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A day after shining at Supreme Court, Reuters reporter departs

06/29/2012

Jim Vicini, our Guild colleague at Thomson Reuters, is known around Washington for his meticulous preparation, expertise and speed in parsing complicated Supreme Court rulings before the competition. And that’s just what he did Thursday, when the High Court handed down its much anticipated health care decision.

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Jim Vicini

As usual, he got it right. As usual, he built an elegant foundation for the story that carried through the rest of our coverage. As usual, he made Reuters look great (see this shout-out in The New York Times). He won plaudits from Americas Editor Jim Gaines and Deputy Editor-in-Chief Paul Ingrassia.

On Friday, after more than 35 years, Jim announced he was leaving Reuters for good.

“Jim’s career at Reuters was very much like baseball legend Ted Williams’ career with the Boston Red Sox,” said Guild Secretary-Treasurer Peter Szekely, a former Reuters correspondent. “He was great at what he did, he was unassuming, he made it look easy and he knocked one out of the park in his last at bat.”

It didn’t have to be this way. Jim was among 29 Guild members put on bogus Performance Improvement Plans, where the point wasn’t improvement but rather getting veteran Reuters staff out the door. Despite his stellar performance over the years, capped by the health care ruling, he was made to feel unwelcome. He was harassed by those with less knowledge about what it takes to do this difficult job. In the end, the Guild negotiated an orderly exit for him. Reuters is sadly diminished by his departure.

Jim is the fourth Guild member to decide to leave rather than continue to work in a hostile environment after being targeted by management’s PIP process.

These departures got us wondering: where is the PIP treatment for underperforming managers? The PIP scheme is meant to “manage weak performers either upward or outward,” as upper management put it in a directive to middle managers.

We’ve seen Editors-in-Charge routinely make errors in their own reporting and then try to hide them; insert mistakes in the copy of Guild-represented reporters during the editing process; and pigeon-hole reporters’ copy in their own baskets for so long that the stories become outdated, often resulting in a “matching news” instead of a “breaking news” piece. Where are their PIPs?

THE PIP COMMITTEE
The PIP offensive against Guild-represented employees, so far limited to Editorial staff, is apparently not being led by front-line supervisors with the most direct knowledge of their work. Instead, a “committee” that doesn’t even include the individual employee’s direct boss decides whether targeted employees’ work is up to snuff, needs more improvement or is grounds for forcing them out. At least that’s what several EICs have told the Guild in meetings with employees at what should have been the conclusion of their PIPs: “Sorry, but I don’t know yet if the PIP is over, will be extended or escalated. I have to get a decision from the committee.”

While EICs and other front-line supervisors are the ones who actually conduct each inquisition, they are not empowered to end or escalate the PIP without approval from the “PIP committee.” Who is on the committee? We know of Top News Editor Martin Howell and General Manager Rob Doherty in Washington or Managing Editor Richard Baum in New York. Glen Russo, vice president for employee and labor relations, and Karen Hamilton of Human Resources “advise” the committee and the front-line supervisors about what is or is not permitted under management’s view of the contract. In short, decisions about journalists’ work and careers are not being made by their journalist supervisors.

Asked to comment on the PIP committee, its function and whether EICs have been issued PIPs, Stuart Karle, chief operating officer, Reuters News, replied with the following email:

“Reuters this year set performance objectives for every member of the Editorial staff, from news assistants to Steve (Adler)’s leadership team. The objectives were intended to be, and we believe are, clear and directed to achieving Steve’s goals for Editorial and Jim Smith’s goals for Thomson Reuters. The success of this process is illustrated by the results, as the vast majority of our staff has met or achieved their objectives and that success is clearly visible in the File.

“It is our goal that all of our colleagues meet or exceed their objectives – and of course most of your colleagues in the Guild have done so, as was clear from the merit salary increases awarded earlier this year and the small percentage of members who are on performance improvement plans.  But, as is not surprising in an organization this large, there are some who don’t. We treat everyone who is not meeting his or her objectives as an individual and develop a clear plan to help each perform. In every case it is our hope that this plan succeeds. We do this globally with all of our staff at all levels.”

We hope the departure of Jim Vicini and other talented journalists, including Washington economics correspondent Glenn Somerville a few weeks ago, makes management realize how counterproductive and damaging this process is. All the same, we’ll keep defending Guild members through grievances and arbitrations.

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