THE BLOG

When Is One "Fracas" Too Many?

15/03/2015 19:01 GMT | Updated 15/05/2015 10:59 BST

The recent revelation that Jeremy Clarkson has been suspended by the BBC for allegedly punching a producer has been met by huge media furore. For many it seems that the writing has been on the wall for Clarkson for some time, after repeated warnings from BBC bosses, whereas for others it's a 'leftie' conspiracy against someone who's just having a laugh...

When I look at Clarkson's recent career exploits, it's hard to understand how it's gone so far. In the last two years he has been reprimanded by the BBC twice for the use of racist language and one of these times led to a censure by Ofcom for breaking broadcasting rules. In addition he has also breached BBC Trust disability guidelines, and he was given a 'final warning' in May 2014.

The BBC finds themselves in a tricky situation here. Top Gear is the most widely viewed factual TV programme in the world, attracting 650million viewers each week, it is an Emmy Award winning show, and the brand is worth $1.5 billion globally.

The trouble is that in the case of Clarkson, his personality is built on his outspokenness; his 'tell it like it is' style ultimately seems to be what the audience want - already over half a million people have signed a petition to reinstate him. But what does an organisation do when a commercially successful team has a team member who is brilliant, but also continuously breaks the rules?

In almost any other industry or organisation, Clarkson's recent behaviour would have constituted as several incidents of gross misconduct. While there isn't a universal definition of this the government advises that the definition includes actions like theft, intoxication, fighting or physical abuse and offensive behaviour including discrimination.

As a line manager, I can't help but wonder where I would draw the line. My team are professional and hardworking, but we have a light-hearted office culture, colleagues chat and joke with each other during the day. But there is a point where the team must put their professionalism first, and there is potential that 'banter' can go too far - individuals are entitled to define their own idea of what is offensive...

If a complaint about discrimination was made about one of my team, it wouldn't really matter how well they were performing, it just wouldn't be acceptable, and I would want to make it clear that it wasn't something I wanted to see repeated. I know that behaviour like that would offend my team, it is potentially dangerous for the business if it were repeated in front of external clients and personally, I just don't find it an acceptable way to behave in work.

When it comes to leading a team the most important principle is fairness and consistency, otherwise your business, your leadership abilities and your core values are rightly up for question.

If the rules are broken by an employee who is meeting all of their targets, what about if a less successful employee does the same thing? They could almost certainly successfully dispute disciplinary action if they could demonstrate inconsistency within a business. Commercial success isn't a good enough reason to let flagrant rule breaking go, not when it impacts your team and your brand.

I empathise with the BBC, there is no good way out of this one. His previous behaviour clearly offended some audiences, and it was dealt with according to broadcasting guidelines, but in this case he has allegedly assaulted a colleague and there is no grey area for an employer on this point - it essentially demonstrates a lack of control which left unchecked would be viewed as a serious risk, leaving the BBC liable if another incident were to occur.

It's never a happy occasion to lose a talented employee, but for the sake of the team, sometimes it is better to cut your losses, even financial ones, and focus on the longer term impact to your business.