Another Example Behind Why HR Policies Matter

Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) bassist Michael Hovnanian published an article at his blog, Bass Blog, on 8/8/2015 that references some recent CSO Ravinia Festival events. Shortly after the piece was published, several dozen musicians and orchestra managers reach out to me via private messages expressing varying degrees of concern over the content and tone of Hovanian’s piece.

One item in particular from the original version was referenced by a number of individuals and in the process of reaching out to Hovnanian to learn more and for clarification, we ended up exchanging a series of emails.

For those unaware of Hovnanian’s Bass Blog, he has a long history of punching holes in sensitive issues by means of satire alongside earnest insight into typical big budget orchestra activity, such as the CSO’s 2007 European tour; all vis-a-vis his perspective as a musician.

That being said, it isn’t difficult to see where a statement such as his original version within the context of a very real CSO concert event can be interpreted as an inappropriate remark about musician colleagues and/or patrons.

Nonetheless, during my exchanges with Hovnanian he did confirm that although not expressly labeled as such, it was intended to be humorous in tone.

“The whole thing was intended as satire,” wrote Hovnanian.”

He continued by offering some additional retrospective observations.

“Now that I read back the passage you quoted, I realize the sentence should have read ‘…members of the smarter sex can resort…’ not referring to anyone in particular, or anyone I observed, meaning that while men are forced to wear stuffy tuxedos to these sorts of events, women have more comfortable options when it comes to formal attire,” wrote Hovnanian. “Yes, overly crass and tasteless on my part, now that you point it out.  I’ll edit, with a note of apology.”

HR MattersTrue to his word, Hovnanian promptly amended his original post along with a postscript explanation of the edit.

When taking into consideration the author’s practice of discussing his orchestra and related issues both within and without the context of satire, it returns to a central point of whether or not it would even be an issue within an environment where employers take the time to routinely design and implement a program to make sure all employees understand the institution’s key HR policies and procedures related to ethical conduct principles, discrimination and sexual harassment prevention, workplace privacy, compliance, conflicts of interest prevention, formal complaint processes, workplace violence prevention, health and safety, use of company equipment, etc.

Always curious to learn more about an orchestra’s HR practices, I asked Hovnanian if his employer engaged any type of program mentioned above.

“If you are referring to some kind of in-person presentation, I don’t recall any such thing occurring,” wrote Hovnanian. “We occasionally receive memos covering some of the topics you mention.”

Based on my work with orchestras and their employees, his experience is quite typical and this serves as an ideal segue to the real thrust of today’s post.

There is no shortage of creative, talented employees, both on stage and off, within most orchestras and providing the basic means to help them avoid bear traps related to topics that clearly governed by HR policies is a hallmark of an employer that genuinely cares for its members as much as the institution’s mission. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many may agree that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Having said that, it is worth pointing out that there’s a deep, yet meaningful, rabbit hole here regarding policy details and whether they overreach, are reactionary, or counterintuitively oppressive (doubly so in a unionized environment). As a result, they can stunt creative outlets and efforts that simultaneously attract interest, inform, and humanize what can easily come across as a bewildering profession rife with stereotypes.

Ultimately, the return on investment related to designing healthy HR policies and routinely keeping employees informed offers tremendous potential. Simply put, it doesn’t merely help avoid problems but it fosters an improved environment of creative engagement, far more than any single marketing or outreach team can construct on their own.

In order to help facilitate those returns, it benefits both employer and employee to have a clear understanding and continually refine policies in order to ensure principles are maintained while simultaneously avoiding ham-handed methods that crush any genuine sense of ownership. If anything, all of this serves as an excellent follow-up on similar, yet far more extreme, issues we examined on 6/1/2015.

Postscript: during the interim when Hovnanian published his article and made his edits, an intriguing discussion that unfolded via a private profile’s Facebook account about whether or not Hovnanian is indeed referencing colleagues, gala attendees, or both.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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7 thoughts on “Another Example Behind Why HR Policies Matter”

  1. I have read Hovanian’s blog for a long time, and interpreted the “smarter sex” line correctly; his tone is generally wry and should be read as such.

    I’m a little surprised that so many people contacted you over this, considering what I’ve read about the CSO’s former principal horn. THERE’S a seriious situation that obviously didn’t get dealt with as it ought to have been.

  2. Drew,

    Thanks for taking this on in a thoughtful and sober manner. Yours was the only comment received for the original version of the post, so I was oblivious to the amount of consternation it stirred up. In fact, I’m continually amazed anyone outside of a few close associates reads what I write.

    I appreciate your pointing out the insensitive language to me, and the way in which you did so. Seen through someone else’s eyes, I realize, regardless of my intentions, what I wrote was overly crude and had no business being there. As it turns out, it did nothing but muddy my original intention anyway. So, I repeat my apology here. m(_ _)m

    Writing the blog and going to work regularly for the past ten-or-so years has been VERY interesting – probably worthy of a series of posts, which would necessarily immediately precede my retirement.


    • Hi Michael, thanks for weighing in but I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. My own references to your posts over the years aside, I see a regular stream of social media mentions so I would be surprised if you didn’t have a very dedicated core group of readers alongside two-three times as many casual visitors.

      Speaking for myself, I think it would be fascinating to see some reflection style posts but all joking aside and I have no doubt there are a number of details to share well in advance of your retirement that other musicians interested in following a similar path (via any of the numerous platforms available these days, blogging, social media, etc., etc., etc.) would find invaluable.

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