What to do if your boss is Isiah Thomas

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I don’t follow basketball, but Isiah Thomas is one of those larger-than-sports figures who transcended the court into business and cultural prominence (hmm, kinda like O.J.). As the head coach and the president of the New York Knicks, he’s gained a respect and admiration in this town above and beyond that reserved for most former athletes. Plus he seemed like such a nice guy–always smiling, always professional, always friendly (hmm, kinda like O.J.).

That’s why it was such a shock when Anucha Browne Sanders, a former top marketing executive with the Knicks, filed a $10 million sexual harassment suit against the club in January 2006. The harassment, she said, came from Thomas himself. In court this month, she testified (bad word alert):

“He was always starting sentences with the word ‘bitch,’ ” Sanders testified in Manhattan federal court.

“Bitch, I don’t give a f- – – about the sponsors. Bitch, I don’t give a f- – – about ticket sales. That’s your job,” Sanders quoted Thomas.

This CNN report shows a clip of Thomas’s video deposition, in which he describes his thoughts on the B word, as well as his later denial of having used it at all:

Sanders says he kept up appearances in public:

In court, the former Knicks senior vice president managed to maintain her cool when Isaiah Thomas bizarrely laughed while she was talking.

Sanders recognized that in public, Thomas is “very pleasant and personable”, but behind the scenes he often lost control and targeted his rage at her, Knicks’ only female vice president, she said.

Seems to me Sanders faces a tough fight; Madison Square Garden is sparing no expense to discredit her claims about its star property. Her former boss testified in court yesterday that he fired her for impeding the very investigation of her complaints:

Jurors heard Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan explain in his own words why he fired a female Madison Square Garden executive, in videotaped testimony played yesterday in federal court in Manhattan.

On the tape, Dolan said Anucha Browne Sanders was fired because she willfully interfered in a company probe of her sexual harassment allegations against Knicks coach Isiah Thomas.

I thought Dolan’s attitude was telling in this comment:

Asked if the use of the word “bitch” was appropriate, Dolan said it wasn’t. Browne Sanders has testified that Thomas routinely addressed her with that word.

“No, it is not appropriate, it is also not appropriate to murder someone,” he said, without further explaining the analogy.

Is that an O.J. reference, or is it me? Anyway, negotiating expert Michael Donaldson happened to stop by my office yesterday, so I asked him what he thought. Handling difficult people is a topic of his new book, Fearless Negotiating: The Wish-Want-Walk Method to Reaching Agreements That Work, and Donaldson has years of experience advising clients on dealing with jerks at work.

His advice comes down to four steps: focus on the problem; acknowledge it; ignore the behavior you dislike; and report what’s untenable. “Personally, I think she should have quit,” he says. “No one should have to put up with that. But if she really wanted to keep that job, she would have to have undertaken as a major project the changing of his behavior.” (The advice is partly based on the experience of a cousin who trains animals; more on that and on Donaldson’s book in a later post.)

But here’s a sports and corporate reality: as Chris Mannix of SI.com, who’s following the court case, writes,

No matter what happens, Isiah isn’t going anywhere.

It’s becoming comical, really. Short of morphing into the next Ted Stepien, Thomas’ job as both the Knicks coach and general manager appears to be safe. Regardless of the outcome of this trial, Thomas will travel with the team to South Carolina for training camp next month and begin his second season as the Knicks head coach.

That’s not to say there won’t be consequences. Based on conversations I have had with league sources, if Thomas is indeed found liable for sexual harassment, it is very possible he will face some sort of punishment from the NBA, possibly in the form of a suspension. Like the rest of professional sports, the NBA has become an image-conscious enterprise and it does not reflect well on them when the face of one of their flagship franchises is declared by a jury to be, well, a shady character.