In honor of Brian Williams: Returning to work after an embarrassment

What does the case of former NBC News anchor Brian Williams teach the rest of us about returning to work after an embarrassing error?
What does the case of former NBC News anchor Brian Williams teach the rest of us about returning to work after an embarrassing error? –Alex Wong / Getty Images

On September 22, former NBC News anchor Brian Williams will return to the air after a lengthy suspension.

But Williams will not head back to his old desk when his suspension is up. Instead, he will head to NBC’s cable channel MSNBC, where he will assume the role of breaking news anchor.

In February, Williams was suspended by NBC for six months without pay after he acknowledged he had exaggerated a story about coming under fire in a helicopter during the Iraq War in 2003.

But now the hard work of salvaging a damaged career begins for Williams – which raises the question, how does anyone bounce back from a professional blunder?

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The right attitude

Salvaging a career damaged by a gaffe can sometimes depend on whether it was a mistake or a lie, says Tracy Cashman, senior vice president and partner at WinterWyman. The difference is essential.

“An accountant who fabricated numbers to balance a budget is a little different than an accountant who misses a deadline,’’ said Cashman. “For both, the impact may be negative. But it’s different if they willfully overlooked or misrepresented facts and figures.’’

Whatever the reason for the trouble, Cashman says, the key to recovery is to take ownership of the mistake.

“I think the apology is important,’’ said Cashman. “How sincere it is, how timely it is – do you fess up right away or when you get caught? – can impact your overall reputation.’’

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How to be a better employer:

How do you convince an employer to take a chance on an employee who has demonstrated a problem with trustworthiness? Elaine Varelas, a managing partner of career management service company Keystone Partners, says there are two key arguments.

“It’s all about the potential value to an organization,’’ said Varelas. While the example of Brian Williams is “a little extreme,’’ the fact that NBC is still keeping him on the payroll means the company still views him as an asset.

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“They’re going to assume a person with their flaws is more valuable than anyone else that may fill the role,’’ said Varelas.

The years devoted to a company can also go a long way in getting a second chance, she said.

“If they brought value to the organization and were a team player, there’s a loyalty sense,’’ said Varelas.

She agrees with Cashman that taking responsibility can go a long way in clearing the air and moving forward.

“Learning to apologize is a huge business lesson that many people don’t learn at all,’’ she said. “If you don’t apologize, you can’t acknowledge [the mistake] and can’t change it.’’

Without a sense of humility, the second chance won’t mean much, she added. Companies who take a chance on an employee that screwed up need assurances that they have learned from their mistake.

“They need to…be appreciative of the opportunity,’’ said Varelas. “If they act like they are owed that, they won’t be successful.’’

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