Sherrod tale underscores importance of thorough workplace investigations

By Todd Humber

Anyone can look bad for a minute. That’s because small snippets of time can easily be taken out of context.

That’s why the work of human resources professionals is so critical. In organizations, HR has to be the voice of reason, the calm heads that prevail when a manager (or the entire executive team) feels prone to a knee-jerk reaction. It doesn’t always make HR the most popular person in the room, but it does make their presence arguably the most important.

No doubt the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sure wishes calmer  heads would have prevailed when it comes to Shirley Sherrod. Sherrod was the Georgia state director of rural development for the USDA who was fired after a damning videotape of her surfaced in which she made apparently inappropriate comments about not doing all she could to help a white farmer. (Sherrod is black).

In the tape, she said:

“You know, the first time I was faced with helping a white farmer save his farm, he took a long time talking but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. I know what he was doing. But he had come to me for help. What he didn’t know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland. And here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough so that when he… I assumed the Department of Agriculture had sent him to me, either that, or the Georgia Department of Agriculture, and he needed to go back and report that I did try to help him. So I took him to a white lawyer that had attended some of the training that we had provided because Chapter 12 bankruptcy had just been enacted for the family farm. So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.
That’s when it was revealed to me that it’s about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white — it is about white and black, but it’s not, you know, it opened my eyes because I took him to one of his own.”

Pretty damning stuff. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) immediately condemned the remarks and U.S. government officials called on Sherrod to resign — which she did, all the while claiming the video was nonsense and that it was completely out of context.

She was right. The clip wasn’t the full story. The small snippet that caused all the knee-jerk reactions was posted by a conservative blogger, Andrew Breitbart. (Which raises another point, and that’s about what credible journalism is and why it’s important to get your information from an independent, non-partisan and trusted news outlet — but that’s a column for another day.) Once the entire tape surfaced, and Sherrod’s comments were put into proper context, the NAACP apologized to Sherrod, the Secretary of Agriculture apologized and President Barack Obama himself phoned her up to chat. She’s been offered a new position, but it’s not clear if she’s going to accept it.

The Sherrod case brings to mind an incident closer to home from a couple years ago. A Beer Store outlet in Niagara Falls, Ont., fired one of its workers after a video surveillance showed him stealing about $200 from the till.

But that wasn’t the whole story. The rest of the tape, which the employer for some reason chose to ignore, showed the same worker putting the same amount of money back — consistent with his explanation and apparently exonerating him.

In the July 2, 2008, issue of Canadian Employment Law Today Peter Straszynski, a lawyer with Torkin Maines, wrote:

“The Beer Store went to the police with the incriminating portions of the tape, but failed to point out the exonerating portions, even after being specifically asked by the police whether any such evidence existed. Criminal charges were laid, resulting in McNeil’s conviction for theft. The Beer Store dismissed McNeil, for cause, consistent with the criminal conviction.”

And what did that decision cost the company? A cool $2.1 million, consisting of $1.3 million in lost wages and $800,000 in aggravated and punitive damages.

Cases like Sherrod and the Beer Store underscore how critical it is to conduct a thorough investigation when allegations of wrongdoing arise — even when there is apparent indisputable video proof. The camera may not lie, but it sure doesn’t tell the entire story.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resources management. For more information, visit


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