Diversity & Inclusion

Sign of the times: Jill Abramson, the New York Times, and pay equity

by Mark I. Schickman

The New York Times is the second largest newspaper in America, with about two million papers sold each day. It’s also the liberal beacon of American journalism, with solid-gold progressive credentials. Still, it took the paper 160 years to hire Jill Abramson as its first female executive editor in 2011.  Pay Inequality

In May, Abramson made the surprise announcement that she was leaving that post. Neither she nor the Times expanded on that announcement, except to say that she would be replaced by Dean Baquet, the first African American to take the position. Applying the usual termination formula, neither employer nor employee would discuss the matter, hoping the issue would pass with little comment. You would think the New York Times would be able to manage the news. Not so.

Media raises the issue of pay equity

A day after the resignation announcement, print and broadcast outlets as well as the blogosphere grabbed the story. MSNBC’s Morning Joe, The New Yorker, CNN, Forbes, and dozens more seized on the news, raising the question of whether Abramson’s firing was in retaliation for her raising pay equality issues to the Times’ management. As perception became reality, that narrative took hold across the country.

The New Yorker reported that Abramson learned last month that her pay and benefits were lower than those of her white male predecessor, Bill Keller, and that she “confronted the top brass” about it. Following that episode and her lawyer’s “polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities . . . both sides were left unhappy,” the report continued.

When the media plan failed and the separation clearly wouldn’t go away without comment, the Times’ leadership jumped into the fray, denying that sexism or pay issues had anything to do with Abramson’s termination. Management held several internal meetingscalling one with its female management group and another with the newsroom staffto reiterate its support for female managers and its commitment to equal pay for women.

Saying he wanted to rebut “misinformation,” Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., denied that the compensation issue played any part in his decision to fire Abramson. “The only reason” for the termination, he said, “was concerns I had about some aspect of Jill’s management of our newsroom, which I had previously made clear to her.” This ignited further debate on the topic, both inside and outside the paper. Responding to reports that Abramson was pushy or brusque, Times culture reporter Patricia Cohen noted that such traits “are perceived positively in men and perceived negatively in women.” On the other hand, Kate Zernike, a Times reporter for 14 years, says that to call Abramson’s firing an act of sexism is “predictable . . . and wrong.” Abramson herself has made no comment.

One thing we know is that the Times’ effort to keep this departure quiet and friendly failed, and this individual termination has ignited a classwide accusation and debate. If an American media giant can’t control the public fallout from a high-profile termination, what chance do we have to manage a potentially sensitive discharge?

Bigger than the both of you

The takeaway here is that the danger from a termination sometimes doesn’t come from the terminated employee but from an outside factor. Maybe the termination of a certain female employee would be justified, but the same firing manager has a history of sexual harassment against other employees. You can’t ignore history when considering a personnel move.

One insurance company client of mine wanted to terminate a poorly performing salesperson and had a clear record to do so. But the same company was under investigation for sales practices that allegedly violated the Insurance Code, and I knew that if the termination occurred, the salesperson would become a key witness against it. That termination never occurred.

The fact is, employment decisions don’t happen in a vacuum, and sometimes the context is the biggest fact at play. So before you make a termination decision, go beyond the narrow employment facts and think about whether bigger contextual issues are at play.

The New York Times is a media giant, but it forgot that lesson and is paying for it. Learn from the company’s mistake. It’s news you can use.

Mark I. Schickman is a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco. He may be contacted at schickman@freelandlaw.com.