Rush to Judgment: Where was HR When Juan Williams got Railroaded?

I’ve worked in a lot of places and supervised all sorts of different people. As most managers, I’ve had to fire people for performance-related issues. In my experience, it’s never easy.

It’s also something that you do in person, following an investigation, and most importantly, after you have let the person in question present their side of the argument. In other words, you let them give you their reasons why they shouldn’t be fired — and you take that argument into account BEFORE you ultimately decide their fate.

I have had generations of HR pros drill this into my head over the years, and it makes me wonder: why didn’t NPR follow this simple and fair-minded procedure when it came to Juan Williams? Why was NPR senior management so focused on a rush to judgment that they failed to do what is civil, right, and fair?

“The moral equivalent of breaking up on Facebook”

There are a lot of issues in this story, and I’m not going to get into the First Amendment-free speech-Fox News vs. NPR part of the argument that has been hashed over in so many other places.

No, my concern is about the HR and people management issues that jump off the page when you start to study the Juan Williams fiasco, and they basically come down to this: Why didn’t NPR treat their prominent and well-known commentator the way you would expect them to treat their lowliest employee? And where was Jeff Perkins, NPR’s chief people officer and vice president of human resources, in all this? Didn’t he know any better?

Rem Reider, the editor of American Journalism Review, hit this issue square on the head.

Perhaps NPR should have disciplined Williams in some manner for his clearly out-of-line remark. But it seems to me it owed its longtime contributor the opportunity to discuss the situation in person.

Instead, NPR fired him over the phone, the moral equivalent of breaking up with somebody on Facebook.

In an interview on Fox today (Editor’s note: see the video below), Williams said that in a phone conversation about the episode with Ellen Weiss, NPR’s vice president for news, she told him that the decision to fire him had already been made.

Williams says he told Weiss, ” ‘I don’t even get the chance to come in and we do this eyeball to eyeball, person to person?’ “Williams says Weiss replied, ” ‘There’s nothing you can say that will change my mind, this has been decided above me and we’re terminating your contract.’ “

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFOza0N-qbw

You should always avoid a rush to judgment

Rem Reider is right; NPR owed it to Juan Williams, a longtime and well-respected contributor, a chance to talk about this in person, one-on-one.

Why didn’t some adult — like Jeff Perkins, NPR’s chief people office — do something to make sure that this situation was handled in a fair and even-handed way?

Every thinking HR person knows this by heart: When dealing with people issues, you should always avoid a rush to judgment. And HR should be leading the charge when top management gets full of itself and seems in a big hurry to fire someone.

That’s because there are very few acts that are drop dead, out-the-door-right-now, fireable offenses. That’s how it should be. Firing someone shouldn’t be arbitrary and capricious. It should only happen after all sides are aired, all issues discussed, all due process followed.

Article Continues Below

This is something I just don’t understand, and I wrote about it last summer when the Department of Agriculture fired (wrongly, as it turned out) Shirley Sherrod for something she supposed said without any HR investigation or the chance for her to say a single word in her defense. I quoted Bill Strahan (himself a sharp VP for HR) over at the Human Markets blog at that time, and his words seem even more relevant today when you consider NPR’s arbitrary termination of Juan Williams.

It is exhilarating to make the grand, snap decision. See the evidence of racism – bang – “he’s outta here!” It feels like bold moralistic leadership. Snap decision can be leadership – however you better be damn sure that you are correct in the decision. Know that the decision is unassailable. Better yet, ask yourself a question, who is the audience to whom I am showing my boldness? It gives context to evaluate where the boldness is in fact leadership, or, if it is mere show boating. I have no idea what the motivation was here. I do know that it backfired tremendously. Typically, HR is enhanced by bold communication of thoroughly deliberated decisions, as opposed to snap decisions themselves.”

Terrible HR policy — and bad business, too

So why did NPR pull the trigger so quickly and impersonally on Juan Williams without giving him a chance to explain or defend himself? You know the answer to that — because they had already decided what they were going to do and didn’t care to hear his side of the story. In other words, NPR management didn’t want the facts or extenuating circumstances to get in the way of their preordained (and wrongheaded) decision.

This is not only terrible HR policy — and shame on Chief People Officer Jeff Perkins and NPR’s HR staff if they didn’t do everything humanly possible to stop it — but it’s bad business, too. How many people are going to want to work for NPR if they know they may get summarily terminated without explanation or appeal if they happen to make a stumble?

On top of that, the actions of NPR management have angered just about anyone, anywhere who believes in proper protocol and fair play. Whether you agree with what Juan Williams said or not, fair-minded everywhere people can recognize when someone is getting wrongly railroaded.

My guess is that this will spill over into how people view the reporting and journalism NPR produces as well, because it’s not a big stretch to see how Juan Williams was treated and wonder: what if they act this way in all the other parts of their operation and all the other things they do? How does fair and objective journalism square with arbitrary and capricious people policies?

Yes, this was a rush to judgment, and a very public and badly handled one, too.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

Topics

12 Comments on “Rush to Judgment: Where was HR When Juan Williams got Railroaded?

  1. Very good perspective on this John !! I agree that any time a company rushes to judgement, you are often acting in the heat of the moment. Other than something that is life threatening or safety related, there is always time to take a deep breath and then decide on a course of action on any HR issue.

