What would you do if you received an anonymous complaint together with a video--perhaps posted on YouTube--showing your employee doing something very, very wrong. What if the media was camped outside your door wondering what your organization was going to do about it. Knowing that cameras don’t “lie,” and wanting to appear decisive, would you act quickly to terminate the employee.
That is the story of what happened to Shirley Sherrod and President Obama, who got dragged into the mess after Sherrod was terminated for making allegedly racist remarks based on a video from an NAACP speech given last March. The video was released by a notoriously right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart on his website BigGovernment.com, leading to an immediate and frenzied cry for her termination. We don’t know whether Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called Human Resources before he made the snap decision. But if he had, we can only hope that Human Resources would have urged caution and advised that certain cautionary steps should be taken prior to termination, even if the proof appeared irrefutable.
Here’s what the USDA got wrong.
Always, and we mean always, ask the employee who is about to be fired for his or her side of the story. This applies even in circumstances where you can’t think of a reason which would justify the employee’s actions and where there is immense pressure to take immediate action. Although it doesn’t happen every time, many times there are circumstances which justify the employee’s actions.
In this case, if the Secretary had watched the entire video before firing Sherrod, he would have learned that she was in fact making the point that every farmer needs to be helped, regardless of race. Sherrod, who was offered another job with the USDA, hasn’t decided whether to accept one. She could decide to file an employment lawsuit--in addition to her defamation suit against Mr. Breitbart--which would have plaintiff attorneys salivating at the chance to represent her. We hope you wouldn’t make the same mistake.