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.’ “

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.

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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 managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.