Everyone I’ve talked to in the last couple of days has been outraged by the video of the coach physically and verbally abusing his college basketball players. He screamed at them, hit them, and threw basketballs at them. It’s clear to all of us that behavior was unacceptable. The coach was fired this week, although the school became aware of the abuse in December. Why wasn’t he fired immediately? The school’s athletic director said he had hoped to “rehabilitate” the coach. In the athletic director’s resignation letter, he said that he originally wanted to fire the coach, but that after lawyers and HR professionals got involved, the decision was made not to fire him.
As a leader, sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing. We get so concerned about our responsibility to “rehabilitate” people and give them a second chance that we do not take the strong leadership stance that we should. This was clearly not a case of the coach just having a bad day and saying something he immediately regretted. (We’ve all had those days – at least I know I have!) In this case, there was a clear pattern of recurring physical and verbal abuse, which I would think would be a significant violation of the university’s core values.
In my blog posting last week, I talked about how tolerating poor behavior can impact the organization. This situation is a good example of that. What message do you think was sent to the players when they learned that the coach was suspended for three games and fined rather than being fired? What message did that minor slap on the wrist send to others within the organization? Is that an environment in which you would like to work?
What would have happened if the athletic director had immediately fired the coach after investigating the situation? Would he be seen as a strong leader and respected for taking that stance? I believe so. Yes, there was a risk that the coach could have sued him for wrongful termination. Anyone can sue anyone for almost anything these days. What’s important to remember is that you cannot operate from a position of fear. As a leader, you must operate from a position of strength and values. Do the right thing!
Photo by: iDream_in_Infrared / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
The “Coach Rice” situation is interesting at many levels. The damning video shows clearly unacceptable behavior on the part of the Coach. Once the video was made public the instant response was the Coach had to go and go he did. Months prior to the firing of the Coach, the Assistant who first brought the abuse to light lost his job. After the firing of the Coach the Athletic Director (AD) who fired the Coach was himself either fired or forced to resign. On the surface it seems that individuals are being held accountable for personal actions taken or not taken, after all the best interest of the organization has to be protected.
As indicated in Cindy’s piece, the decision to not fire the Coach in December was a joint decision on the part of the AD, lawyers and senior HR staff, clearly not the unilateral decision of the AD. I assume the termination of the Assistant would have also come after consultation with others as to what action would be in the best interest of the organization. One has to further assume the same lawyers and HR staff was involved in the exit of the AD.
For me the most interesting part of this story is the interface between individual leadership and the organizational leadership. We expect individuals to act in the best interest of the organization and are disappointed when they don’t. Frequently however the collective action taken to protect the organization in reality exposes it to great risk. One only has to look at the Penn State case to see the magnitude of damage which can be done when decisions are made in the best interest of the organization. Dr. Jerry Harvey, in “The Abilene Paradox” provides a vivid picture of circumstances which lead to a collective decision which is not supported by the personal position of the participants. Written twenty-five years ago, The Abilene Paradox continues to be played out in all types of organizations all around the world. Organizations don’t need to be protected they need to be supported. The best support a leader can provide is to demand decisions are made in the best interest of the highest level stakeholder group. This can only be done after stakeholders groups are ranked. Honestly completing such a ranking can only be done in the context of organizational values and requires a significant degree of courage. It is at this point where PR and organizational culture frequently diverge. Frequently, leaders need to be coached to have the clarity and the courage to get this fundamental piece correct.
Most HR professionals and company employment lawyers view their primary role as the prevention of litigation against the entity. There are powerful reasons for being so cautious especially if the business is small and lacks resources to defend itself. Those entities should consider an EPLI insurance product, but, like anything else, those policies may create their own issues. At the end of the day, the leader has to recognize that employee termination decisions are risk/reward opportunities. Employees may be your greatest asset but they can become your greatest liability in a micro mini second. Evaluating when the reward outweighs the risk is why the CEO makes the big bucks. Having an advisor who understands this dynamic is key.
I am reminded of the first time as a Vistage member that I heard Ed Ryan speak (hire slowly, fire quickly). Ed posed the question, “How many of you have fired someone too soon?” No hands went up. One member asked, “How do you know when it is time to fire someone?” Ed’s response was, “When the thought first crosses your mind.” While that sounds harsh, as I look back on my career, rarely if ever did anything get better by efforts to train, rehabilitate, move the individual to another position, etc.
I have learned over the years that the problems always seem to arise when leaders don’t do what they know the correct action is because of political correctness. The above case is a perfect example. The coach should have been terminated immediately for this kind of behavior with athletes who are not only in need of basketball coaching, but also on life skills.