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Beating a Dead Horse

I confess that I am not a journalist in the same sense that those writers who work for the Wall Street Journal, for example, are journalists. For one thing, I never had any training in journalism or even English composition for that matter (I placed out of the one college composition course that I wanted to take). I am formally educated in many areas, but news reporting or the fine details of the English language do not happen to be among them.

For another, having worked for a number of years in technology companies, I have a strong affiliation to both software vendors and the IT professionals using their products. I am largely not a disinterested bystander, but a participant in the technology industry.

But I cannot help feeling outrage at the positively Orwellian way that HP treated journalists, and in particular Pui-Wing Tam, as she chronicled in Thursday's Wall Street Journal (; subscription required).

In partial fulfillment of a pledge made by CEO Mark Hurd, Tam was briefed by HP's outside attorneys on the steps taken against her in the name of HP. I say in partial fulfillment, because HP and its attorneys could not, or would not, answer many of her questions concerning the details of those steps. Perhaps those attorneys are so embarrassed at these flagrant abuses of law that their sense of honor prevents them from answering too many questions. In some cases, Tam received less information in her briefing than HP presented during Congressional hearings.

But here is what Tam does know. Her personal phone records were obtained. She was followed, and videotapes of her movements were taken and viewed. IM messages were obtained and scrutinized. Her background and her husband's background were documented and checked. Private investigators carried out "pre-trash inspections" at her home (HP claims not to know what this specific item means). Much of this information was obtained through "pretexting," using her Social Security number which had been obtained in some way.

These activities occurred because Tam was a journalist covering HP.

Some people are responding that it doesn't matter what the board of directors and other executives in the company did, as long as HP continues to improve its business and make money for its stockholders. Analysts are telling customers that the scandal should not impact their business relationships with the technology company.

I strongly disagree. Trust and integrity matter. A lot. And what happens in a corporate boardroom, and in the chief executive offices, has a way of letting all employees know what is acceptable behavior within the company. And the message sent, loud and clear, by ex-Chairman Patricia Dunn, was that she did nothing wrong, and in any case had a legitimate reason for her actions. The message sent by Hurd was that words matter more than actions in correcting the injustice.

Nothing wrong? Customers of HP should be concerned that these strong messages mean that HP employees feel free to engage in less-than-aboveboard tactics, while convincing themselves that it is not wrong to do so, and to prevaricate when caught in the act.

HP customers should be offended, and suspicious. It may be unrealistic to cease doing business with the vendor, but deals and other arrangements that you may have taken for granted need to be specifically defined and vetted for the foreseeable future. And if you are a large enterprise customer, it is appropriate to take Hurd to task, demanding that actions start to back up his words, as a condition of continuing the business relationship.

HP has lost most, if not all, of the trust and integrity that it had earned in the market. Until it regains those characteristics, be sure to check your wallet.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 10/20/2006

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