Transparency in Firing

Transparency in Firing

By Dick Martin

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As you may know, Jill Abramson has been relieved of her responsibilities as executive editor of The New York Times after less than three years on the job.

I don’t know Abramson. Still, I've been an admirer, and I thought many of the changes she brought to the Times were inspired.

If I were still working with Times’ journalists on a daily basis, I might have been aware of rumored newsroom tensions. But as it was, I was surprised as anyone. I was especially surprised by the relative transparency with which her departure was initially announced.

I say “relative transparency” because I'm comparing it to the usual practice in corporate America.

When I ran PR for AT&T, I handled the departures of a number of senior executives. In all but one case, they were removed for cause, either incompetence, insubordination, or the failure to produce the results they promised. There were also a couple of cases of misconduct.

But in every case, we said they left “to pursue other opportunities,” “to spend more time with their families,” or “because they accomplished what they set out to do.”

I couldn't understand why we weren’t more candid about the reasons behind the executive’s departure. The lawyers explained that they were afraid the company would be sued for disparagement. Other executives said it would embarrass the company to admit it had promoted someone so (pick one) incompetent, insubordinate, or venal. And, I suspect, the people who actually did the firing just wanted to turn the page.

But I always considered it a missed opportunity. If people draw lessons from the people you promote, won’t they draw even more powerful lessons from the people you fire? I saw it as a way to manifest the “Common Code” set of values that hung in every company conference room.

Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., seems to have come to the same conclusion. And since his family owns the company, he can actually act on it. Abramson is a great journalist, but removing her was necessary to “improve management of the newsroom,” he said. (Days later, he expanded on his reasoning.)

By the standards of corporate America, that's as transparent as it gets.

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.