Lessons from the MSNBC Olbermann Debacle: Policies Can Help Or Hurt Your Business

For some reason, the words “suspended indefinitely” sound like a long time to me. But that’s not the reality according to the recent debacle of Keith Olbermann, liberal anchor of the show Countdown on MSNBC. Olbermann was suspended without pay on November 5th for making political contributions, which is against MSNBC policy for journalists, and reinstated on November 10th — he missed a full two days of work.

According to Olbermann, he was not aware of the policy he violated and he found out about his suspension by listening to the news. Here’s a portion of his statement.

You should know that I mistakenly violated an inconsistently applied rule — which I previously knew nothing about — that pertains to the process by which such political contributions are approved by NBC. Certainly this mistake merited a form of public acknowledgment and/or internal warning, and an on-air discussion about the merits of limitations on such campaign contributions by all employees of news organizations. Instead, after my representative was assured that no suspension was contemplated, I was suspended without a hearing, and learned of that suspension through the media. The entire statement is here – A Statement to the Viewers of Countdown”

Wow. What a mess. And because of Olbermann’s high profile, within hours varying opinions about the story were blaring across TV and the interwebs.

Incidents in your organization most likely won’t make the daily news, but there are lessons you can take away from this as a leader.

  • Policies are a good thing to govern behaviors that are appropriate in an organization. But they need to be reviewed regularly to ensure they are in step with the current environment.
  • You need to ensure that your team members know what policies apply to them. Use current events (like the recent election) to help refresh your team’s awareness of policies that exist in your company.
  • Apply policies consistently. This is a bit of an oxymoron. The reason for policies is to have consistent application across the entire organization. If the leaders of the organization are not taking a consistent approach, you might as well throw the policy in the trash.

And last, but not least. It is never okay for one of your team members to hear about a behavioral issue from someone else. When behavior happens that does not meet the expected norm in your organization, it is your responsibility as a leader to deal with it. Face to face and in person. This is not optional.

What do you think? Have you been in a situation where you were unaware of a policy that existed or was applied inconsistently? Please leave a comment and we’ll talk about it.

Denise O'Berry

Denise O’Berry — aka the Team Doc — has been working with teams and team leadership in the public, non profit and private sectors for over twenty years. Follow her @askteamdoc.

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