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Jeremy Clarkson: Fireable jerk or loveable (and valuable) curmudgeon?

BBC management faces conundrum after suspending star of Top Gear

By Todd Humber

The BBC is struggling with a very basic HR issue: What do you do with a top performer, who’s bringing in piles of cash, but is a bit of a jerk?

We’ve spilled a lot of ink in the pages of Canadian HR Reporter on toxic workplaces and the high toll bullies can take on things like engagement, morale and productivity. Yet we continue to hear countless stories of management turning a blind eye to misbehaviour precisely because the individual in question is a key contributor to the bottom line.

Now, we have an extremely high profile case study we can watch unfold. Jeremy Clarkson, the 54-year-old host of the popular Top Gear television series, has been suspended by the BBC after he allegedly punched a producer. It’s not the first time the star has landed in hot water — he’s offended pretty much every nation, plenty of individuals and more than a few special interest groups.

He’s kind of the Don Cherry of Great Britain in that way.

But full disclosure time: I like Jeremy Clarkson. A lot. Top Gear is one of my favourite television shows, and I’m not a petrol head. You don’t have to be a car lover to appreciate the slickly produced series, co-hosted by James May and Richard Hammond.

Clarkson is one of those beloved knuckleheads. I’m sure he’d be a complete pain to work with — but he’s clever, witty and entertaining. And the rapport he has with his co-hosts is legendary, almost “Rat Packish.” For years, his has been a classic tale of the ends justifying the means.

Last year, Clarkson was put on final warning by the BBC after he used racist language during the show’s filming — though the slur never made it on air. The broadcaster has already scrapped the remaining episodes from the current season, and the future of the show is up in the air.

The pressure on the BBC to reinstate Clarkson is enormous. The petition calling for him to be put back in the driver’s seat is the fastest growing petition the website has ever hosted. As of Thursday morning, it had more than 725,000 signatures — and it’s still gaining momentum. In the time it took me to write this column, 4,000 more people signed the petition. (A competing petition on the same website to sack Clarkson had barely 5,000 signatures at the time of writing.)

Top Gear is watched by an astounding 350 million people around the world. On the brand front, one analyst told Reuters that the loss of Clarkson could prove very costly to the BBC.

“For the Top Gear brand, specifically, it would almost certainly have a detrimental affect because he in effect is the show,” said Robert Haigh. “It’s hard to see that they would be able to replicate the show in its current form — they could maybe relaunch it, but it wouldn’t be quite the same show and it’s hard to imagine it having the same popularity.”

As for Clarkson, he hasn’t exactly been apologetic — though he did tell reporters he has regrets after getting into what has been widely called a “fracus” with a producer.

Top Gear earns the BBC more than 150 million pounds ($284 million Cdn) every year in foreign sales alone. But the BBC as a brand is worth far more — in excess of six billion pounds ($11.3 billion Cdn), according to Reuters. Does keeping Clarkson on staff damage the brand in excess of the revenue he brings in? That’s certainly part of the equation BBC management is weighing as they decide what to do with the erstwhile star.

It’s an interesting HR conundrum. There is no excuse for punching someone — it’s not only poor behaviour, it’s also a crime. Many jurisdictions across Canada have workplace violence laws and terminations have been upheld because of physical violence.

But when the accused is so pivotal to the business, it can muddy what would otherwise be a clear-cut decision. If the BBC reinstates him, other workers who were given “last chances” and were fired could decide to sue. It also sets a poor precedent for other workers and sends a message that some employees are above the rules.

On this side of the pond, the CBC didn’t hesitate to fire Jian Ghomeshi over allegations he was physically abusive to women — allegations that have yet to be proven in court — despite the fact he was one of their biggest stars.

One person pulling hard for Clarkson's reinstatement is his daughter Emily, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking.

“Oh god BBC, please take him back… he’s started cooking…” she tweeted. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree — that’s classic Clarkson humour.

We’ll wait and see what the BBC does. But in the interim, I’ll mourn the demise of one of my favourite TV shows. I’m torn on this — part of me wants him returned so I can continue to watch Top Gear in its current form. But the part of me who writes and advocates for solid HR practices thinks that perhaps this final crash should be his last.

Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson leaves an address in London on Wednesday, March 11. 
(Credit: Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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