. We believe in policy – not politics. As such, for the last two years, we invited two former Presidents to speak to our audiences. Both individuals discussed topics relevant to work, workers, and the workplace, providing value and insight to our conference attendees,” a spokesperson told HR Dive via email. “Our unwavering commitment is to focus on topics that create better workplaces for a better world.”
HR pros seek a larger say
There is something ironic about the fact that Bill Clinton is headlining the SHRM conference...https://t.co/x01ShHeqy7— Sarah Johnston Briefcase Coach.com (@SarahDJohnston) May 23, 2023
Both Mitchell-Wexler and Bess said HR pros should have more of a say in how the organization represents the industry.
Mitchell-Wexler pointed to a few key previous speakers: Brené Brown, Amy Cuddy, Condoleezza Rice and Malala Yousafzai. “While we may not all agree on political stances, I would say that none of these are truly polarizing,” she said. Her call to action is that “moving forward, there needs to be some sort of vetting process” regarding who gets to step on stage to speak to HR professionals, “in particular,” she added, as HR combats sexual harassment in the workplace.
Regarding SHRM as a whole, Bess said members should have more of a say in where their dues go.
“I think SHRM members should be treated more like shareholders in a credit union, for example. Confirm big decisions by membership vote. Survey us more frequently. Ask about what we're dealing with out here in the market for talent and ideas,” Bess said. “Instead of unveiling speakers, crowdsource them. That's the future. Our stars come from within.”