Diversity & Inclusion

When a good employee makes a bad mistake

by Mark I. Schickman

Brian Williams was NBC’s news superstar, appearing on programs ranging from 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, and The Tonight Show. He was a beloved regular on the talk show circuit. Since 2004, he was heir to a line of NBC news chiefs flowing from Chet Huntley and David Brinkley through John Chancellor to Tom Brokaw.  Fixing Mistakes

But, next to good looks and a good voice, perhaps an anchor’s most essential job qualification is credibility–being the most trusted news source in America. If people don’t believe you, they’re not going to look to you for the news. So Williams’ world collapsed in early February when questions surfaced about an embellished version of a war story in which he claimed to be riding in a helicopter that was “hit by ground fire.” He made similar comments about surviving “a close call in the skies over Iraq,” “com[ing] under fire,” and “look[ing] down the tube of an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade launcher].”

Some military personnel who were aboard the attacked helicopter challenged the account, saying that Williams’ helicopter missed the shooting by more than half an hour and was nowhere near the rocket fire. Williams was forced to recant the story, claiming his memory had faded in the 12 years since the incident.

Talk about a massive unexpected HR problem. If, as widely reported, Williams’ multimillion-dollar employment contract has a morals clause that allows for termination in the event of a public scandal or disrepute, NBC would have beeen well within its rights to fire him. But after NBC invested a decade building up Williams’ brand and after he grew NBC Nightly News into the highest-rated network news broadcast, is termination the best response to the very common human failing of centralizing your own part in a good story?

NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay, a move that reportedly cost him $5 million. After completing its internal investigation, NBC took away his news anchor perch and assigned him to MSNBC news, which amounts to a pay cut and demotion to the minor leagues.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

NBC is in a common employer jam. A valued employee in whom you have invested a lot messes up. You can’t ignore the offense; you could fire him, but he brings a lot to the table. NBC has found a middle ground for dealing with Williams, at least for the moment.

There is precedent for NBC giving announcers a second chance. In 1997, Marv Albert, one of the network’s most successful sports announcers, pleaded guilty to sexual assault and battery and received a 12-month suspended sentence after several prostitutes accused him of biting them during sex. NBC fired Albert but brought him back as its lead NBA announcer in 2000. He remains one of the most popular sports announcers in America. Does anyone remember his disgrace 18 years ago?

There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to employee discipline questions, so employers should stick to the individual facts. Can you fire a great long-term employee because of one human mistake? You’re tempted to say “no,” but in truth it depends on the mistake. Can you retain your most visible, credible public face after he is caught in a broadly known lie? You’re tempted to say “no,” but in truth it depends on the circumstances. Whenever anybody asks one of those broad questions, the answer, almost always, is “it depends on the circumstances.”

Will Brian Williams ever return to the apex of the broadcast news universe? He is already starting the public relations process to apologize and request forgiveness and try to rebuild his credibility. If he had been more forthright in his earlier apologies, he might not have found himself in this fix. Even now, he cannot bring himself to say that he lied, only that his ego led him to say things that were wrong. Some of his other stories, including accounts of his experiences during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, are now being questioned.

An important lesson is, once you’re caught doing something wrong, come clean, fully and immediately. If Williams eventually does that, I wouldn’t bet against him someday returning to the top. America loves an underdog.

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