Prince Harry and Meghan Markle may have had a unique workplace situation with the British royal family, but their interview with Oprah Winfrey still provides important lessons for human resources professionals who don’t work at Buckingham Palace.
During the two-hour televised discussion—which aired in the US on March 7 and in the UK on March 8—the couple spoke about several issues that are especially important at companies and organizations focused on increasing diversity and inclusion.
There is no HR department at “The Firm,” as Markle referred to the British royal family. And yet HR issues seem to abound. Here’s a breakdown of the HR topics that Markle and her husband highlighted in their conversation with Winfrey, as well as some lessons:
1. Markle’s lack of onboarding
Royal life would introduce new customs to anyone from the outside, but Markle said she did not research Harry and his family before meeting them, resulting in an especially steep learning curve. Her lack of prior knowledge about royal traditions meant, for example, learning last-minute from Harry she needed to curtsy deeply before the Queen, even in private interactions. “And that was really the first moment that the penny dropped that this wasn’t easy for me,” she said. Markle told Winfrey she practiced the move several times before meeting the Queen.
The HR lesson: An onboarding process that provides clear documentation and early instruction about traditions and standard operations can help avoid confusion and embarrassment. A designated workplace “buddy” who is available to answer questions can also help with better integration into the organization’s culture.
2. Allegedly racist comments about their son
The couple’s son, Archie, was born on May 6, 2019. In the interview with Winfrey, Harry said that before Archie was born, a member of his family asked how dark the baby would be. While Harry initially declined to specify who it was that raised the issue, Winfrey later told CBS News journalist Gayle King that it was neither of his grandparents, Queen Elizabeth or Prince Philip.
Markle, who has a white father and a Black mother, has been the subject of racist coverage in the UK tabloids and from other press outlets since news of her relationship with Harry went public in 2016. Concern about the amount of melanin in someone’s skin tone is colorism, and can fuel a form of discrimination when light-skinned members of an ethnic group are favored over dark-skinned counterparts.
The HR lesson: Emphasize to staff to refrain from commenting on how light or dark someone’s skin looks. It is almost never appropriate.
Markle said that rather than her making Kate Middleton cry, as the press reported, the opposite happened several days before her wedding. The issue was about dresses for the flower girls. Markle told Winfrey that her future sister-in-law did apologize with flowers and a note. “She did what I would do if I knew that I hurt someone, to just take accountability for it,” Markle said.
HR lesson: During high-stress periods, it’s important to remain professional. When mistakes are made and feelings are hurt, a staff member should apologize appropriately, emphasize accountability, and explain how they will avoid that behavior in the future.
Inconsistent public relations
Markle told Winfrey that when the incident with Kate was leaked to the press, with Markle portrayed as the villain, the monarchy prevented her from clarifying what actually happened despite other witnesses willing to support her. “I think it’s really important for people to understand the truth,” she said. “But also I think a lot of it that was fed into by the media—and, look, I would hope that she would have wanted that corrected, and maybe in the same way that the palace wouldn’t let anybody else negate it, they wouldn’t let her, because she’s a good person. I think so much of what I have seen play out is this idea of polarity, where if you love me, you don’t have to hate her. If you love her, you don’t need to hate me.”
Winfrey referenced a BuzzFeed News article by Ellie Hall comparing the dramatically different headlines and tone of articles about Markle and Middleton in UK media outlets for the exact same actions, illustrating a double standard of coverage.
HR lesson: It’s important for HR professionals to coordinate with communications and public relations staff to quickly and consistently address inaccuracies in events, especially when they involve high-profile staff members.
Lack of financial support and security
Harry revealed that the couple’s decision to leave the Royal Family also meant an abrupt loss of financial support in early 2020 due to the terms of their exit. Harry said he drew on his inheritance from his mother, Diana, to help pay for his son’s security, which is normally taxpayer-funded and carried out by a special unit of the London Metropolitan Police. Instead, the director and producer Tyler Perry helped provide the couple with security and a place to live for several months when they moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles.
HR lesson: Pulling financial support and security from high-ranking officials can often raise several kinds of risk, from physical harm to breaches of sensitive information. The cost of doing so should be carefully considered, especially when other staff members who have been sidelined for much worse behavior have not suffered similar declines in resources.
Insufficient mental health resources
Markle spoke about how her mental health deteriorated to the point that she had persistent thoughts of suicide. The experience happened during her pregnancy with Archie, after a long period of hostile press coverage and months of not being allowed to leave her home.
“I just didn’t want to be alive anymore,” she said. “And that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought.”
After she asked a senior official about the possibility of seeking inpatient care, Markle says she was told it would not be possible because it “wouldn’t be good for the institution.” This was despite the fact that Prince William spoke publicly about breaking the mental health stigma at the World Economic Forum in 2019.
HR lesson: The pandemic has highlighted the need for mental health resources across industries and organizations. Remind staff about what services are available, the importance of seeking care early and often, booking time off, and that doing so helps their overall ability to be productive and contribute in both the short and long-term.
Double standards when it comes to titles
Markle revealed that her son, Archie, was not granted the royal title of prince like the children of William and Kate. She told Winfrey she was never given a reason why “the first member of color in this family [was] not being titled in the same way that other grandchildren would be.” Royal protocol since 1917 is that among the monarch’s great-grandchildren, only the eldest son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales would receive the title of prince, although Queen Elizabeth did make an exception to this to bestow titles on all of William’s children.
HR lesson: Be consistent with titles and provide clear reasons and documentation for any inconsistencies or changes in policies to avoid confusion.
No proper exit interview
Last month, media outlets like the Irish Mirror reported the announcement of the interview with Winfrey “blindsided” Buckingham Palace and that royal sources had “a great deal of nervousness” about what the couple might say. Harry said after he and Markle relocated to North America, he continued to have several conversations with his grandmother and his father, Prince Charles, before the latter stopped taking his calls. Harry and his wife’s two-hour conversation with Winfrey has been the most comprehensive account so far of their experience as a royal couple.
Buckingham Palace issued an official statement in response on March 9:
HR lesson: Exit interviews often can provide HR officials with crucial information on how they can improve retention, and what training might be needed for managers and reports. Departing staff can help organizations to better identify systemic problems in work culture that limit growth, productivity, and professional development for other staff. Preemptively closing off communication can cause additional problems.
If you are concerned about suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day in English and Spanish at 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, there are several helplines available, including Samaritans at 116 123 or SOS Suicide of Silence at 0300 1020 505 (8am to midnight).
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Harry as prince of Wales (that title belongs to his father) and described an Irish paper as being part of the UK media. The story has been corrected.