Hank Williams Jr., ESPN, And Responding When Employees Speak

Darrin Tonsfeldt
The Village Business Institute

It has been awhile since my last post. I took some time off to enjoy the end of summer and all those good outdoor things that go with it. Now, as my attention has turned towards fall and the inevitability of winter on the northern plains, watching a little NFL from the comfort of my family room has taken on an appealing quality. I still like to go on some outdoor adventures, but I really do not like getting bone-chilling cold.

Earlier this week I was checking the sports apps on my phone and read about a big fracas between ESPN and Hank Jr. Seems Hank said something slightly confrontational—well now that’s quite a surprise. I wondered, “Is this another Charlie Sheen kind of situation?” and started looking into what was said and who said it.

In Sheen’s situation, he made some fairly pointed derogatory comments about his employer and seemed bent on creating embarrassment for the company signing his checks. Not a smart move and not something an employer has to tolerate. Even if some of Charlie’s comments were justified, he does not have a constitutional right to be verbally abusive towards his employer or fellow employees—they also have rights. In private employment there is no constitutional right to free speech; however there are protections against harassment, discrimination, and abusive treatment.

My sense of what Hank said is that it is nothing like what Charlie did. Hank said, “President Barack Obama and House Speaker Rep. John Boehner golfing together was like Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu playing a round.” Anyone following the political landscape in this country and the divide that exists between Congress and the president gets this vivid, and purposefully outrageous analogy. Most people cringe at analogies that involve Hitler, but kept in context, how does this personal comment about our country’s political contrasts hurt ESPN? Especially knowing Hank is a paid entertainer who sings to introduce football, not a commentator speaking on behalf of the network. HE was not representing his employer, ESPN, or football, just his own thoughts.

As employers we deal with employees saying things they shouldn’t have said all the time; and yes, sometimes we fire them for it. When there is a complaint or concern about something an employee said, it is our responsibility as thoughtful employers, to weigh out those comments, investigate them, and make reasonable decisions regarding any necessary disciplinary action.

But, I believe this situation may be a good example of how employment actions can move too far too fast. It is a reminder that saying something that may be disagreeable to some does not alone make it a hanging offense if the harm to the organization is not there. As employers, we are capable of being more thoughtful in how we approach issues like this. The questions to ask are, “How does this situation hurt the company or its employees?” and “Does this constitute harassment, discrimination or abusive treatment?”

Granted…the answers to these questions aren’t always easy. If you are dealing with a difficult employee situation and need help talking through your options, call The Village Business Institute. Our professional consultants have the experience and training to assist you with all types of employee and human resource issues. For more information, contact The Village Business Institute at 1-800-627-8220 or www.theVBI.com.

About the blogger
Darrin Tonsfeldt has a background of program administration, employee supervision, and clinical experience, as well as 20 years of experience in organization consulting and planning. He provides oversight of The Village Business Institute, Regional Counseling Services, and Financial Resource Center programs. He also provides consulting services that include strategic planning; career, leadership, management, and executive coaching; corporate training and group facilitation; crisis response in the workplace; and organizational consulting.