Employment Law

Kansas City Chiefs’ Superstar Doesn’t Catch a Pass on His Bad Behavior

Employers should take a page out of the Kansas City Chiefs’ playbook regarding how to handle employee misconduct, particularly with respect to a high-value or high-profile employee. The Chiefs’ decision to release Kareem Hunt was undoubtedly difficult and likely unpopular with some fans. From an employment perspective, however, it was unquestionably the correct choice. Read on to learn what important lessons employers can take away from this challenging situation.

Source: artisteer / iStock / Getty

First a Little Background

The last time the Chiefs won a Super Bowl was 1970. Kansas City quenched its thirst for a World Series crown with the Royals’ 2015 victory over the New York Mets.

The near 50-year Super Bowl drought looked to be coming to an end this year as Kareem Hunt, a second-year NFL running back phenom, entered the Chiefs’ picture. Hunt’s game-time synergy with new starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes was electric. They seemed unstoppable. The dynamic duo gave many fans hope for postseason action.

Allegations about Hunt assaulting a woman in a hotel hallway in Cleveland, Ohio, first came to light in February 2018. At the time, the NFL and Cleveland Police investigated the incident and were unable to substantiate the allegations. No criminal charges were pursued. Hunt denied the allegations. The Chiefs’ management team had several discussions with Hunt about the incident, and he again denied any wrongdoing.

As a result, the Chiefs’ hunt (pun intended) for a Super Bowl appearance seemed back on track. Hunt returned to the field and continued amassing impressive stats, for a total of 824 yards and seven touchdowns. The future was bright, not only for the Chiefs and their fans but also for Hunt. By November 30, the running back had played in 11 games in the 2018 season and was given much of the credit for the team’s 9-2 record.

Video Surfaces of Punishing Attack

Then, months after the assault allegations were originally raised, TMZ released a video of the altercation. The incident can be seen unfolding in a hallway of the building where Hunt lived. The video, which is hard to watch, obviously shows Hunt shoving and kicking an unknown female.

Once the video surfaced, it was obvious to the Chiefs that Hunt had not been truthful in their previous discussions about the incident. While the player apologized for his actions, the Chiefs acted swiftly. Shortly after the NFL placed Hunt on the commissioner’s exempt list (meaning he was ineligible to play), the team released its star running back, which is tantamount to terminating his employment. Despite their obvious desire for on-field success, the Chiefs simply could not tolerate Hunt’s off-field conduct or his willful deceit during the initial investigation.

Lessons for Employers in Missouri and Elsewhere

Employers frequently face a tough situation when a star salesperson, the CEO, or a beloved 30-year  employee engages in bad behavior in the workplace. Far too often, the misconduct is given short shrift because, well, disciplining the person would be complicated, even harmful to the organization’s overall business interests. That is the time, however, when you must be diligent and willing to make the hard decisions. Failing to take the appropriate remedial action only sets companies up for failure. It may seem like the best approach under certain circumstances but, in most cases, results in long-term disaster.

Bad employees typically don’t get better with time. Either the bad actor will do it again, thus increasing the company’s exposure because of its previous knowledge and inaction, or the “free pass” will embolden others to engage in similar activity. And if the employer takes action against those employees when it previously failed to correct the star performer’s behavior, they will cry foul.

Employers can learn from the Chiefs. Hunt’s dismissal must have been excruciatingly painful to those who were watching the stats and calculating the odds on the team’s chances of making a run at the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl. His departure arguably hurt the Chiefs’ business interests—having a winning season and increasing team value. But no amount of skill, talent, or prestige can or should protect people from the consequences of their bad behavior.

Hunt’s dishonesty probably played a big role in his demise. People make bad decisions—we are human. But it’s how we recover from those mistakes and move forward that speaks volumes and is a particularly good indicator of future recidivism. As HR professionals, you have to ask the hard questions. You must gather the facts—no matter how unsavory. And you oftentimes have to make unpopular decisions. Remember:

  • Stay the course.
  • Follow company policies.
  • Be consistent.
  • Demand professional conduct from everyone (from the mail room to the C-Suite).
  • Address bad behavior promptly and effectively.
  • Require accountability.
  • Document your efforts.

Keeping an even playing field, being consistent with your “flag throwing,” and realizing that most of your decisions will be second-guessed by those playing Monday-morning quarterback will hopefully keep you ahead of the game.

Shelley I. Ericsson is a Partner at Armstrong Teasdale and is an Editor for the the Missouri Employment Law Letter. She can be reached at sericsson@armstrongteasdale.com.