In February, NBC announced they were suspending their NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams without pay for six months. Telling someone in January (on the record) a version of a story reported in 2003 turned out to be a less-than-factual recitation, and his journalistic reputation was considered to be so egregious the network felt it needed to strip him of his job, supposedly for the half-year punishment. Now, however, many are questioning whether the disgraced newsman can ever return, but from a Human Resources (an HR) perspective can they really remove Brian Williams from his job for good and/or should they?
The 56-year-old Williams became the anchor of NBC Nightly News in 2004, after many years as an onair reporter. The journalist drew fire and public humiliation early this year when a story he told about a reporting assignment during the Persian Gulf War in 2003 proved inaccurate.
NBC is reportedly trying to find a new position for Williams going forward instead of letting him come back to his old job. But, is that really a fair solution? What does it say about NBC as an employer?
First off, the story he was covering was more than a decade ago. Did he simply misremember it when talking in January? Even if the suspension was warranted, is that one incident enough to tarnish his reputation forever? Was the lie intentional?
The reality is that people tell tall tales – and make mistakes – in their jobs every day. Can any of the executives deciding his fate claim they have been perfect in their recollections and behavior from 2004 on?
That said, lying in the workplace and integrity issues should not be ignored. However the course of action on handling an employee’s lie should vary by the type and severity. There is a big difference between fictionalizing test results in a lab and stretching the truth about an actual incident.
Williams’ job as anchor does not necessarily involve reporting, like his Iraq War assignment. Many anchors do conduct interviews and write commentaries, but most nights they read the teleprompter. Is there really an integrity issue there?
The first thing most HR professionals would suggest as a course of action is gathering evidence. Some news sources report that an internal investigation at NBC found embellishments to puff himself up on his reporting assignments more than 10 times during his career with the network. Then, discuss the situation and its potential severity with the employee before deciding what to do.
When the story about the 2004 reportage broke, Williams read a statement on NBC Nightly News apologizing for his characterization of the episode. Was that enough in Williams’ case? The public, his reputation and the network will never know since the network did not give the story time to die down. To be fair, removing him pending an investigation is pretty standard, whether it is a cop involved shooting or a questionable action of any other kind that needs assessment.
Most HR departments would look at a situation like this and probably not recommend termination. That would set a high-hurdle precedent of perfection for all future employees and not allow human error, which is after all only human, to exist.
Williams reportedly have a contract, just signed last year, that pays him $10 million over five years. Depending on the terms, the network also would have to eat that money. They may want to considering that his replacement, Lester Holt, has helped the news program return to the top of the ratings heap.
Regardless of what NBC decides to do, their treatment of Brian Williams from the HR perspective will be something their employees and others look at for the foreseeable future. It should also make interesting reading in the inevitable books to follow and the inevitable tell-all interview with Oprah. For now, give the guy the benefit of the doubt. How many readers could really cast the first stone here?
By Dyanne Weiss
Washington Post: Could Brian Williams come back to NBC in another role?
Reuters: NBC looks to find new role for suspended Brian Williams, CNN says
Daily Mail: Disgraced Brian Williams hides his face but bares his legs …
Business Insider: Inside The NBC Debacle: There’s a much bigger story here than the Brian Williams scandal