The Juan Williams Case: How HR Can Help Avoid a People Management Fiasco

Maybe you missed it, but NPR finally closed the book on the Juan Williams incident last week.

You remember the Juan Williams incident, don’t you? NPR commentator makes some comments on Fox News that NPR executives thought were inappropriate. He gets fired because he supposedly violated NPR policy, but he gets canned over the phone without getting the opportunity to defend or explain what said. All hell breaks loose when this happens, and NPR gets pummeled for both free speech issues as well as a lack of fairness in how it was done.

Last week’s wrap-up ended with a big statement from the NPR Board following an investigation and secret report from an outside law firm, as well as the sacrificial firing of NPR’s Senior Vice President for News, and a minor rebuke/slap on the wrist for CEO Vivian Schiller.

The one constant in this badly botched episode? NPR’s senior HR professionals don’t seem to have had ANY role in investigating or guiding NPR’s people policies before, during, or after the Juan Williams investigation.

No doubt the incident was “poorly handled”

I’ve read a lot about the NPR-Juan Williams incident, and it amazes me there is virtually no mention of NPR’s HR staff and their involvement anywhere at all. It’s as if HR at NPR doesn’t exist, and if it does, nobody trusts it enough to sort out the pretty obvious people management issues in this drama that leap off the page.

NPR also has an ombudsman by the name of Alicia Shepard — a veteran journalist who fields reader complaints and investigates issues concerning NPR’s news coverage — and she wrote this about the end of the Juan Williams incident last week:

There’s no doubt that NPR poorly handled Williams’ firing – and that (Senior Vice President for News Ellen) Weiss bore some of the responsibility. I supported terminating Williams’ contract but certainly there were smarter ways to do it. Any damage that Williams may have caused NPR with his occasional intemperate remarks on Fox — which was definitely a problem for NPR — was infinitesimal to the damage NPR management did to the company with its ungracious firing.

NPR’s board of directors hired a law firm, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, to review how the termination was handled after it produced a firestorm in the media. The Ombudsman’s office got an unprecedented 23,000 emails. Well over 10,000 people commented on NPR’s story about the firing the day it occurred…

Weil does not come cheap, and its investigation must have cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce results that (from what we’ve been told about them) seem obvious. Might NPR have hired one or two experienced and widely respected journalists or management gurus instead?”

Shepard makes a great point: wasn’t there another way of handling this than going out and hiring some high paid consultants (in this case, a law firm) that might have made more sense? You know the answer to that: of course there was, but leave it to NPR senior management , including the Board of Directors, to botch this Juan Williams incident in just about every way possible.

Back when I was working on my MBA, I got hooked on case studies, those real-life examples you can learn so much from. Yes, I liked examining how organizations solved business problems, but I always got a lot more out of the negative ones — like how “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap’s bad behavior destroyed Sunbeam.

3 things to help avoid a people management fiasco

That’s what fascinates me about the NPR-Juan Williams fiasco; it is a textbook look at how the lack of a strong HR department and people management function can lead to huge problems for an organization.

It also seems that NPR still hasn’t learned from this botched incident, so here are three things you should remember if your organization faces a Juan Williams-like situation:

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  1. Always follow your own policies and generally-accepted people management standards. From the lowliest employee on up, you should always treat people in your organization with respect and fairness. NPR screwed up the Juan Williams situation by summarily firing him without due consideration — no HR investigation, no one-on-one discussion so he could give his side of the story, no temporary suspension while they sorted the situation out. These are generally-accepted standards that should apply everywhere. Had NPR executives simply followed the basics, they would have saved the themselves and NPR a lot of grief and disdain.
  2. Let your in-house people management experts do what they do best. NPR has an HR department, so why didn’t they lead this investigation? HR should be the go-to department when there are personnel issues, especially when they involve a high-profile member of the organization. HR should ALWAYS lead this effort unless there is some extraordinary circumstance at play, and in my view, that wasn’t the case here. NPR also has an ombudsman who has written about this incident with great insight and common sense. She also could have helped the HR staff, so give NPR execs an “F” for failing to see the internal expertise they could bring to bear that was right under their nose.
  3. Avoid outside consultants unless you need special expertise. I’m not convinced that NPR’s Board needed to bring in a high-priced global law firm like Weil, Gotshal & Manges that says “we work seamlessly to handle the most complex Corporate, Litigation, Regulatory, and Restructuring challenges.” You need that for a wrongful termination issue? Why the need to bring in a law firm at all? Although I know a lot of smart and savvy consultants, I’m not a fan of bringing them in at the drop of a hat as so many organizations want to do. All too often, you tend to get lots of advice but not much practical help in implementing it — as UPS makes a point of in this commercial (below). Was the expertise Weil, Gotshal & Manges offered superior to what NPR could have gotten from it’s own HR staff, or, from a less pricey HR consultancy? I sincerely doubt it.

NPR and the Golden Rule

Oh, and one more thing: does anyone at NPR understand “The Golden Rule?”

You know the Golden Rule — “treat others as you would want to be treated.” If NPR executives had simply treated Juan Williams the way they would want to be treated if the situation were reversed — with respect, an in-depth HR investigation BEFORE termination, and extending the sense of fair play by giving him a chance to argue his case in person — they would not be in the position they are today. If the Juan Williams situation was handled the right way, using the “Golden Rule” as the guide, I doubt it would have blown up on NPR the way it did.

And one last thing: the report on the Juan Williams incident was given verbally to the NPR Board by Weil, Gotshal & Manges. No written report was produced, nor will one be. “For the integrity of the process and to make sure people felt comfortable speaking freely during the review, the board decided not to have a written report,” Yvette Ostolaza, a Weil attorney involved in the review, told NPR Ombudsman Shepard. “This is not unusual in this context.”

Well, maybe this is not unusual to Weil, Gotshal & Manges, but it is just one more huge misstep by NPR. Ombudsman Shepard hit this issue directly on the head when she wrote:

NPR considers this a personnel issue even though the resulting damage to NPR goes beyond the consequences of firing an independent contractor.

NPR can hire the most sophisticated investigators in the world, but how can such a review have credibility if people who care about NPR can’t read the full results of it? NPR needs to find a way to make the full report — or the key parts of it — public.”

Yes, reasonable transparency, like the Golden Rule, seems to be in short supply. Leave it to NPR — known to many as National Public Radio — to botch a personnel situation so badly that it becomes fodder for an HR case study on how NOT to handle people management issues.

Somehow, I don’t think this is what they want to be known for.

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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