Where We Work

Go back

Guild, Reuters settle remaining PIP disputes; warnings to expire

02/19/2013

The Guild and Thomson Reuters management last week settled all of their remaining PIP-related disciplinary disputes, bringing to a close, at least for now, a tragic year-long saga that touched the lives and careers of 33 journalists, and unsettled hundreds more.

Under the agreement, verbal warnings that were given in 2012 to 15 journalists immediately before they received PIPs (performance improvement plans), will expire on their anniversaries this year if no further discipline is issued to them during the one-year period. Once expired, a verbal warning cannot be used as basis for a more severe reprimand, like a written warning, in the step-by-step path to termination known as progressive discipline.

Stripped of their disciplinary taint, PIPs are once again 'a positive tool'

The agreement, reached on Valentine’s Day as an arbitrator was about to hear the first of the 15 cases, says that an employee whose verbal warning expires may “without consequence, state that he or she has not received a verbal warning.” Normally, verbal warnings never expire under company policy, although their usefulness as a management stepping stone to more severe discipline diminishes greatly after a year. Under company policy, no records of verbal warnings are kept in personnel files, although employees’ supervisors normally keep their own records.

If any of the 15 journalists receive additional discipline (which would have to be based on something other than failing to meet PIP or appraisal goals) within the one-year period, the original verbal warning would remain in place, but the Guild would be free to challenge it along with the additional discipline.

“We think this settlement will help employees and their supervisors put this episode behind them without in any way impeding the Guild’s ability to defend its members in case things don’t turn out the way we hope,” said New York Guild Secretary-Treasurer Peter Szekely.

Management also agreed to delete references to further discipline, including the prospect of termination, that began appearing in PIPs issued in 2012. Stripped of their disciplinary taint, PIPs have returned to what Arbitrator Carol Wittenberg's trendsetting November decision said they should be: “A positive tool to help employees achieve performance levels expected by the company by providing the employee with feedback, guidance and coaching – a positive performance tool.”

The Guild withdrew its arbitration demands on behalf of all 15 journalists. Also withdrawn was a case that generically challenged management's use of PIPs as a disciplinary tool. Wittenberg's decisive ruling effectively rendered that case redundant.

IT BEGAN WITH GET-TOUGH RUMORS

The story of PIPs, a disciplinary sweep of unprecedented proportions during which the very sound of the acronym went from cute to terrifying, even for the hundreds who were not targeted, began early in 2012.

As former BusinessWeek Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler and his handpicked U.S.-based team began their first full year at the venerable global news agency they now ran, rumors circulated about a new get-tough approach. At the same time, The Baron website reported last February that a London meeting of European chief correspondents was told about the “need to be much more strict on performance,” along with a new goal of winning Pulitzer Prizes. Adler's top editors vigorously denied the part about Pulitzers, but not the part about getting strict on performance.

Before the year-long ordeal was over, more than half of those targeted had left the company

Shortly thereafter, the first of 33 journalists, including well established veterans who had gotten low appraisal scores for the first time in their careers, were summoned to meetings with their supervisors. In some cases, correspondents and their editors who had worked harmoniously for years were suddenly looking at one another from across a new divide. The scenarios were nearly identical: a verbal warning for “under performance” followed by a PIP with stated remedial goals that if not achieved would lead to more severe discipline. Guild stewards were present for most of the meetings and some were recorded.

At the meetings, the Guild learned that the offensive was being directed not by the front-line supervisors whose names went on the PIPs, but by a small central committee of middle management holdovers from pre-merger Reuters, who mostly reported to Adler's top aides.

For about one-third of the journalists, the ordeal ended after their first PIP and verbal warning. But for many more there were additional PIPs and an escalation of discipline. Before it was over, more than half of the targeted journalists had left the company, including eight who were dismissed. Another 10 left voluntarily under separation agreements, one of them as recently as January. The exodus included longtime Supreme Court reporter Jim Vicini and Washington Senior Economics Correspondent Glenn Somerville.

CONTRASTING JOURNALISTIC STYLES

Behind the disciplinary explosion were the contrasting journalistic styles of the Adler team, which reveres the expansive prose of big-name writers that traditionally has been better suited to glossy pages than to flat screens, and wire service veterans who strive for an economy of words and are used to toiling in relative anonymity. There were also the undeniable characteristics of age and service time. As a group, the targeted U.S. journalists had twice the length of service with Reuters and were several years older than those not targeted. And while the PIP eruption reached across the world, the brunt of it seemed to be in the United States, where the Adler team members' careers, connections and many of their initiatives are rooted.

Last year's rash of PIP-based discipline began only nine months after a new Guild-Reuters contract for the first time put the entire performance appraisal process off limits to discipline, a Guild goal since appraisals were introduced at Reuters 25 years ago. Instead, the new contract for the first time allowed appraisal scores to be used as a factor for setting discretionary raises.

THE GUILD STEPS IN

PIP goals fall into the same discipline-free zone as appraisal goals

Relying largely on the new contract provision, the Guild last spring and summer grieved and began arbitrating each step of discipline – verbal, written and final written warnings, as well as terminations – issued to each of the 33 journalists who had not voluntarily left the company, a time-consuming and expensive process.

But by that time, the case that would eventually set the tone for the others was already underway, having been filed in the fall of 2011 on behalf of a journalist who had gotten a verbal warning because,management claimed, he failed to achieve goals set for him in two PIPs.

After two hearings in July and August, Arbitrator Wittenberg ruled in November that PIPs are part of the appraisal process. As such, failing to meet PIP goals falls in the same discipline-free zone as failing to meet appraisal goals. She ordered Reuters to expunge the journalist's PIP-based verbal warning.

A few weeks after Wittenberg's ruling, management contacted all eight of the fired journalists with offers of reinstatement. After settlement discussions with the Guild, the journalists were made whole for any loss of pay and benefits from the dates of their terminations to the end of 2012. All but one, Carole Vaporean, opted not to reclaim their old jobs in exchange for enhanced severance. Vaporean returned to work on Feb. 4 with a clean record.

At the time, management also withdrew all PIP-related discipline, except verbal warnings, it had issued to the still-employed journalists. With the Guild and management agreeing last week to allow those 15 verbal warnings to expire after a year, the number of PIP-related disputes, which at one time numbered several dozen, has been reduced to zero.

Newsroom colleagues at 3 Times Square celebrate the Feb. 4 return to work of PIP victim Carole Vaporean.
Colleagues celebrate the Feb. 4 return to work of PIP victim Carole Vaporean.

Go back