Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The problem with the Joe Paterno firing

I don't generally comment much on national news stories.  Mostly because I find myself a whole lot more interesting. (That's a joke... I hope you're laughing).

I am bothered a bit by the firing of Penn State coach Joe Paterno.

I'd like to state that I don't think its right that children were allegedly molested, the assistant coach was employed for years after the alleged incident took place, and I don't give a crap about Penn State.  I have an issue with it for a different reason.

If you've ever been employed in management at most any organization there is a protocol for dealing with matters such as this.  That is certainly the case at most every media organization I've ever worked for.  While the order and method in which an issue such as a sexual assault or harrassment is handled varies a little from company to company, its essentially the same in most organizations.

To sum it up in once sentence:  "The shit flows upstream."

I have seen many people suggest on the internet that Coach Paterno should have immediately called the police once the incident was brought to his attention.  That is not how things such as this are handled in most organizations.  There are a variety of reasons why.

From what I've read, and this is all I can base my opinion on, he brought the incident to the attention of his boss(es).  That is what you do when you when you're a manager.  While you may be responsible for the people under you, you are not responsible for how an organization handles a situation like this.

If Paterno had immediately called the police, as it has been suggested by many, he himself would have been in big trouble at the university.  Its usually up to someone in a high ranking position, or in human resources, to make that decision.  The failure in this situation isn't the coach not dialing 911.  It was the people he reported it to for not taking the appropriate action.

The university's reputation has been bloodied at the moment for sure.  A list of people will be standing in the unemployment line as a result of someone in a high ranking position at the university not properly handling the situation.  But, a head football coach may be the face of a football team or at many schools the face of the school itself (at Penn State that's most certainly the case for Coach Paterno), a coach is not in the end responsible for making that decision.

I've had a couple of incidents in my career where a sexual harrassment or similar sort of incident has been alleged.  If I had picked up the phone and called the police immediately I would have been fired long before the employee in question had lost his or her job.  That was not my call.  It was my responsibility to report it to my boss, provide any information I had, and if I was directed to release that employee from his or her duties as a result I had the unenviable task of doing so.  But that decision was not mine.

The reason so many people were fired at Penn State as a result of this incident was due to the fear that if anyone who could have been potentially involved in any kind of cover up was allowed to stay it would be viewed by the public as inexcusable.  They had to do it.

The lesson learned is an ugly one.  If you or I as an employee report a crime as awful as this one was to your boss and they choose to do nothing about it, you can still be fired anyway.  Not very fair but sometimes that's how it works.