Here's why Firing Jeremy Clarkson was the Perfect Response

Would you allow this man bully your staff

They’re in place in all organisations. The brilliantly talented Lawyer who needs to be right all the time and drives everyone nuts. An Actuary who had every ounce of personal warmth sucked out at birth (an extroverted actuary is someone who looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you). A Research Chemist with 3 normal brains who pays zero attention to personal hygiene.  You can use any label you wish. Oddballs. Weirdos. Misfits. They are everywhere. Now, if you’re lucky they combine ‘oddness’ & ‘greatness’. That Lawyer will win unwinnable cases. The Actuary will convert financial wizardry into an idea that saves a bank millions in recapitalization costs. And the Chemist will cure … whatever. Brilliance is traded off against oddness i.e. a certain amount of oddness is tolerable (most of us are a bit odd but often don’t recognise our own peccadilloes). While IBM formally recognize this (a dual career structure where the Techies march to the left and the Managers go right), most organizations just muddle through as best they can.

Crossing the Line: At some point oddness crosses an invisible line and becomes outrageous, intolerable behaviour that no organisation would or should accept. Here’s a couple of examples where I’ve been directly involved:

New Woman: Many years ago (the details are deliberately sketchy), a company I worked with hired a professional. I didn’t connect with her at the interview and didn’t want to hire her. But the line manager was under pressure and adamant that she needed this woman who had very particular skills that were not readily available in the marketplace. Being a good Boy Scout, I rolled over on the hiring decision. When the new hire arrived on Sunday afternoon (to a house we’d rented for all new starters), there was no-one else there and she didn’t have a key. So, she proceeded to unload her suitcase contents, putting all of her clothes (one-by-one) in through a tiny window that had been left open.  It was an early indication of oddness and she left the organization exactly one a month later. That case was sad. Some cases are bad.

Nero Fiddles: One senior Executive I worked with was guilty of fraud. It wasn’t a once-off temptation based on some personal tragedy which was explainable and perhaps even excusable e.g. a gambling addiction. This was deliberate theft over a period of time. There was no real decision here; he had to go. Those Black & White cases are relatively easy to deal with. When you find the person standing over the ‘dead body’ with the smoking gun, it’s simple to make the call.   However, more often, firing decisions are ’50 Shades of Grey’. When does firm management morph into bulling or ‘witty banter’ become sexual harassment? When does oddness become intolerable?

Dignity @ Work: Every employee is entitled to dignity at work. There are some lines in the sand that can’t be crossed. Now anyone can make a mistake, get drunk at the Christmas Party and make a tit of himself. Or they might ‘explode’ under pressure and do something that they later apologize for. You don’t pull out the rifle and drag someone around to the back of the factory to be shot when they make a one-off mistake. In a search for talent diversity, you don’t want to become too PC – there has to be a tolerance for weirdness, people who often bring creativity and innovation and can add real value (don’t forget that ‘normal’ people can add value too).

Unforgivable Sins: But there are some sins which can’t be forgiven. And I think that a physical assault on another staff member, particularly a more junior member of the team, is up close to the top of that list. Physical assault is never acceptable. The facts of this case, as they have been reported, are as follows:  It was late at night. There was no cooked meal available (we all get the munchies after several pints of ale or whatever else Jeremy Clarkson had consumed). In fact, the hotel manager (the chef had actually gone home by that stage) cooked a steak dinner for Mr. Clarkson. But the rant continued and this was followed by an assault on the Producer who was verbally abused over a 20 minute period (called a “Lazy Irish C***) and then physically assaulted. Jeremy Clarkson is 6’, 5” tall – that’s bigger than most of the players on the Irish Rugby team. I’m not suggesting assaults by small guys are welcomed, but he’s an intimidating presence. The Producer had to receive hospital treatment for a burst lip (i.e. it was not a case of handbags) and the episode was witnessed and confirmed by several others. In addition to suffering the assault, the Producer has been on the end of a torrent of social media abuse; he’s seen to be the ‘bad guy’ in the demise of Saint Jeremy (it’s an interesting aside that the victims of crime are often blamed). Finally, the standards of behaviour demanded of a public figure are higher than ‘you or I’ going to the pub on a Friday night and getting into some sort of kerfuffle. Like it or not, Jeremy Clarkson is a role model for others and has to accept that as part of the deal. You can’t take the 7-figure salary but dump the bits of responsibility that you don’t like.

Bottom Line: The BBC has a duty of care to all staff, not just to ‘high potentials’. They were 100% correct in firing Clarkson. His behaviour was outside the pale, completely unacceptable, even as a single event. But, in his case there was some ‘form’, evidence that he was becoming unmanageable with several previous sanctions about racial incidents. Even though the programme is sold in 100+ countries and brings in £250 million annual revenue, no-one is bigger than the organisation. In lots of organisations, managers simply won’t tackle bad behaviour because this is socially awkward or they fear litigation. Yes you need evidence to support your case. Yes, you need to follow due process e.g. the presumption of innocence and the person being given the right to defend himself (or herself). But, if all the indicators are pointing north, then the leaders of an organisation need the balls to pull the trigger.

For the Record: I think that Jeremy Clarkson is a brilliant writer and presenter. His ‘laddism’ was generally funny and made the programme watchable and enjoyable. It’s not easy to get an audience interested in the performance characteristics of a Fiat Punto. I will personally miss the show (or watch it on Netflix/some other network if the ‘Gang of 3’ are reinstated). But, my personal decision to watch a TV programme is very different to the choice faced by an employer.

Perhaps the BBC are still stinging from the criticism that they were not tough enough on Jimmy Saville and a number of paedophiles who had a virtual free run in the 1970’s and 1980’s. While there’s no way that Saville and Clarkson’s ‘crimes’ can be compared, in this case they made the right call. Following the decision, I read some of Clarkson’s tweets about being a ‘Former TV Presenter’. Not too much apology in that (to the Producer or to his 2 co-presenters). The Stig will now have to slide back into Formula 3 or stack shelves in Tesco.

Of course, the real worry in all of this, is that the next weirdo being discussed in the boardroom could be you. Or me! Until next week.



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