Lessons From The Don Lemon Saga Part 3: If A Toxic Employee Shows No Sign Of Changing, Terminate Them Immediately No Matter Who They Are

Former CNN Anchor Don Lemon


I (sort of) hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.

As I wrote two full months ago when it first happened, Don Lemon should have been fired immediately after making extremely sexist, misogynistic comments on air for all the world—including his younger, female co-anchors—to witness with their own eyes and hear with their own ears. Making a definitive statement that former South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, 51 is “past her prime” and going on to say that all women over 50 are past their prime—“just Google it”, he had finally gone too far after a string of other nasty behind-the-scenes episodes, all involving female colleagues, had already come to light.

I debated Dan Abrams on this topic shortly after Lemon’s on-air idiocy. Abrams took the view that it was a form of “cancel culture” to insist that Lemon be fired for his admittedly dumb, cringeworthy, “absurd” tangent. He was wrong then, and he’s still wrong now. I am no fan of cancel culture, virtue signaling or any of the other extreme measures advocated on both sides of the political debate when someone says something vaguely, or sometimes even overtly offensive. I think we need to show each other a lot more grace and forgiveness and give each other the benefit of the doubt far more often than is fashionable these day.

But Lemon had to go. CNN took the right action, two months too late, and in their slow walk to do the right thing, they did everyone—his co-anchors and other colleagues at the network, the viewing audience, and Lemon himself—a disservice.

Why did I take the view that he had to be fired immediately after the “past their prime” misstep? Well, it was surely a tough call for CNN management to can a well-known anchor who has been associated with the network for so many years. However, Lemon had a pretty well-known history of “outbursts” and “bad behavior” usually of the misogynistic variety. He even ripped up photos and personal papers and sent threatening texts to his former colleague Kyra Phillips. He was an infamous prima donna, and things weren’t getting better, according to a number of sources inside the network, sources who also proclaimed that his co-workers are now “ecstatic” to see him gone.

I advocated for Lemon’s immediate firing on the “greater good” principle of Utilitarian ethics. First devised by the 18th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism states that a moral action should be measured on whether it will produce the “greatest happiness” for the greatest number of people. In other words, utilitarianism states that our actions should “promote maximal well-being, welfare or utility”. The theory evaluates the “moral rightness of actions, rules, policies, motives, virtues, social institutions, etc. in terms of what delivers the most good” to the greatest number of people involved. A classic example of utilitarian ethics would be to allow one badly-injured accident victim to die in order to save the largest number of fellow victims.

As famous and powerful as Don Lemon is, no one is indispensable—no one—and by allowing him to linger on for two months after that “straw that broke the camel’s back” episode, the network was in effect signaling that one of its employees is more important than others. By allowing such a toxic presence to continue, CNN was alienating its entire workforce and especially the women in its ranks. It was promoting what was best for Lemon at the expense of his fellow employees and his viewers.

Who knows why CNN chose today to take this action now, but it had clearly been brewing—festering— for a while. Maybe it was the fact that the booking staff couldn’t persuade certain guests (including White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre) to appear with him on-air and he was rapidly losing viewers as well. So, as with everything, it probably makes sense to follow the money in this case as in so many others like it (coincidentally, and to that point, Tucker Carlson’s departure from Fox News, which as in the case of Don Lemon, supposedly had him “blindsided” was announced just days after a $787 million settlement in a defamation lawsuit that involved Carlson and other Fox anchors’ peddling of election lies and conspiracy theories).

But if money was behind Lemon’s ouster, ethics and inclusive leadership should have been the real reason. You can’t have a toxic bully hanging around the workplace for too long, period. Just ask the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). First, they advocate knowing the 6 red flags of a toxic team member:

  • Crushing other team members’ self-esteem and confidence.
  • Sabotaging a team’s success.
  • Making others question their every move and decision.
  • Interfering with teamwork and collaboration.
  • Demoralizing staff so they decide they cannot stay.
  • Corrupting the work culture so that it’s not a psychologically safe environment, which in turn stifles innovation, creativity, productivity and collaboration.

If you believe what you read (and what he has said and done), Lemon’s behavior ticked pretty much all of these boxes. SHRM also advocates listening to the offending employee’s colleagues and recognizing that when a number of them are complaining about bad behavior, you need to take them seriously. Once you have documented a series of violations and have been transparent with the employee about their behavior, you need to take quick action if they refuse to change. SHRM advises that that “if an employee is irredeemable, quick termination is the best path.”

The great American poet Maya Angelou once said, “when people who you who they are, believe them the first time.” Don Lemon has been showing the world—and more importantly, his colleagues at CNN—who he is for a very long time. His employer should have taken decisive action a long time ago, but better late than never.

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