Bad Behavior at Work: Even “Animal House” Eventually Got Shut Down

"Animal House" may be entertaining, but it's no way to manage a company.
"Animal House" may be entertaining, but it's no way to manage a company.

See two (2) updates below.

Remember the movie Animal House? You know, the 1978 John Belushi film about a rogue fraternity that held wild parties and indulged in incredibly boorish behavior? It was a great flick, but it ended with the frat house being closed and John Belushi and his pals expelled from college.

Well, if you don’t believe that life sometimes imitates art, take a close look at Tribune, the one company in America that most resembles that wild fraternity in Animal House. Today the CEO of Tribune, like John Belushi’s character in the movie, looks to be soon out on the street because the Tribune board is finally tired of being ridiculed for the company’s Bluto-like behavior.

Here’s a workplace maxim that every HR professional should have branded on their brain, because you can take it to the bank: boorish behavior in the office almost always ends up with somebody getting booted out the door.

Shutting the frat house down?

And at Tribune Company — the Midwest-based media giant that includes the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and broadcast properties like superstation WGN – it was one of the leaders of the frat house who got the boot. Yes, it looks like Tribune CEO Randy Michaels is getting handed his walking papers just like John Belushi did, and the lesson is the same: no matter how much fun it may seem, bad behavior eventually shut the frat house down.

As a story in today’s Chicago Tribune reported:

Tribune Co.‘s board is preparing for the possible departure of embattled Chief Executive Randy Michaels, sources close to the situation said, and will explore his fate at a board meeting Tuesday.

The sources said it was probable the board would conclude that Michaels has been too tarnished by the recent resignation of Lee Abrams, one of his top lieutenants, as well as a critical front-page New York Times story, to continue his tenure.

One source said Michaels was exploring resigning from the company and may present his decision to the board as soon as the Tuesday meeting in Chicago. The source said the board has discussed succession issues and a separation agreement for Michaels…

Michaels … has relished being seen as a maverick. Though Tribune Co. creditors praise him for improving the company’s cash flow amid a massive industry storm, he also has become a lightning rod for controversy. Charges of boorishness and improper behavior that surfaced in the early October New York Times story shook the company.”

Here’s how The New York Times described the corporate atmosphere that former radio shock jock Michaels presided over:

Under Michaels, Tribune, a formerly conservative media company, became known for rugged, profane talk from executives, long, incomprehensible memos from management, and an atmosphere that was depicted in widely published photos of a poker party in the executive offices of Tribune Tower.”

Bad behavior is unsustainable

Yes, Animal House was funny and entertaining, but who would want to work there for any length of time?

That’s the real message here. As any HR pro worth their SHRM membership can tell you, bad behavior is simply unsustainable in a corporate culture. The amazing part of this is how long Tribune operated this way under CEO Michaels and Chairman Sam Zell. Both of them seemed to have impulse control problems that led them to not only say and do outrageous and inappropriate things, but also incredibly poor judgment that they tried to develop into a wild and reckless corporate culture.

Tribune Company's real life Bluto: CEO Randy Michaels
Tribune Company's real life Bluto: CEO Randy Michaels

It’s not just the wild and inappropriate e-mail Lee Abrams sent to the entire company that got him fired last week. Nor is it just the revelations that The New York Times disclosed in its long and in-depth story about Tribune corporate culture right before that. No, this is about “a management culture that has gone off the rails” as I described it here, a frat house culture that is unsustainable in a corporate environment and a nightmare for any HR department to try to manage and control.

When I was over at Workforce, I wrote a lot about Tribune because the company under Zell and Michaels was such a wonderful example of so many bad management practices. From Zell’s foul-mouthed antics to Michaels’ micromanaging and over-the-top dismissive attitude to both customers and employees, Tribune the last few years has been an organization worthy of a business school course on all the wrong ways to run a company.

Bad behavior invites bad karma

Michaels is especially ill-suited for his role given that his shock jock roots from radio seem to frequently get the best of him. When I was at Workforce, I said this about Michaels when he showed zero remorse over layoffs that were decimating his workforce:

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I don’t know Randy Michaels, but from everything I have read and heard, he’s a pompous and arrogant ass. And in my book, this exchange only goes to prove it. No serious executive boasts that he can fire as many people as he wants because there is a ready supply of fresh meat available. Doing so invites bad karma and all sorts of other terrible things that I am sure are in Randy Michaels’ future.”

Well, guess I was right about one thing: Randy Michaels’ behavior DID invite bad karma. He’s getting what he deserved in the end, although I’m sure that he will be richly compensated with a hefty severance package for his bad behavior as he walks out the door.

Is there a winner in all of this? Yes, there are actually two – the employees of Tribune who perhaps can now look forward to having an adult CEO with some degree of impulse control running the company, and, the corporate HR staff who will probably find that they are putting out a lot fewer brush fires with Michaels out of the picture.

The lesson to be learned here is simple: Animal House is entertaining and fun, but as any good manager or HR pro knows, it’s no way to run a business.

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UPDATE NO. 2: As predicted,  the resignation of Randy Michaels seems to simply be a matter of timing, according to the latest from the Chicago Tribune. A story published in today’s (Wednesday’s) newspaper says:

Randy Michaels, Tribune Co.’s embattled chief executive, has decided to resign his post at the Chicago-based media company and intends to leave the company before the end of the week, sources close to the situation said.

He will be replaced by a four-member office of the president that the sources said would comprise Eddy Hartenstein, president and publisher of the Los Angeles Times; Tony Hunter, president and publisher of the Chicago Tribune Media Group; Nils Larsen, Tribune Co.’s chief investment officer; and Don Liebentritt, chief restructuring officer…

Sources said Michaels has willingly decided to make his exit, having concluded that it was best for the company under the circumstances. He and the board had determined that the turmoil is distracting employees, threatening to hurt business, and complicating the company’s efforts to emerge from an especially contentious bankruptcy process.”

UPDATE: Well, Randy Michaels and the frat boy behavior at Tribune will continue — for now at least . The Chicago Tribune says today that Michaels has not left the company “despite expectations that he might step down from his post or be asked to leave it at a board meeting Tuesday.”

Does this mean the reports about Michaels’ departure were wrong? No, not really. The Financial Times said it was a “foregone conclusion,” as LABizObserved notes, and where there’s smoke, there’s generally fire. It may simply be that the Tribune Board needs a little more time to sort out the succession plan and the details of CEO Michaels’ departure before anyone makes an announcement.

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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