A Troublesome Truth about Jill Abramson’s Extremely Public Firing from the New York Times

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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38 Responses

  1. Vikram Bath says:

    I am only noting the effect. The criticism of the Times might be deserved, but the effect is there regardless.Report

  2. Saul DeGraw says:

    You are sadly probably right.Report

  3. Will Truman says:

    This was a minor issue when it came to black college coaches. By making firing more difficult, I think they were making hiring black coaches more consternating. I know that when my alma mater hired a black coach, the only concern I had was along these lines (I wish I could say that there weren’t comments about him “bringing his homies down and getting us on probation”… but there were). Louisiana-Lafayette fired a coach who won something like six games in three season and lost a multi-million dollar verdict. And the “You better not fire him” followed Ty Willingham around to a couple of schools, despite being a mediocre (or worse) coach after Stanford.

    But it passed. The more black coaches there are, the less newsworthy it is when one was fired. The “problem” then became black coaches who were given perfunctory interviews for jobs that they were never serious candidates for but they needed to interview at least one non-white guy. Leaving people saying “Wait, this coach interviewed at like these six schools and none of them hired him?! There must be something wrong with him. We’re a better school than those are. Pass.”

    The latter being mostly message board talk, presumably. I don’t know if the former had any traction. But not much, apparently, because the hirings happened at such a rate to render the concern moot.

    Or put shorter, these are bumps on the road that will be gotten past, I think.Report

    • Damon in reply to Will Truman says:

      I have personal knowledge/experience in an average large multinational that tried to fire an incompetent minority woman. It took at least a year, probably 18 months, and she never was fired. She quit.

      How long is this “bumpy road” going to last?Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Damon says:

        I obviously don’t know anything about your example. But I have heard that in large organizations, it’s often hard to fire anybody who doesn’t do something egregiously wrong. HR and personnel policies often have in place intricate systems of verbal and written warnings, along with “plans” for improvement, that make it possible for the person to avoid being fired for a long time.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Damon says:

        This phrasing, which I’m sure was the way it was described to you, is someone misleading. A corporation — any corporation — doesn’t have to “try to fire” someone over a period of 18 months, or even 18 days. They can terminate them on the date of hire, if they like.

        Now, that doesn’t mean that this company took 18 months longer than they should have to terminate someone. They might have, and there are a myriad of possible reasons why they did: They might have been doing something illegal to begin with and wanted enough space on the calendar to shield them from liability. They might have had an overly cautious HR department. They might not have trusted the evaluations of her immediate supervisor. They may have already had so many EOCC judgements against them that were gun-shy, and put off the inevitable. They might have had an attorney write their employee handbook. (Fair or not, attorneys have a reputation for leaning far in the direction of “this will always prevail in court no matter what” and too far away from “does this make business sense” when setting up HR polices that deal with risk.)

        The answer to your question, really, is that there isn’t a need to have a bumpy road at all at this point. With the exception of certain kinds of new things like employee use of social media, which are still snaking its way though too many employee-employer lawsuits, any bumpy road a corporation takes is by its own choice.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Damon says:


        I’m not sure if you were answering my comment or Damon’s (or both). But my understanding is that while companies *can* fire at will employees for no reason or for any reason not prohibited by law, they often put in place procedures for disciplining employees and often observe those procedures. With such procedures in place, an employee who does a poor job can often stay on and do the bare minimum to comply with warnings and write-ups while the supervisors dot their i’s.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Damon says:


        Somewhat related, I know some independent (i.e., non-union) schools often have difficulty “firing” teachers. Only they aren’t really firing them. They simply opt not to offer them a contract. All of our contracts are finite. The contract typically lasts from September 1 to August 31. Yet I know some schools face lawsuits or other difficulties when they take this route. Which seems crazy to me. You had a contract. It had a finite term. The term ended. You have no right to another contract. Right?Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Damon says:

        I was replying to Damon.

        What you say is true, but the truth is that there is no high-risk-to-no-risk continuum in HR systems. Any path you choose has risks that trade off for other risks. And a lot of companies — most, in my experience — don’t let an employee whose trying to cheat the system hang on. They terminate that employee, and no that there is some risk that the employee might sue, and if so then there is some risk additional that they might not prevail. (And most of the companies we’re talking about here are fully insured for those kinds of lawsuits anyway.)

        There are, of course, companies or managers that don’t bring down the axe for fear of a lawsuit, but they aren’t eliminating risk — they’re just trading one risk in for another. In most (not all) cases I’ve seen, holding on to bad hires is far more costly to a company than the alternative.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Damon says:

        @kazzy I’m not going to go far out on this limb, because I never really dealt with employers who did everything on contract. But my best guess is that while you do have a legal right to not renew a contract, you can run afoul of employment law if it look like, say, you only renew contracts for caucasians, or you have a long pattern of renewing contracts until your teachers hit age 40, and then no one gets renewed.

