Note to Washington: The HR Investigation Comes BEFORE you Fire the Employee

Here’s what I want to know this morning, as I read story after story about the latest Washington flap:

Don’t they have any HR leaders working over at the Department of Agriculture? Don’t they have anyone with a little knowledge of human resources who could have told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that you do the investigation into what happened BEFORE you fire the employee?

Here’s the basic story in case you missed it, from the Los Angeles Times:

The White House apologized on Wednesday to a black Agriculture Department employee who was sacked for her remarks about race, acknowledging that officials didn’t know all the facts when she was fired. The dismissal of Shirley Sherrod after an edited video circulated online has landed the Obama administration in a sea of criticism for its response.”

If you watch the video in its entirety (and I am happy to provide it here), you can see that Shirley Sherrod’s remarks were taken out of context. The excerpt that got her fired really isn’t fair to her or the entirety of what she had to say,

Now there is a scramble to smooth all this over and offer Sherrod another job, but a story in The Washington Post indicates Sherrod is “not so sure” she would take a new job “after top officials realized they had demanded her resignation on false pretenses.” Sherrod, “who was portrayed as a racist in a selectively excerpted Internet video, said on NBC’s “Today” show that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had offered her a position with his agency’s Office of Civil Rights and Community Outreach. She said she was not inclined to accept it.”

Talent management issues are pretty basic

I don’t want to get into the politics surrounding this event (and there are plenty, to be sure), but the talent management issues that flow out of it are pretty basic.

If you are going to fire someone for something they have said or done, you better be sure that you are firing them for the right reason. In other words, you need to do an HR investigation before you actually terminate the employee.

Bill Strahan over at the HumanMarkets blog has a pretty good post about the many HR mistakes that you can count coming out of this incident (and a hat tip to my pal Kris Dunn for flagging me to it), but here’s what Bill wrote that resonated with me:

It is exhilarating to make the grand, snap decision. See the evidence of racism – bang – “she’s outta here!” It feels like bold moralistic leadership. Snap decision can be leadership – however you better be damn sure that you are correct in the decision. Know that the decision is unassailable. Better yet, ask yourself a question, who is the audience to whom I am showing my boldness? It gives context to evaluate where the boldness is in fact leadership, or, if it is mere show boating. I have no idea what the motivation was here. I do know that it backfired tremendously. Typically, HR is enhanced by bold communication of throughly deliberated decisions, as opposed to snap decisions themselves.”

Off with their heads at USDA

The Shirley Sherrod flap reminds me of watching the great Showtime series The Tudors about the reign of King Henry VIII. If you watched that show or know much about how King Henry operated, you know this: a lot of good people lost their heads for little or no reason, and with little or no investigation into whether what they were charged with was actually true.

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The Secretary of Agriculture, a guy who seems to have something in common with King Henry for precipitously pulling the trigger and firing Sherrod, would seem to have some explaining to do.

“This is a good woman,” Tom Vilsack said Wednesday. “She’s been put through hell. I could have done and should have done a better job. I’ll learn from that experience. I want this agency and department to learn from this experience, and I want us to be stronger for it.”

Well, maybe I can help the esteemed Secretary of Agriculture learn from his “experience.” It’s simple really – you need to do the HR investigation before you actually fire the employee. There are a lot of good reasons for that, but mainly, because it is the fair and right thing to do. Plus, it minimizes the possibility of getting the company sued for wrongful termination.

Of course, suing the government is a difficult proposition, but my guess is that Shirley Sherrod is going to win this battle in the court of public opinion, lawsuit or not.

This is what they call a “teachable moment,” and I know that virtually any HR professional worth their SHRM membership could have taught the Secretary of Agriculture, and all of Washington, how to handle it right.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.