The NPR-Juan Williams Incident Shows Why HR Really Matters

The woman who fired Juan Williams: NPR CEO Vivian Schiller
The woman who fired Juan Williams: NPR CEO Vivian Schiller

I don’t want to keep beating on the Juan Williams-NPR firing fiasco, but there are a few loose ends to tie up before we move on.

Loose End No. 1: NPR CEO Vivian Schiller sent a letter Monday to her NPR workforce apologizing for how she mishandled the Juan Williams incident. Her apology and explanation, however, seem to raise even more issues that make one wonder just what in the hell is going on with the people management function at NPR.

Her letter gives a little more detail on why Williams’ contract was terminated — she said he had been asked on numerous occasions “to avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings” yet he continued to do so  — but that seems an odd restriction to put on someone she also describes as a “news analyst.” Isn’t offering “strong personal opinions on controversial subjects” what they do?

Regrets for “the way I handled and explained it”

But Schiller also went on to say this (and a video of her explaining her decision is below):

The process that followed the decision (to terminate Williams) was unfortunate – including not meeting with Juan Williams in person – and I take full responsibility for that. We have already begun a thorough review of all aspects of our performance in this instance, a process that will continue in the coming days and weeks. We will also review and re-articulate our written ethics guidelines to make them as clear and relevant as possible for our acquired show partners, our staff, Member stations and the public…

I stand by my decision to end NPR’s relationship with Juan Williams, but deeply regret the way I handled and explained it. You have my pledge that the NPR team and I will reflect on all aspects of our actions, and strive to improve them in the future.”

Again, I don’t want to beat this to death, but it wasn’t just “unfortunate” that she failed to meet with Juan Williams before terminating him — it was flat out wrong, plain and simple.

Plus, Schiller’s letter says nothing about the complete breakdown in the people management function, or the huge HR issues that flow from the “unfortunate” firing of a long-time NPR contributor by phone without allowing him to plead his case. Without any mention of that, her apology misses the mark by a country mile.

What if Williams was not an employee?

Loose End No. 2: Sharp-eyed TLNT reader (and HR consultant) Mike Haberman offered this observation:

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 Williams’ 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.”

As far as I know from all of my reading on this subject, Mike is right — Williams was a freelance news analyst for NPR and had worked on a contract basis for about 10 years. Mike is also right that this may be why HR wasn’t brought into the termination process (if indeed they were kept out of it).

But freelance contractor or not, Williams was a long-time, prominent fixture at NPR. He deserved to be treated with the same dignity and care you would expect to be offered to anyone with such a large role in the organization. In other words, he deserved the chance to discuss this situation with NPR management face-to-face BEFORE they pulled the trigger.

Why HR needed to be involved

Loose End No. 3: Another TLNT reader who goes by the name HRFish left this interesting comment:

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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.”

HRFish also makes some good points, and yes, NPR may have been completely right in deciding to let Juan Williams go. There’s a larger argument that I have stayed away from here because it is about free speech, political correctness, and how NPR wanted Williams to conduct himself. Lots of others continue to argue those issues, and they are well worth the debate.

But HRFish’s contention that “HR is not always involved” when freelance or contract employees are dismissed gets to the heart of the problem here.

If HR is involved, they probably do what they do best — dig into the issue, investigate, look at all the options, counsel caution, and make sure all bases are covered, all due process followed. HR probably goes a little overboard to make sure every issue in the Juan Williams case is thoroughly vetted, and they surely make sure he gets the chance to offer up his side of the story, in person, while it still matters, before the final decision to terminate is made.

Why HR matters

This is why HR matters, because HR people are experts at managing the people function and keeping the big wigs above them from rashly doing something they will regret later.

If HR was involved at NPR when they decided they had to do something about Juan Williams, I bet this debate would just be about the free speech issues and NOT how Vivian Schiller failed to treat Williams with dignity, fairness, and respect.

This is why HR matters. Executives everywhere should learn this lesson and know that if you ignore HR in these cases, you do so at tour own peril. And, you might end in big time damage control like Vivian Schiller and NPR.

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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