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July 2010 Newsletter

The Shirley Sherrod Incident:

A Teachable Moment for Human Resource Management


            A grand case of poor performance management has entered the news recently.  A management level federal employee was asked to resign a result of a video tape of a speech she gave, which apparently indicated she was prejudicial in her remarks. Putting the politics of this incident aside, this is the classic case of over-reaction and under-investigation.


          One of the main components of managing performance is getting accurate data.  Obviously in this case this did not happen. Nor were basic employee relations procedures followed. In case of a critical incident overwhelmingly impacting future employment status, the first decision should be to either suspend or put the employee on administrative leave.  This is done for 2 reasons:  (1) get the employee out of the emotional mainstream at work and (2) allow for time to gather and analyze the real facts. 


          These two simple actions allow management to make the right decision in a dignified and professional manner. When such events happen here are some simple rules to follow:


Stay Calm: Most managers make the mistake of reacting viscerally.  The act may be so egregious that the immediate response is to fire the person.  By placing someone on suspension, is just that, suspending final judgment.  It will help you to cool down your emotions and prevent you from saying anything you could regret later.


Set an Example: The way you handle the situation will be viewed by everyone else in your organization as a window into your leadership capabilities. Handling critical situations poorly may result in your own demise (e.g., Tony Hayward, the soon-to-be former BP CEO). If you handle it well, your star will rise with your superiors and those intimate with the situation will have an added element of respect for you.


Become a Detective:  Don’t accept the facts at face value.  Unless you were direct witness you need to gather all the facts before coming to your own conclusions.  The biggest mistake you can make is trying to justify your own decisions by searching out of facts to support it.  If you were a participant in the event, get the observations of others who may have been a witness to ascertain if your perceptions are validated by them.


Be an Impartial Judge: Fairness is paramount. All employees should be afforded due process.  Even if the evidence is crystal clear, your company’s reputation will be negatively impacted if you summarily terminate people without a fair investigation and/or “day in court”. Other employees will look at this situation and say to themselves that “if I were in this situation, is this the way I want to be treated”.  This is also a good guideline for the leader to use in assessing their treatment of the employee. 


Repair the Damage: After you have acted on the situation, whether it is terminating, disciplining or exonerating the employee, it is best to communicate the action to others. This can range from the employee’s immediate work group, the entire company or to the general public. Explain to your intended audience what the facts of the case are and why you took the action you did.


Seek Professional Advice: Don’t take on the role of a hero. Seek the advice of those who have experience in these matters. This maybe a combination of human resources, legal and public relations professionals who can help you process through the ethical and legal dilemmas of the situation.  Make sure to include people with diverse perspectives to prevent everyone agreeing with each other (groupthink), which could result in a less than optimum decision.