Thrown Under the Bus. That’s Not Leadership.

Posted 07.21.2010

I haven’t followed the news much over the past couple of days since I’ve been on vacation and have unplugged from much of the stuff I usually pay attention to. That includes cable news. This morning, while I was packing for the next leg, I turned on the TV and heard the story of the firing of USDA official Shirley Sherrod.

You can read this story in the Washington Post for all the details, but the quick version is that she gave a speech to a local NAACP chapter back in March. An excerpt of that speech was picked up out of context by a blogger and then Fox News and Sherrod, an African American, was portrayed in the 24 hour news cycle as racist against whites. Within a day, the national NAACP joined in decrying her as racist and she was ordered by a deputy secretary of the USDA to submit her resignation via Blackberry before the story was further flamed on the upcoming episode of Glenn Beck.

The problem was that when you watch the entire speech and learn the history behind her story, Sherrod is not a racist but someone who learned through experience to look beyond race. In the meantime, though, she was thrown under the bus in short order with no due process.

Earlier in my career, I ended up as a manager in a couple of HR departments. You deal with a lot of employee discipline issues in HR and the first thing you learn is you have to do a thorough investigation before you make any decisions that could end or damage someone’s career or reputation. The way it usually went back then was a report would be made to HR about someone and the story would just curl your toes. It was like, “Of course, we’re going to fire that person. They have no morals, ethics, judgment, etc.” What almost always happened, though, was a thorough investigation would reveal that the first story we heard was at some level or at all levels inaccurate.

When people’s livelihoods are at stake, you owe them due process before making decisions that affect them. Shirley Sherrod did not get the benefit of that basic approach to management. It was unfair to her.  It has to be damaging to the morale and productivity of not just her colleagues in the USDA but other federal agency officials who now must be wondering how they would be treated in a similar circumstance.

It’s not right. Our leaders need to be better than they were in the case of Shirley Sherrod.