HR Hero Line

When in Doubt, Fire Your Staff

You Are Fired on post it noteby Mark I. Schickman

Across America, California employment laws are considered very liberal, too far left. But, in England, the employment law of every American state is viewed as only a cut above indentured servitude. Their legal establishment is disdainful of America’s “regressive” employment laws, and many tribunals will simply refuse to enforce our “barbaric” at-will employment agreements. Throughout the European continent, mass strikes and demonstrations would result from the downsizing that workforces in America have accepted without protest for the past three years.

But, before anyone does any finger pointing against U.S. employment practices, nothing that we do rivals the cynical workforce manipulation in which Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch engaged in Britain this month. Murdoch is the media mogul who is behind four of the largest circulation newspapers in England, as well as the Fox Television Networks (including Fox News), and major American newspapers and services including the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones and the New York Post. He didn’t invent “tabloid journalism,” but he perfected it. He is constantly seeking to expand his media empire, most recently in the attempted acquisition of Sky News, England’s major cable news network.  That effort was derailed this month when Murdoch’s British news operation was caught red-handed in conduct that was legally impermissible and publicly unacceptable.

Murdoch’s journalists were found hacking into phone and computer messages of people ranging from high government officials to 13-year-old kidnap victim Milly Dowler. When hacking that young girl’s messages, the News of the World journalist accidentally deleted some of them, creating a false impression that the girl was still alive. Journalists at Murdoch publications reportedly paid police for information and other aid.

If a U.S. news business was caught engaging in that conduct, heads would roll, no doubt. Individual reporters who engaged in that conduct would be fired; managers and executives who allowed that behavior could well be sacked, likely without the “due process” that lower-level employees would receive. But collective punishment — of the guilty and innocent, without distinction — is not a typical human resources response.

Mass Termination as a PR Ploy
But Murdock took that more severe tack, and decided to cut a major limb off his media tree as a sign of public contrition, wholly eliminating the 168-year-old News of the World — the publication most identified with recent scandalous activity. It was  the most widely read Sunday paper in England, with a daily circulation of 2.8 million readers. In a world of flashy headlines and 30-second attention spans, sacrificing his most notorious asset seemed best calculated to preserve the balance of his $30 billion media holdings

It didn’t matter that some of its staffers were blameless or that other true culprits in this fourth-estate scandal will go unpunished. He never tried to figure out who deserved to be fired and who was blameless; rather than wield a rapier or a hatchet, he fired a bazooka.

But why should any of this be a surprise? Rupert Murdoch’s news operation always presented more sizzle than steak, promising headlines that seldom delivered and soft-porn on page six.  It is often difficult to tell whether Murdoch’s Fox Network presents more serious content through its news pundits or through Bart Simpson. So to label Murdoch’s news operation as “scandalous” is as obvious as calling Jon Stewart a “liberal.”

I don’t think this particular  brand of illegal journalistic activity will likely happen here. In part, this crisis is the fault of a British legal system which, unlike ours, doesn’t provide strong legal protections to the press. In the United States, if a newspaper gets a credible lead on wrongdoing by a public figure, it can go to print, secure in the privileges afforded a free press and the legal presumptions in its favor; in England, on the other hand, a newspaper can be held liable for defamation unless it can affirmatively prove that its story is true. Hence, the British resort to hacking, wiretapping, fraud — and the rest of the excesses that have fueled the current furor; they need hard proof, not just a credible and corroborated accusation.

Murdoch says that there has been no hacking or bribery committed by his American media outlets, and no wrongdoing to account for on this side of the pond — (although it would be good if Murdoch’s New York Post did something to gather hard intelligence).

I hope it’s true that he has to pay no penance here, because he might react by closing Hulu.com — the website on which I watch most of my television programming. Hulu is one of Murdoch’s smaller holdings, earning less than $2 billion a year. Would Hulu staff ever get involved with illegal hacking or police bribery? Not likely, but neither did most of the 200 people fired at News of the World. What does Hulu have to do with real news? Nothing. But, near as I can tell, neither does the rest of Murdoch’s operation.

Mark Schickman is a partner at Freeland Cooper and Foreman, editor of the California Employment Law Letter and a member of the Employers Counsel Network. He will be a presenter at the 2011 Advanced Employment Issues Symposium and has appeared in numerous supervisor and employee training videos.