    The other piece I noticed in this situation was not only the issue of HR not being visible, but the sad state that too often Sr. Management will rush to react without even considering going to HR first. There is a vast difference between being decisive and being “right.”

    Hopefully, HR can learn from this and get to Sr. Management and say “Hey, let’s not have that type of situation happen here.” Well, at least we can have goals !!!

  2. Right on, John. This was a collective business “fail” all around. Sadly it seems that any emotionally intelligent growth we’ve had as a society has eroded in blinding reactivity. We are dumbing ourselves down.

  3. John:
    Here is a wrinkle to consider. I have no idea if it is fact but it may be a possibility. What if Williams is not an employee? The article mentioned a contract. What if he were an independent contractor? In that case he is NOT an employee and this becomes a business decision not an HR decision. Williams says he was “fired” but many people use that term for other things, such as termination of a contract. If that were the case, and it was just a contract termination then HR would not want to be involved because then it might bring in to question William’s status as a contractor and all others like him. Hugh liability there for NPR.

    This does not mean the decision was a correct one, or even justify they way if was conducted, but it might explain why HR was not involved. He may not have been an employee, just a contractor.

    1. I agree. The Washington Examiner ran a story on this issue. In the article, Mr. Williams was identified as a contractor several times. No need for a sit-down discussion for a contractor. Especially when he had received several of these in the past.

      Here’s a link for the story: http://tiny.cc/8oq4s

  4. Thank you TLNT for pointing out how Juan was railroaded. The CEO of NPR said that Juan was fired for violating ethics policies. However, Juan has been commenting for years on FOX with no repercussions or disciplinary action. I think Juan has a case and hope he litigates. Not to mention that the CEO then publicly humiliates Juan that same day. NPR’s CEO should be fired for incompetence. In addition, to do this during their pledge drive? They should issue an apology, offer Juan his role back (which he’ll turn down) and then fire their CEO to gain some semblance of credibility back.

  5. Just saw this pop up on AP:

    Associated Press
    NPR’s chief executive says she’s sorry for the way the dismissal of analyst Juan Williams was handled — but she’s not sorry for firing him.

    Vivian Schiller sent an apology to NPR staff members Sunday night. She says Mr. Williams deserved a face-to-face meeting to hear his contract as an analyst was being terminated for remarks he made on Fox News Channel.

    Mr. Williams was fired for saying that he gets nervous when he’s on a plane and sees people in clothing that identifies them as Muslim. NPR’s management, which had long been troubled by Mr. Williams’s dual role as an analyst both on Fox and the public-radio company, said his remarks violated its standards of not giving his opinion on the air.

    Ms. Schiller writes: “I stand by my decision to end NPR’s relationship with Juan, but I deeply regret the way I handled and explained it.”

  6. I’ve managed HR for a major broadcast network and most reporters & on-air talent are contract. In fact, most are also represented by an agent &/or a union (typically AFTRA). In this case, similarly to an executive being let go, HR is not always involved. If a business feels that their reputation is being compromised they may act very quickly to alleviate any further embarrassment and that does not always seem the “fair” or “right” course of action. While I do not know all the particulars of this case, my goal is to provide some probable pieces to the puzzle that I believe might have been overlooked. Unfortunately, we live in a culture of “free agents” where HR has less influence in these cases. It seems to me that in this particular scenario, the business is more concerned with the bottom line (in this case viewership) than doing what’s right or fair. If you weigh the “business case” options, you might have made the same decision, although maybe taking a different stance on how the message was delivered.

  7. I agree with your assessment that HR should have taken control of the situation and that Juan should have his say before leaving. However, this was not HR’s fault. Someone in management took upon themselves to fire Juan without consent. I use to work for NPR and I know HR didn’t prolong the problem. Could HR train better on how to handle a situation like this? Yes, but it was up to management to take a step back an reassess the situation. Instead, someone pulled the trigger quickly and everyone is in this mess.

    What I like to see is an investigation about the relationship between executive management and the business infrastructure (including HR). To me, that is the bigger issue because there have been rumblings that management does not respect the business side and they think they can run the organization by themselves. I think this issue is about ego from management more than HR that they can do everything, but got burned.

    1. Hey Laurie — You may be right. It may be that HR wasn’t involved in this Juan Williams fiasco, and in fact, could have helped avoid a lot of problems had they been brought into the process. I hope that’s the case, because then the problem gets a tighter focus: out-of-control senior management who aren’t bright enough (or perhaps too arrogant) to call on the people management specialists in their own organization to help them. If that’s the case, NPR senior management deserves the beating they’re getting over this.JohnJohn

  8. The case of J Williams and NPR got my attention from the very beginning. I worked in HR for 2 years in an insurance company, before I move to another position; during the time I had seen 100 pages of documents before the company finally let go an employee. I agree when you write; “quick decision is bad policy, but also bad business for company.” What is the reason of rushing to terminate a long-time commentator? NPR gave me an impression of childish behavior. I am glad you brought up this case. It is always educational to see an event from different angles.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *