Personal Finance: Firings gone bad

Michelle Singletary
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 9:26 AM

Sometimes you can be right but woefully wrong at the same time. Take the firing of Juan Williams, who used to be a news analyst for National Public Radio. It was the wrong way to fire someone.

While appearing on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor," Williams made some comments that his employer, NPR, said made it difficult for them to continue to honor his contract.

Williams told show host Bill O'Reilly: "I mean, look, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Can I just pause a bit before continuing with how this connects to personal finance and business?

What Williams said maligned a whole group of people based on the actions of horrible Muslim extremists. Let's replace a few words in Williams' statement and see if it would still fly and would not be seen as bigoted.

What if Williams or someone of another race working for NPR had said: "I mean, look, I'm not a bigot . . . But when I walk down the street, I got to tell you, if I see young black men wearing jeans below their butts, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as gangbangers, I get worried. I get nervous."

The latter modified statement would be bigoted as were Williams' comments about Muslims. Later in the same interview, Williams went on to say it was unfair to profile people on racial or religious grounds. Nonetheless, NPR said his remarks violated its news and ethics code. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am also a frequent contributor to NPR programs.)

NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller said Williams' comments were the latest is a series of troubling incidents over several years. Schiller explained her decision to fire Williams in an interview with the New York Times's Brian Stelter.

Williams was fired, he said, via a telephone call.

For this week's two-part Color of Money Question, I want to know: Did NPR have an obligation to sit down with Williams in person to discuss terminating his contract? What was the worst way you have ever been fired from a job?

Send your comments to and put "Firings Gone Bad" in the subject line. By the way, if your comments are not relevant and respectful, don't bother sending them. I strive for civil debates in this forum.

So what lesson can we learn from the way Williams was fired?

Let's go back to this past summer when Shirley Sherrod, who worked for the Department of Agriculture, made big news when she was let go from her position.

Sherrod was hastily fired after a conservative blogger posted a selectively excerpted video that unfairly portrayed her as a racist. Two days after her firing, Sherrod's boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and the White House apologized for the way she was fired and the unfair reason she was let go. If you don't remember the details, here's a Post article about the whole mess.

Hmm, here's a common thread: Sherrod was also fired over the telephone.

The Sherrod and Williams debacles should become a mandatory case study in every business school in America. It could be titled "How Not to Fire Someone." I've seen my share of firings gone bad. It can be painful and ugly for all involved -- the manager, the fired employee and co-workers remaining in the office.

As bad a job performance as someone might deliver, that person deserves to be let go respectfully, honestly and certainly not via a telephone conversation.

Here's the take-away for managers. You can be right on principle but still be wrong in how you boot people out of their jobs. In a television interview on Fox, Williams says he wanted to sit down "eyeball-to-eyeball" to talk about why he was being fired.

Alison Green, a chief of staff for a non-profit and contributor to U.S. News and World Report, gives great guidelines on the right way to fire someone.

"A firing should be the final installment of an ongoing conversation. The employee has been clearly told about the problems and what needs to change, warned that the progress isn't what it needs to be, and explicitly told that her job is in jeopardy if specific changes don't occur," Green writes.

Green is right when she says most managers get little training in how to fire someone. She writes: "When the termination conversation happens, it's more of a wrap-up than anything else, not a surprise. Of course, some offenses are so egregious that they warrant firing on the spot--like, say, punching someone. But that's not the case for the vast majority of terminations."

Mark Green, columnist for the New York Observer and contributor to the Huffington Post, writes, "it would have been preferable to give Williams notice and then give him a choice - NPR or Fox."

Furthermore, "Everyone has a right to free speech but everyone does not have a right to an on-air job at NPR," Mark Green writes.

Live Video And Online Chat Today!

Join me today at 11:45 ET for my live video chat.

I'll be giving another shout out to a debt defeater as well as answering your questions. If you would like me to answer your question on the live video chat, send it to Please put "Video Chat" in the subject line.

After my video chat, please join me at noon ET for my text chat. I have a great guest. Robert B. Reich, author of "Aftershock: The Next Economy and the America's Future," will join me to answer your questions about his book, the October Color of Money Book Club selection.

Here's my review of the book in case you missed it.

If you are unable to participate live in the text chat, send your question and comments before the chat or read the transcript later.

Responses to "Almighty Debt"

So did you watch?

I was interested in hearing your thoughts on "Almighty Debt," CNN's latest installment of its Black in America series. The program took a look at how the Rev. DeForest Soaries Jr., the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., is helping his flock become debt free.

Here are some comments.

"Loved it," Caroline Sharpe of Indian Wells, Calif. "The best thing about the show was the fact that other people in the church reached out to these people with help -- not giving them the money to get out of debt, but being beside them through it."

K.P. of Desoto, Tex. believes the story of a family facing foreclosure represents countless Americans that don't live within their means and carelessly spend their income.

"Why do they need a four-bedroom house and such a huge yard?" KP wrote. "That's insane! They would rather live like the Joneses and owe to banks rather than live comfortably and owe no one. Like Pastor Soaries said, how can we expect God to bless us with more when we can't manage what we have?"

Responses to Young Gifted, and Not in Debt

Last week I also asked you to comment on a young man, Ralph Jones Jr., who had turned down Ivy League schools that didn't offer him a full ride and instead accepted a full scholarship at Florida A& M University.

"I most certainly would encourage my son to do the same," said Somone Cherry of Virginia Beach, Va. "I was in a similar situation, and my parents convinced me to attend Hampton University instead of Princeton. I don't think neither parents nor children should incur what is the equivalent of a thirty-year mortgage for a child to attain a college degree."

Barb Kirchofer of Omaha, Neb. agrees.

"I definitely think Ralph Jones Jr. did the right thing," she wrote. "Kids nowadays end up with so much debt from college loans. Starting out with little or no college debt puts you way ahead. The freedom of the choices you have after graduation is well worth going to the Florida college as opposed to Harvard. It might not be as prestigious, but not having thousands of dollars in debt hanging around your neck is priceless."

Others thought Jones made the wrong decision.

"You need to weigh your career ladder, expected income differential, and cost of college in any consideration of this type," said Tom White of Albany, N.Y. "I agree that going to an expensive school when you are going to come out into a low paying field is inappropriate. However, in many fields where the pay is higher for those with a degree from one of the prestigious schools, the decision can more than offset the cost of the school. In many cases having the degree from the prestigious school gets you in the door for an interview that you might not otherwise receive."

Jeff Huang of Richardson, Tex. would have chosen the Ivy League school.

"There is no question. I would send my son to Harvard or Stanford for the extra cost. Harvard and Stanford are well known schools globally. In today's global business environment, their degrees are worth a lot more than one from FAMU. The other major difference is their alumni, friends and connections that are so much more valuable. The extra enrichment provided to a smart kid will yield a higher probability of him creating extra wealth for him and the society later."

Upcoming Events

--Thursday, November 4: I will be facilitating the Money Madness session at the Essence Women's Conference located in New York City at the Marriott Marquis. It's still not too late to register. And while I know times are tough, if you have the extra funds it would not be a waste to spend it on attending a conference that can help you financially. For registration and ticket information, go to

Tia Lewis contributed to this e-letter.

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