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Rutgers lesson: Don’t double dribble your way through key decisions

by Michael P. Maslanka

With the Final Four on Saturday and the NCAA national championship game on Monday night, basketball has been much in the news. And not far behind those stories is the unfolding saga of the Rutgers basketball program. Two articles by  The  New York Times writers Kate Zernike and Steve Eder, “Rutgers Tries to Calm Furor As More Officials Quit” (April 5, 2013) from nytimes.com and another in the print version of the paper, “Rutgers Leaders Draw Scrutiny on Fired Coach” (April 4, 2013), sum up the story: a video of Scarlet Knights men’s basketball coach Mike Rice firing basketballs and directing homophobic slurs at his players during practices.  

20/20 hindsight
The allegations were investigated more than four months ago, and Rutgers responded by suspending Rice for three games, fining him $50,000, and ordering him to take anger management classes. The video’s release a few weeks ago, however, propelled the story into the news again and resulted in the resignation of the coach, the university’s general counsel, and athletic director Tim Pernetti, who is quoted in the April 5 article as saying he wanted to fire the coach when the allegations arose but then “Rutgers decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resource professionals, and outside counsel.”

In a letter to university president Robert L. Barchi, Pernetti said: “I can’t answer exactly why I didn’t [fire Rice sooner]. You can only say in retrospect I wish I had.”

Barchi may not survive the scandal, either. Why? He approved the punishment but didn’t watch the tapes himself, and this is what I want to talk with you about today.

Go to the source and make the hard decisions now
I’ve learned this lesson from hard experience—or as my dad would say, “the school of hard knocks”: When an allegation of inappropriate behavior surfaces and you are the decision maker or one of them, go to the source of the information. Do not let it be filtered through others, no matter how much easier it is to do so. Listen personally to the witness, read the damning memo, watch the incriminating video. And be honest with yourself on why you choose to do otherwise. The reports in the Times noted that Rutgers was in the process of joining the Big Ten and may not have wanted to have the transition derailed by bad press.

And here is a corollary rule: If you see a colleague in this situation, talk with him and offer some friendly advice using “prospective hindsight.” Let’s pretend that six months from now, a video recapping the situation surfaces. How will your actions be perceived? What will happen in the press? How will the company’s various constituencies take the news? Will you be in a situation of saying, “I wish I had done XYZ, and I cannot tell you why I did not”?

We are judged for our mistaken actions. But saying “sorry” is not enough. Indeed, firing people or asking them to resign is not enough. Instead, the reaction must be: “I am sorry, it won’t happen again, and here is what we are doing to make sure it won’t.” A jury or the public will forgive (or at least not be as hard on you) if you do so.

Michael P. Maslanka is the editor of Texas Employment Law Letter and a partner with Constangy Brooks & Smith, LLP, in Dallas. He can be reached at mmaslanka@constangy.com. You can read more from Maslanka on his blog Work Matters, or to see his video blog, go to “Mike Maslanka @ Your Desk.”