Anton Savage: RTÉ should relish legal action; not repeat their pay-off mistakes of the past

For RTÉ, when it came to exit packages, the standard approach was to minimise cost by paying people off to leave quickly.

24th Feb 2024
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Originally published in the Business Post.

Dynamite and oil fields don’t mix. Shell, BP, Exxon, all the large oil producers really prefer it if you don’t bring high explosives near their drilling rigs. Gelignite, C4, nitro-glycerine; all strictly verboten near the pumps.

Unless those pumps are on fire, in which case high explosives are just the thing.

If your oil well-head is ablaze, one of the best ways to put it out is to blow it up - the explosion sucks up all the surrounding oxygen while simultaneously interrupting the flow of oil. End result - the gusher is extinguished. It just shows, when things are going badly wrong sometimes the solution is the reverse of business as usual.

This is why it has been so annoying to be told that RTÉ’s massive exit packages are ‘standard custom and practice’. Yeah, on a normal Tuesday in an anonymous grommet manufacturer in Borrisokane, they are.

For a large state entity in the middle of an epic crisis there is no ‘normal custom and practice’. Normally, if a stranger stabs you in the trachea with a biro, you are likely to be somewhat irked. If you are choking to death with a foreign object buried in your oesophagus the person wielding the pen will become a lifelong friend. In a crisis, custom and practise goes out the window.

And let's be clear about what a ‘crisis’ is.

A crisis is not when your factory outflow poisons the local trout or when a senior figure at the company becomes embroiled in a personal controversy.

Those are problems. A ‘crisis’ is MUCH bigger and is defined by three things - 1) The issue is existential for your organisation 2) You are front page of the papers, a lot 3) The Cabinet are commenting and Dáil Committees are a regular event.

Now that is a crisis.

To butcher Tolstoy - problems are all alike, every crisis is a crisis in its own way. With the former you can deploy ‘custom and practice.’ With the latter you get creative.

For RTÉ, when it came to exit packages, the standard approach was to minimise cost by paying people off to leave quickly. That’s how it’s done of a Tuesday in the grommet manufacturer in Borrisokane; your lawyer talks to their lawyer, you agree that if the employee sues they’ll never get the maximum of two years pay, but the process will be costly and embarrassing for the company and you both want to make it as painless as possible. So you offer the person a year’s salary, some cash in lieu of leave, a decent reference and gently advise them not to let the door hit their arse as they depart. That works when your objective is minimising cost and maximising efficiency.

That should not have been RTÉ’s objective. Their aim should have been reducing their crisis back into a problem by 1) solving the existential issue, 2) Getting off the front pages and 3) becoming unattractive to the committees. Instead ‘custom and practise’ has increased their difficulties in all three categories.

If RTÉ had opted not to buy executive departures with hundreds of thousands of euros and instead explored other methods to try and contain the controversy, there is a risk that the broadcaster could have faced legal action from disgruntled individuals.

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