24/02/2023

QBE’s board has done it again in redefining the rules for acceptable behaviour by a chief executive. The shock sacking of Pat Regan will reverberate through corporate Australia.

That translates into sacking a popular CEO considered to have otherwise done an excellent job in developing a cohesive, strong internal culture as well as producing decent financial results and sound strategic direction for the global insurer.
Many QBE employees were shocked compounded by the vagueness of the official explanation. What? Him?
But although the investigation did not find the texts or emails from Regan to be sexual harassment, they were considered inappropriate by the woman receiving them.
QBE Insurance Group has lost another chief executive Bloomberg
The board considered it had no choice not least because of the companys emphasis on the inclusive culture and values established by Regan himself.
While these are challenging circumstances, the board recognises and thanks Mr Regan for his hard work and contribution to strengthening QBE, Wilkins said in a statement. However, all employees must be held to the same standards.
Particularly for women, however, theres also a sense of disbelief as well as aggravation at this latest corporate leadership scandal. What is it that so many supposedly smart male senior executives just dont get? The polite version is an inexcusable error of judgment. The more blunt assessment? Stupid, stupid, stupid.
This just keeps happening in companies, says one. These are hardly isolated instances.
It may just be just coincidence the two women making the complaints that led to Regans exit and Boe Paharis demotion from head of AMP Capital last month are based in the US. But theres certainly a view corporate America is much stricter in its interpretation of what is no longer acceptable behaviour particularly when it involves senior male executives dealing with female staff. Add in a far more litigious American society and its not surprising both these women are dealing with their lawyers.
Australian women are only gradually catching up, becoming more willing to make formal complaints rather than just put up with bad or inappropriate behaviour. So Alex Wade, former head of AMP Australia, also left abruptly last month after complaints from female employees about lewd text messages.
When all male executives will catch up to new rules of engagement in Australia remains a work in progress. The relative informality of many Australian workplaces has many advantages. Its staying within the moving lines of what is considered acceptable or reasonable that can be difficult and too often abused. Safe harbour no longer covers telling bawdy jokes as part of sharing a sense of humour with female employees, for example.
Wilkins informed major shareholders of the boards decision to sack the CEO early Tuesday morning, assuring them of the companys continued stability and performance. Wilkins will assume the double role on an interim basis much as he did temporarily when AMP was in extremis two years ago after revelations at the Hayne royal commission forced the departure of the CEO and the chair.
Regan, who had joined QBE from the UK in 2014, only took over as chief executive in January 2018.
We want our people to have the avenues they need to safely speak up, with the confidence that they will be heard and that all concerns raised will be treated consistently across our workforce, Wilkins said.
We are committed to having a respectful and inclusive environment for everyone at QBE. The board concluded that he had exercised poor judgment in this regard.
That judgment seems all the more odd given the history of Regans predecessor, John Neal. In 2017, QBE’s board established another new standard for corporate Australia when it fined Neal $550,000 for not disclosing his relationship with his personal assistant.
This didnt constitute sexual harassment but more the changing views of relationships in the workplace, including what is required to be disclosed.
Most boards have still found it difficult to define the precise rules for this. Some directors maintain any sexual relationship at work is unacceptable, for example, even if happily consensual. It can lead to the appearance of favouritism particularly when one person is usually in a more senior position, almost always a man. Many others believe this nonsensical. How many marriages started at work?
But the increasing company bans on staff parties or events mixed with alcohol are part of a heavy-handed attempt to avoid any potential sexual harassment. Most companies used to prefer to just deal quietly with an offender more often than not a serial offender or to simply ignore the problem. As AMP eventually discovered to its cost, that is no longer an option.
Now QBE has redefined the corporate meaning of providing a “respectful, inclusive environment”. Next?