The Brian Williams Story: Lessons for Employers

NBC’s six-month suspension of anchor Brian Williams stunned the news world.  But it may hold some lessons for employers beyond the immediate current situation, as our resident HR columnist Robin Paggi explains.

What Employers Can Learn From the Brian Williams Story

I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” said NBC news anchor Brian Williams. In a tribute to a retiring soldier that recently aired on NBC Nightly News, Williams said that he had been aboard a helicopter that was hit by grenades while reporting on the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Military personnel said that Williams was actually in a different helicopter, not the one fired upon. Is it possible to misremember something like that? Some researchers say it is. Why should employers care? Because misremembering, by themselves or their employees, can lead to problems in the workplace.

Misremembering happens like this: an employee calmly but firmly tells you that he disagrees with a new policy that you’ve implemented. When you talk about the incident to your spouse that evening, you say that the employee raised his voice and said that your policy was stupid. When you tell your business partner about it the next day, you say that the employee yelled at you and called you an idiot. Why would you stretch the truth like this?

In their book “Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me,” psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson say that, “Most of us, most of the time, are neither telling the whole truth nor intentionally deceiving…All of us, as we tell our stories, add details and omit inconvenient facts; we give the tale a small, self-enhancing spin; that spin goes over so well that the next time we add a slightly more dramatic embellishment – (until) what we remember may not have happened that way, or even may not have happened at all.”

In her article “Neuroscience Suggests that Brian Williams May In Fact Be ‘Misremembering’” on, Allison Eck said that, “The New York Times produced a video showing how Williams’ story changed over the years. It’s like witnessing a solo version of the classic game ‘telephone’: each time the story is told, it’s slightly different.”

So, it’s possible to misremember events from 12 years ago, but what about events from last week? Psychoanalyst Ken Eisold is quoted in the article “Brian Williams’ ‘misremembering’ is more complicated that you think” on as saying that, “Each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. As a result, memory is unreliable. We could also say it is adaptive, reshaping itself to accommodate the situations we find ourselves facing. Either way, we have to face the fact that it is ‘flexible.’”

So, what problems does misremembering present for employers?

Misremembering on your part could make you look like you’re lying. So, document important conversations and incidents immediately and accurately so you don’t have the opportunity to think or talk about them over and over and embellish the story in the process. As an ancient Chinese proverb taught, “The palest ink is better than the best memory.”

And, remember that when employees are telling their stories about conversations and incidents that they’ve had with co-workers and customers, they are probably misremembering too. So, do some investigating and be sure to get others’ side of the story before taking any action on what you’ve been told.

Williams could possibly lose his job because of his misremembering. Documentation and investigation can help you circumvent misremembering at work and prevent you from facing a similar fate.

Robin Paggi is the Training Coordinator at Worklogic HR.

Robin last wrote for us about giving employees a second chance. Before that she wrote about making sure the applicant is a good fit for the job and before that about  cure for inappropriate behavior at work. Before that she wrote about cyberloafing, on business lessons from a Christmas story and before that about cell phone policies at work. She has also written for us on rules for holiday parties at work and before that about preventing workplace bullying.


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