HR Hero Line

Pop quiz: Will she be Ripa roaring mad?

by Mark I. Schickman

Pop Quiz #1: Your 26-year, highly successful employee Kelly is popular with both employees and your customer base. Five years ago, she successfully inherited the work of an old-time employee, keeping his customers happy and adding more! Four years ago, Michael was hired and assigned to assist her; under her tutelage, he, too, became a rising star. Now the company wants to move Michael to another major program. Should the company tell Kelly about the move before it makes it public?

OK. Time’s up. Pencils down. Who said tell Kelly first? All of you? Too easy. So how did ABC-TV get Michael Strahan’s exit from Live! With Kelly and Michael so wrong?

Kelly Ripa started at ABC in 1990, two years after the professionally affable Regis Philbin started the Live! franchise with cohost Kathie Lee Gifford. Ripa took over as Kathie Lee’s replacement in February 2001, and nearly 11 years later, when Regis retired, she adopted the franchise. Almost a year later, in September 2012, Michael Strahan became cohost.

Strahan, a former NFL defensive end, has been moonlighting as a CBS NFL Sunday commentator. He also regularly appears on ABC’s Good Morning America—the two-hour lead-in to Live! in most ABC markets. Rumors of ABC expanding GMA to three hours have swirled for years—which would pull the rug out from under Live!

On April 19, 2016, ABC issued a press release that Strahan would leave Live! for an expanded regular role at GMA. The negotiations between Strahan and ABC had been going on for weeks, but nobody told Ripa—who heard about the move the same time the public did.

Ripa was, predictably, livid over not being consulted and being kept in the dark, and she was concerned over what this meant to her standing at ABC, where she had always been considered a model employee.

Pop quiz # 2: When is it smart to plot behind a colleague’s back?
Did ABC act illegally by hiding its plans and actions from Ripa? No. But while legal compliance is necessary and consistent with proper workplace conduct, it isn’t the ultimate question. Often more important, in Ripa’s words after feeling “betrayed and hurt” by people she thought had her back, “People deserve . . . communication, consideration and, most importantly, respect in the workplace.”

Ripa immediately told ABC she was going on sick leave, returning to her show a few days later with an empathetic speech that was two parts emotion and one part humor, quipping that ABC had “snipers with tranquilizer darts in case I go off message” and confiding to her audience that “half of you called in sick to be here, so we get each other!” ABC expressed “regret for the way Kelly was told the news,” and Ripa, seeking to end the feud, said, “People make mistakes; we’re all human.”

All of Ripa’s live TV comments are now viewed under a microscope. When a fierce armadillo was brought on stage by a handler, her offhand comment, “I want to take him into contract negotiations with me,” headlined the news feeds. Similarly, when Ripa and Strahan were discussing a news story regarding kids in divorce, the press questioned the motives behind her comment to him, “I don’t have a take on this. But I want yours. So you’ve gotten divorced.”

This brouhaha may work out for Ripa, whose story dominates a recent issue of People, the most read weekly in the country. The show’s ratings climbed because of this controversy, and Ripa’s bargaining position strengthened. She doesn’t want to leave her comfortable, successful perch, but ABC knows she can and likely will if she is betrayed again.

Pop quiz # 3: Do big companies do stupid things?
Strahan deserves no blame for this. He was Ripa’s costar, not her business partner. He gets to move on. But what was ABC thinking? That its conduct was legal? Sure. But was it smart to sneak behind Ripa’s back? Before an employer acts, it must ask both questions: Is it legal? Is it wise? Legal it was, but wise? Certainly not.

Here is the shocking takeaway: Major organizations with seasoned HR professionals who should know better sometimes do really stupid things. Undoubtedly, somebody at ABC calculated that freezing Ripa out of the 411 was the right play and made the decision consciously. It was no accident that neither ABC, Strahan, nor anybody else clued Ripa into these negotiations.

What did ABC hope to gain, and why did it think this approach was advantageous? Did it assume Ripa would simply take the change—and the insult—in stride? Did it fear her leaking the story or outbidding GMA for Strahan’s services? Did it want to push her out the door or prove that it could put her in her place? Maybe it just believed that knowledge was power, so it wasn’t going to share it. I can’t fathom a guess. If you have the answer, please write and let me know.

Mark I. Schickman is a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco and editor of California Employment Law Letter. He may be contacted at schickman@freelandlaw.com.