Weekly Wrap: How Far Do We Go to Make the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Workday's Dave Duffield

As the dust slowly starts to settle from the National Football League scandal that saw huge and unprecedented penalties and sanctions dropped on the New Orleans Saints, here’s the one thing that I want to know: does the punishment — and it was severe punishment — actually fit the crime?

I ask this, as all HR professionals and talent managers should, because it is a relevant question in any workplace that doles out discipline and punishes employees. When is the punishment just? When is it too much? And when does the way we punish people simply become part of how we cover up for our corporate culture that may be what actually created the problem in the first place?

In case you have been sleeping under a rock and missed it, here’s what I’m talking about, courtesy of the online magazine Slate:

In the first few hours after commissioner Roger Goodell’s gavel thudded down on the New Orleans Saints, the headlines have been about punishment. The sentence Goodell has imposed for the franchise’s cash-for-cart-offs scheme is extraordinarily severe: a $500,000 fine for the team, the loss of two second-round draft picks, and lengthy suspensions without pay for assistant coach Joe Vitt (six games), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games), head coach Sean Payton (a full season and the loss of his $7.5 million salary), and former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (at least a full season, maybe more). The scope of the penalty, however, is nowhere near as fascinating as the crime and the subsequent cover-up. The NFL’s latest report on the bounty scandal lays bare a willfully stupid cabal that broke the rules for no good reason, and — when given an opportunity to fess up — quadrupled down on its initial idiocy.”

But, does the punishment fit the crime?

Yes, the Saints had a bonus system to reward their players for hurting key players on other teams, and the coaches lied to league investigators and covered up the scheme when asked about it. The “bounty” system to reward for hurting other players is clearly against the league rules, and the cover-up, well, it’s usually the cover-up that’s the biggest problem. Just look at what happened to Richard Nixon and a little cover-up called Watergate to see what I mean.

So I get all of that, but still, I’m troubled by the notion that a league that has been built on (somewhat) controlled violence and the human lust for gladiator-like combat should penalize a coach (the Saints Sean Payton) by suspending him for a year and fining him his $7.5 million salary for simply channeling the NFL’s clear appeal a little better than most.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

I don’t think so — cover-up or not — because it is essentially punishing the New Orleans Saints coaching staff and management for being too good at their job and going too far to appeal to fulfill the NFL’s corporate goals. Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star hit this square on the head when he wrote:

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This is Roger Goodell’s chance to fill out that suit and comb his hair straight and stand in front of television cameras to preach that the NFL isn’t a bunch of barbarians. He will convince some of you with this rhetoric, that teams placing bounties on opposing players is not only news but unacceptable behavior worthy of perhaps the stiffest penalties in league history.

The NFL commissioner desperately wants you to believe he’s sincere on this. …

Because the more you do, the more you will realize that Goodell’s NFL is — directly or otherwise — complicit in the life-altering and possibly illegal violence that just cost Payton and Williams their reputations and millions of dollars.

The more you think about this, the more you will see Goodell’s emphasis of player safety as a shell game. He wants you to listen to his tough talk and wow at the big suspensions without noticing he pushed for an 18-game regular season or his embarrassingly slow track record of recognizing football’s connection with head injuries. …

This point should be obvious, but Goodell and many others who are expressing outsized outrage about this apparently don’t realize: the NFL’s culture is defined by violence, and we’re all complicit. …

And — here’s what will never change — the players themselves are getting rich because they not only accept the violence but embrace it.”

Crime and punishment; the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote a classic novel about it. We’re intrigued by it, revel in it, and often demand it when we believe that the guilty are going to get away with their crime.

But what do we do when we punish people — employees — for being too good at their job and perhaps going too far in an attempt to succeed in it? What do we do when our management and leadership is part of the problem, as well as our overarching corporate culture?

And if nothing else, I’d LOVE to hear what the NFL’s chief people officer thinks about all of this, because this is the kind of no-win issue that sends HR pros screaming into the night.

Of course, there’s more than crime and punishment in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • What if the federal health care mandate gets overturned? The U.S. Supreme Court is getting ready to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the federal health care mandate, aka Obamacare. But the big question is, what happens if some or all of it gets thrown out? The Chicago Sun-Times takes a look at all of that, and it is a must read for anyone and everyone in your organization who deals with health care and employee benefits.
  • Facebook warns employers about asking for passwords. Is it right for employers to ask potential employees for their Facebook passwords? Well, Facebook says no, according to USA Today. “Social network Facebook says it will fight attempts by employers and other agencies to request passwords or other “inappropriate access” from job applicants,” the newspaper reports. “In a statement posted Friday on Facebook, Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan says the social network will work to protect users, which could include legal action ‘where appropriate.’ “
  • Target “temporarily” closing store that union is trying to organize. Crain’s New York Business reports that “Target plans to temporarily close the Valley Stream, L.I., store where it has been fighting a union drive. In response, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500, which has been organizing the workers for the past year, filed a request Friday for a federal injunction to prevent the closure. The union argues that Target is shutting the Long Island store to stifle the organizing campaign. A Target spokeswoman said it’s being shut for a six-month remodeling that has been in the works for “a year and a half or two.”
  • FedEx settles job seeker discrimination case. The New York Times says that the U.S. Department of Labor “has reached a $3 million settlement with the ground delivery unit of FedEx to resolve allegations that the company discriminated against 21,635 job seekers at two dozen FedEx facilities in 15 states. … Under the settlement, department officials said Wednesday, FedEx has agreed to make wide-ranging changes to correct any discriminatory hiring practices and to extend job offers to 1,703 of the people rejected for jobs as part-time package handlers as those positions become available.”
  • Should you take a sabbatical? Miami Herald workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman wonders whether a workplace sabbatical might not be a good thing for more than just college professors. She asks, “Would you be brave enough to take a sabbatical?”

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.

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