        Past that, there might be other issues — for example, does a revolving contract essentially become regular employment in the eyes of the law after a period of time, in the same way that you can’t call those teachers “independent contractors” rather than employees? I don’t know about that stuff; Burt or Mark probably would.

        But as always, I’d caution against translating “some people sue other people for doing X” to mean that “you are not allowed to do X.” People sue people for all kind of dumb reasons when they’re feeling emotionally hostile, and aside from divorce I don’t know that there’s anything that engenders more emotional hostility than being terminated from an employer you weren’t overly thrilled with anyway. Throw in the fact that termination also can mean no mortgage payment…Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Damon says:

        Thanks, @tod-kelly . The cyclical nature of teaching probably makes it somewhat unique when it comes to contracts and the like. And you’re right, just because a lawsuit happened doesn’t mean someone did something wrong. Thanks.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Damon says:


        Thanks for clarifying. The example I had in mind–an in-law who is a middle manager for a large company who found it difficult to fire incompetent employees–had less to do with “cheating” the system. The employees in question weren’t dishonest. They just weren’t the right ones for the job or did it poorly. And even though (or perhaps because) my in-law is a straight-shooter and realizes it’s only fair to let people know where they stand and give them a chance to improve–and because her company had something like an “x number of warnings and you’re out” system–she’d find that it would take months, or almost a year, to fire someone.

        I agree, from a risk perspective, there is no risk-free option.Report

      • zic in reply to Damon says:

        I do think it’s important to clarify something here:

        We’re not talking about middle managers or the labor force of any given company; we’re talking about the jobs above the glass ceiling. Often, employment at this level is at the wishes of the corporate owner or board, and has absolutely no connection with the company’s HR policies on hiring and firing, no matter what they may be.Report

      • Damon in reply to Damon says:

        So let me clarify “tried”. Several things will get you fired ASAP from the companies I’ve worked for. Time card fraud and posting porno on company bulletin boards will do it. But most employees are fired for “performance”.
        The company I spoke about has a “process” to remove employees for “performance related issues”. All large companies I’ve worked in do, and I expect all large companies are similar in that regard. Yes, an employer can fire any work anytime, but as you say down below, there’s risk, and the risk was definitely higher than just flat out firing this woman vs the slower performance improvement plan method. What do I base that statement on? I knew the woman, worked with her, and she was very good and deflecting responsibility and “working the system”. I saw it firsthand.
        I also have firsthand experience being on a “performance improvement plan”. In another company, I was in the on one, only in my case, that process was being used to fire me for “making waves” verses actual performance related problems. Management didn’t like the fact that I was asking uncomfortable questions to the President of the company about compensation, performance, and career paths. The difference between the length of term it took my ex employer to get me to the point of imminent termination vs hers, was about a year. I surmise that the differences were racial and gender related, which is my point about the “bumps in the road”, RE Will’s comments.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Damon says:

        For what it’s worth, I can only think of one person I know of in real life who have successfully sued for wrongful termination. And he’s just someone I heard about, not someone I met.

        Additionally, I can think of at least one good friend who probably was unfairly discriminated against at her job and left. She did not sue because she assumed (correctly, I think) that it would brand her as a troublemaker and make her unemployable elsewhere.

        Zic is correct. In the OP, I was referring only to really high-visibility posts. This subthread seems to be about employment in general, which is OK, but it is worth noting that there is a difference.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Damon says:

        @damon I agree that those things exist, obviously, but they’re still choices a company makes — they don’t have to do so. (And in most cases, I would actually recommend they not do so.)

        @vikram-bath That’s a statistic you need to be a little wary of. Most employment related lawsuits that have some standing never reach the point where they can be successful or unsuccessful; they’re settled out of court with the liability insurer without any judgement (legal or otherwise) of either party.

        The percentage of people who threaten suit after they’re fired is tiny; those that actually do file are a smaller percentage of that percentage; the ones that actually have an attorney do more than sending three “fishing” letters hoping to get $ with no real work smaller still; and even then only a fraction of that fraction are in a position to get any $ past possible legal fee reimbursement. Still, collectively it’s still estimated to be in the hundreds of millions paid out each year.Report

  4. zic says:


    So should we also start digging into every firing of a CEO/Exec. Editor who’s a white male. Maybe that would fix the problem?Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to zic says:

      Iterate until it’s only safe to hire Indian males!

      I’m not sure there is a solution. I think Will’s take is on the optimistic side, but plausible.

      I do have to admit that your solution is ingenious. But would everyone really be able to keep their hearts into such an effort?Report

      • zic in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Iterate until it’s only safe to hire Indian males!

        I suspect that, given time, Indian males will be checking the “white” box on the US Census Form.Report

      • If we really were to follow the suggested strategy though, we might have whites checking “Indian”.Report

      • zic in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @vikram-bath , I will welcome our Indian overlords so long as they spread the value of freshly mixed curry and tandoori to every neighborhood marketplace and make naan and (paranthe?) the lentil wafers a household habit to replace the cardboard sweetened with corn syrup that is so often sold as bread. Not to mention actual real, fresh juice. Plus mint/yogurt sauces for cooling spice down.Report

      • wardsmith in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Seconded, but include the Chicken Kolhapuri and Vindaloo and I’m your new white slaveReport

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I suspect that, given time, Indian males will be checking the “white” box on the US Census Form.

