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February 11, 2015 / Molly Moseley

HR insight: Lessons learned from the Brian Williams scandal

Brian Williams

CC image courtesy of tomblanton1957, Flickr

Late last night NBC announced Brian Williams’ suspension without pay for 6 months from his job as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News. After he recanted a story from 2003, in which he claimed a helicopter he was riding in during the Iraq war was shot down, headlines about his journalistic and personal integrity have run rampant.

Did Williams intentionally lie to sensationalize the story? Did he simply make a mistake and misremember? Psychologists have even weighed in, stating that his false memory could be attributed to a traumatic event experienced while reporting the war. We may never know the truth, yet the damage is done; many people now question any reporting he has done and, of course, will do so in the future.

To err is to be human, and in reality, people lie all the time in their careers. Brian Williams is far from alone. Many top executives at leading companies have told lies to better themselves and their careers. Fortune recently listed some of the most notorious executives who have made intentional resume goofs, such as David Tovar, former VP of corporate communications at Walmart. He never graduated from the college he claimed, and Jeffrey Papows, former president of IBM’s Lotus, told tall tales of being a marine, earning a PhD and having a black belt in tae kwon do.

For HR professionals, the topic of employees lying is no laughing matter. When it is uncovered that an employee has been untruthful, what are the proper procedures to take? Much depends on the type of lie and severity of the situation, of course. Regardless, having an internal plan to reference ahead of time can be helpful in making the process is clear so any investigation can be handled in a quick, professional manner.

Step 1: Gather evidence
It’s best to remain impartial and gather evidence so you can separate facts from fictional claims, but these actions must be taken quickly and efficiently. Your gut reaction might be to immediately confront the employee, but a wrongful accusation can have devastating and costly consequences. Employee observations, witness accounts, emails, online records, and more are all things that can be analyzed.

Step 2: Talk face to face with the employee
After you have promptly gathered evidence, it’s time to speak to the employee directly. This person deserves to be made aware of the claim and have a chance to respond. Stay calm and be sure to convey the seriousness of the situation during the interview. A face-to-face conversation is more likely to yield an honest response than an email or phone call, plus it lets the employee give his side of the story and/or provide an apology.

Step 3: Assess the conversation
How did the employee respond to the accusation? Did he own up to the lie, make up excuses, seem jolted? What was the root cause for this person to lie? Analyze the employee’s responses and determine if it’s an isolated event or evidence of a pattern.

Step 4: Decide a course of action
Should an employee be terminated for lying? Whether he should be fired must be based on the specific circumstances. For example, there’s a big difference between an employee who lies about a lunch expense or being sick versus one accused of lying about sexual misconduct or professional credentials. Talk with your team, assess what has been done in the past (if applicable), make sure the business is covered from a legal standpoint, and go with your gut. Usually these situations are not black and white and it takes professionalism and understanding to make the appropriate decision.