What Went Wrong at Rutgers
University officials were so intent on adhering to disciplinary processes and contractual obligations that they failed to fully appreciate the broader reputational issues men's basketball coach Mike Rice's behavior presented for the university.
By Susan R. Meisinger
Years ago, I was a political appointee running a large agency in the U.S. Department of Labor, responsible for enforcement of more than 90 federal employment laws. Some of those laws may be familiar to you, as both the wage-and-hour division and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs reported to me.
Running a government agency of 4,000 employees was never boring. I learned early on that it was important to get to work early to read the morning newspaper and clips from papers around the country. I did this just in case I got a call from the Secretary's office because of a story that dealt with some aspect of my agency, from regulatory policy to budget requests or personnel issues. I learned that once one reporter had a story, every other reporter on the labor-and-employment beat would be calling, trying to cover the same story, but with new information or a different angle.
I had to be prepared because part of my job was not just to make sure the press had accurate information and got the story right; it was also to give the front office a "heads up" on those rare occasions that I thought something could gain traction in the media that could cause reputational damage to the department, and by inference, the president.
So today, when I see a news story begin to spin out of control in the media, I'm grateful that my DOL experience was before Twitter, Facebook and all of the other social-media vehicles. At least I had a little time to do my due diligence. Today, a story can go viral in minutes.
That gratitude was magnified as I watched the viral video of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice kicking and shoving players and making gay slurs. The video went viral in days, and, in less than a week, the coach was fired and resignations had been submitted by the athletics director, the university's general counsel and an assistant coach. Rutgers' reputation was tarnished.
News outlets in New Jersey report that, months ago, when the athletic director first saw the video of Rice abusing players, he "left the room and told another campus official he wanted to fire the basketball coach immediately." But instead, he shared the video with the university's legal and human resources departments, and a formal investigation was launched with an outside investigator.
In other words, the athletic director did exactly what most labor counsel and HR professionals might hope he would do: He initiated steps to double-check the facts via an independent investigator and consulted with the counsel before disciplining the coach. Instead of being terminated, the coach was fined and suspended.
So how could something that appears to have been handled professionally end up with what certainly seems to be the wrong decision?
I think it's a case of a management team focusing on the trees and missing the forest. The team was so intent on adhering to disciplinary processes and contractual obligations (the trees), that they failed to fully appreciate the broader reputational issues the behavior presented for the university (the forest).
Confronted with the coach's inappropriate behavior, the university chose to manage the risk by threading the needle: punishing the coach with a fine and suspension, but not terminating his contract. The coach feels lucky he still has a job, and the school can say the behavior didn't go unpunished.
The truth is that this sort of risk-management decision is made about employee-relations issues every day in organizations large and small. Executives, with the guidance of attorneys and HR pros, thread the needle through difficult employee-relations issues by trying to discern the facts, apply the law or policy, make a decision and lay the issue to rest, with minimum publicity and liability.
I think the Rutgers scandal is a reminder to us all that, despite our best efforts to manage the risks presented with employee-relations issues, sometimes just taking the first prescribed step isn't enough. We also need the good judgment to recognize when such an issue poses a much greater risk than an employee lawsuit. We have to recognize when it poses a costly reputational risk to our organization, were a wrong decision to be made.
Hindsight is always 20/20, so it's easy to criticize Rutgers after the fact on how it handled this employee-relations issue. But, as you work to resolve employee-relations issues in your organization – if you don't remember to keep both the forest and the trees in mind, you could someday face the same criticism.
Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.