        The Census situation with respect to Indians is very different from the Census situation with respect to Hispanics. The Census form has a check box specifically for Indians. It does not have one for Hispanics. Not in the race section, anyway—race and Hispanic status are two independent questions.

        Technically, most Hispanics are white, American Indian, or some combination of the two. However, very few self-identify as American Indian, and instead check either the White or Some Other Race box. Apparently the numbers are shifting towards White.

        But this is happening because Hispanics face a real ambiguity in filling out the census form that Indians do not.Report

  5. Kolohe says:

    I don’t think people are going to read too much into the extra scrutiny – if there’s one thing the media loves to cover, it’s the media. (e.g. if Mary Barro were to get fired, it wouldn’t receive as much coverage*)

    Plus, everyone knows that Pinch (and all his co-emperors) are presiding over empires in rapid and permanent decline, so the court intrigues are all magnified to the nth degree and is all anyone will want to talk about.

    *except it would now, because such an action would explicitly be framed in the Jill Abramson contextReport

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Kolohe says:

      I don’t think there was much criticism when Carly Fiorina left HP. Then again, by that point the decision was obvious.

      I could be wrong, but I think it would be considered a huge deal if Barro were fired even independent of Abramson.Report

  6. Tod Kelly says:

    I think I’m going to disagree with you here, Vikram.

    I suspect that what will happen instead is this: Those companies/executives that weren’t particularly inclined to elevate women to leadership positions will use this as a back-room excuse to make the same decisions they were going to anyway; those that are inclined are going to tell themselves (sometimes foolishly) that their organizations would never do/get caught doing what the Time did and they’ll keep promoting women.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a highly public case like this one do anything other than reinforce a leadership team’s perception that they’re instincts were correct all along, at least not with the people I’ve worked with over the years.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I hear you, but I still see that as still serving as a mechanism by which fewer women might be hired for such positions. If there is a hire that is determined by coalition politics, then this incident puts one more arrow in the quiver of those who were were going to oppose hiring the woman candidate anyway. And that might be enough to help them to argue successfully for their own candidate than they might have otherwise.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I defer to @tod on the proclivities of corporate hiring poobahs, and I think he’s definitely right about those not inclined to seek out women and minority leaders. I suspect (based on zero experienece), though, that there would be a relatively small but real diminishment in the zeal of those looking affirmatively to promote/hire women and minorities into top positions (like Pinch Sulzberger was/is!) if it started to look like troubles on the level of this episode were going to attend the decision to bring their leadership service to a close on a relatively frequent basis. However, I don’t think just one situation is likely to precipitate that effect to much extent at all, even one with this degree of visibility. I think people in the position of making those decisions will largely see this as a case of media reporting on itself resulting in the most hypervisible of possible p.r. scenarios. So I think the significance of this one event will be discounted somewhat, and that a trend would have to become recognizable to really have the effect Vikram is talking about to much extent.

      One very good lesson I hope and suspect firms will take from the Abramason affair – something they should and I assume do know already – is that *underpaying* women and minorities (and anyone) compared to comparable workers will reliably complicate the decision to terminate someone’s service.Report

  7. Mike Schilling says:

    We heard the same concern when Frank Robinson was hired: if he doesn’t work out, will the Indians be able to fire him?

    They had no problem, nor did the Giants or the Orioles. (Damned shame he never got a chance to manage a good team.)Report

  8. NoPublic says:

    Don’t elect Obama. He’ll just get assassinated.
    Lather, rinse, repeat.

    “Don’t make noise, it just makes it harder for the rest of us.” isn’t helpful, it’s manipulative and disingenuous and misogynistic. Of course so is the toxic “Lean In” crap.Report

    • Patrick in reply to NoPublic says:

      I missed the part where he said the “don’t” bit.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to Patrick says:

        Perhaps, but then what was the point?

        If this firing in fact reveals a pattern of misogyny in society, should we be quiet about it?

        Yes or no? Take a stand.

        You do realize that the notion that you can stand above and just report truth is a pose.

        We see through you.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Patrick says:

        If this firing in fact reveals a pattern of misogyny in society, should we be quiet about it?

        If it is, then probably not. At least not in the long term. If it’s true, it should be said.

        But I think it can also be said that saying it can incur unintended consequences.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to Patrick says:

        But can you understand why we are suspicious of any suggestion that speaking up is bad?

        Every comment has a subtext.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Patrick says:

        Yes, I understand the suspicion.

        But I don’t think it follows that we should never say suspicious things. In this particular case, I think it’s unlikely that my pointing this out will have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to talk about the Abramson case or similar cases in the future.Report