Lessons for HR directors from the Kyle Beach story

A few weeks ago, the only folks who might recognize the name Kyle Beach would be his friends, family, and his teammates in Germany. Possibly a few passionate hockey fans.

Today, he is at the centre of a massive scandal and lawsuit that calls into question how the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks handled, or rather didn’t handle, an accusation of sexual assault by one of its own players. Beach’s courageous decision to share his story is causing a reckoning within professional hockey and empowering others to come forward.

The back story

Beach was drafted by the Blackhawks in 2008 but never played a game for ‘the big club’. The closest he came to playing for the NHL team was during their 2010 Stanley Cup run when he joined their practice squad.

It was during that time Beach met and was allegedly abused by video coach Brad Aldrich. To this date Aldrich has not been criminally charged for this alleged assault.

The complaint was brought to the attention of management, who (not wishing to affect the team’s chances of winning the Cup) did nothing in the short term. They let Aldrich go at the end of the season but had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup and gave him the Cup for a day to show off at the high school where he was coaching. As the victim’s lawyer put it, this was the “most positive” job reference the Blackhawks could give.

Aldrich would go on to assault a sixteen-year-old student while a volunteer hockey coach at that same high school and initiate unwanted sexual contact at a university during another coaching job. He was jailed and is now a registered sex offender. The Chicago Tribune has a timeline with more details.

Beach’s case was reopened this year when a lawsuit was filed against the Chicago Blackhawks organization. The resulting investigation has cost multiple current and former Blackhawks executives their jobs.

General Manager Stan Bowman was fired and lost a position with USA Hockey’s Men’s Olympic team. Former Hawks coach Joel Quenneville was fired as coach of the Florida Panthers NHL team. It has even tainted the careers of some of the Blackhawks players, who have been accused of not only being aware of the situation but actually bullying Beach as a result. To top it all off, the team was fined $2 million by the league. There are also questions about whether the Blackhawks owe Aldrich’s subsequent victims any form of compensation or support.

Beach’s case has also opened up a broader discussion around the NHL’s handling of sexual assault allegations, as well as the NHL Player’s Association (union), and it has revealed another unrelated but also suppressed sexual assault allegation within the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.

Lessons learned?

An obvious lesson the Blackhawks, the league, and the Player’s Union should have learned – and will have to learn – is to take these allegations seriously and that means investigating immediately!

While some of us may view professional sports with almost religious fervour, allegations of criminal behaviour take priority over winning trophies. What came out in the subsequent investigation is that management met to discuss the case, opted not to do anything until the playoffs were over, and allowed Aldrich to move on without any consequences. Aldrich was able to secure other employment, and even got his moment with the Stanley Cup that summer.

Beach, in the meantime, was offered no support and, in fact, the work environment became more difficult for him due to the bullying he was now being subjected to.

Perhaps team management saw the allegations as weak and were concerned about what Aldrich might do if they fired him for cause. This is one of the best reasons to hire an independent investigator.

When the employer bases a decision about termination on the findings of an independent investigator, it can act as a shield regardless of who might complain about that decision. So long as the decision was reasonable given the investigator’s findings, the employer has a strong defence that they acted appropriately. The weight of that fact is not lost on yours truly.

This is why every investigation requires meticulous attention to detail and a well-written report explaining exactly how conclusions were reached based on the evidence gathered. Even if new evidence comes out years later which suggests the investigator got it wrong, the employer has a strong argument that they acted on the best information available at the time.

Had the Blackhawks chosen to suspend Aldrich and investigate right then and there, they might have learned of other complaints against Aldrich either within the team or at previous employers. Remember, each new complaint must be investigated. Oftentimes, multiple investigations will get rolled into one big investigation if the allegations are of a similar nature or involve many of the same people.

With a solid investigation report in hand, management would have had a more complete picture of the situation. What the team did with that information is still up to them: whether they referred it to the police (as would have been appropriate), fired Aldrich, or otherwise.

When you fail to investigate, you open yourself up to all of what has befallen the Chicago Blackhawks and some of their former employees in the last few weeks: terminations, lawsuits, intense public scrutiny, ruined reputations, and significant expense. The team has even had to postpone a night celebrating one of their retired stars, noting that celebrations are not a good idea right now.

We can only hope lessons were learned by the Penguins and other teams, and that this changes the culture within professional sports that failed people like Kyle Beach.

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