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‘Whistleblower’ claims cronyism and fear at ICANN

Kevin Murphy, May 17, 2013, 12:26:50 (UTC), Domain Policy

An anonymous individual claiming to be an ICANN staffer has warned the organization’s board of directors about senior-level cronyism and a “climate of fear” among employees.

However, DI’s private conversations with other ICANN staffers suggest that the concerns may not be widely shared, at least not to the same extreme.

DI received a lengthy email yesterday in which it is claimed that hiring practices since last year have seen “incompetent” friends of CEO Fadi Chehade and COO Akram Atallah appointed to senior positions, which has hurt morale and proved divisive among employees.

Here are some extracts:

While it is natural for a new CEO or COO to bring in their own team, many senior hires to ICANN have been selected without going through an interviewing process, hired despite recommendation by staff to the contrary, in some cases with lack of relevant experience and not following basic business practices on the selection on the basis of merit. It in many cases has been replaced by hiring friends, family and neighbors.

In some cases these hires have turned out to be quite competent but in other cases they are flat-out incompetent. They not only will remain on staff because Akram views them as loyal but they have enjoyed additional responsibilities and promotions unfairly based on their relationship with Akram or Fadi.

Because of these hiring practices, staff morale is at a low point. Staff now falls into two camps: (1) those hired before Fadi (2) those hired after Fadi. There are a record number of employees looking for other jobs. Some have already left and if a significant number leave in the future, ICANNs qualified talent pool will suffer.

The email was unsigned and sent from an anonymized account, but includes sufficient detail that nobody who has seen it doubts that it came from an ICANN employee.

The author refers to an intern, briefly employed, who would have had little to no interaction with the rest of the community and was even unknown to some staff, for example.

I’ve confirmed that the email was sent to at least some members of the board of directors — currently holed up at a retreat in Amsterdam — at about the same time it was sent to DI.

The email lists about 10 current or former ICANN executives who, it is claimed, were hired because they are friends with either Atallah or Chehade or worked with them at other companies.

To the extent that the relationships detailed are professional, they’re easily confirmed by online resumes. Others have been confirmed privately by ICANN staffers.

While the email names names, I’m not going to.

Having spent the last day running the email author’s concerns privately by a handful of ICANN employees, I was unable to find the same degree of concern expressed by anyone.

Some I spoke to recognized the scenario outlined in the email — a new batch of senior staff aligned to the new boss and perhaps not yet fully integrated with the old guard — but said that this is to be expected whenever a new CEO takes over.

“I’m really surprised that someone feels so strongly,” said one staffer. “It’s not that horrendous, new CEOs bring in their people and we’re not going to appreciate them all.”

The phrase “climate of fear”, used in the email, invokes (possibly deliberately) the words of Maria Farrell, the former ICANN staffer who humiliated then-CEO Rod Beckstrom with a scathing public assessment of staff morale during the meeting in San Francisco two years ago.

But another message that also came through loud and clear talking to staff is that while morale might remain low, things at ICANN are a lot better than they were before Chehade took over.

“At least Fadi and his people seem competent,” one person said.

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Comments (6)

  1. avri doria says:

    I think this is an important charge that will need to be taken seriously. Not only should the Board review this, perhaps with the help of the ombudsman, but the ATRT should take up the issue.

    In terms of the few employees you checkered with, while I am sure there are employees that think everything is fine, 2 who state everything is fine do not respond to the charges.

    Any Employee

  2. avri doria says:

    Any employee or other person who wishes to contact the ATRT confidentialy can do so at: confidential@atrt.info

  3. kd says:

    I agree something the ombudsman should look into.

    However I will say sometimes leaders come into new companies and need their own wingmen to get the job done right. Kind of the “you want me, bring my team in to do it right.” I am not suggesting this is what is going on, nor do I know the past relationships of these individuals or even the current relationships. If this is what is happening I can see how it makes others feel less significant, maybe even removed when they have been there longer. On the same note, maybe more is going on. Though given Fadi’s history and credentials I doubt anything dubious here.

  4. Anonymous says:

    According to ICANN’s Bylaws: “… the Ombudsman shall have no authority to act in any way with respect to internal administrative matters, personnel matters, …”.

  5. Chris LaHatte says:

    Anonymous, above, is correct that I cannot look at staff issues as these are excluded under my bylaw. It says, “the Ombudsman shall have no authority to act in any way with respect to internal administrative matters, personnel matters, issues relating to membership on the Board, or issues related to vendor/supplier relations;” But from time to time I have been asked to facilitate and mediate some issues, by consent of both parties.

  6. Jeff says:

    I wonder if there are any further thoughts from inside ICANN about this? I would love to hear them. I’m a reporter. You can email me (anonymously if you) wish to mrjeffelder(AT)gmail.com

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