ELI Blog

Lessons in USDA Controversy: Rush to Judgment Rarely Ends Well

|July 21, 2010|No Comments

Remember last year’s furor involving the Cambridge police arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and the subsequent beerfest hosted by President Obama at the White House for Mr. Gates and the police sergeant?

In many ways, we’re seeing a replay of that situation in the current controversy over the remarks made by Georgia USDA official Shirley Sherrod.  If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read the latest in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

For the full context surrounding Ms. Sherrod’s remarks, I also encourage you to watch the video of Ms. Sherrod’s NAACP speech. A video of the full speech actually shows that Ms. Sherrod was trying to make the point that, in examining her own prejudice, she learned that those who are struggling have much in common, regardless of their race.

In both the Gates and Sherrod cases, quick judgments were made tied to racial issues.

The Gates situation – just as with the USDA case – involved quick action, in part triggered by erroneous assumptions. As recently reported in The New York Times, both the Harvard professor and the police sergeant who arrested him missed opportunities to “ratchet down” the confrontation and avoid misunderstandings.

While the USDA story is being reported in political terms, it is actually a workplace story. Ms. Sherrod lost her job when an incomplete airing of her remarks became public.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack accepted Ms. Sherrod’s resignation after seeing some of her recently recorded remarks at a NAACP banquet on March 27. Sherrod, an African-American woman, was appointed last July as the agency’s Georgia state director of rural development.

[For the sake of full disclosure and candor: Mr. Vilsack was a classmate of mine at Hamilton College and also hailed from Pittsburgh. I knew him as a fine, honorable person and one of great integrity.]

In her speech at the NAACP, Ms. Sherrod described an episode that occurred more than 20 years ago when she was working at a nonprofit organization in which she did not help a white farmer as much as she could have. Instead, she said, she sent him to one of “his own kind.”

Despite her comments, Ms. Sherrod ultimately ended up helping the farmer: On Tuesday, his family was among those who came to her defense.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, in a statement reported in The Washington Post, stated that “the controversy surrounding her [Sherrod] comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question, making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia.”

Now comes the news that Secretary Vilsack is reaching out to Ms. Sherrod to apologize and offer her job back. What Mr. Vilsack apparently did not have when he made the decision to fire Ms. Sherrod was all the facts, nor the context of the remarks and the history involved.

In making decisions about workplace conduct, history and context are vital.

Certainly, an error in judgment was made that needed to be quickly corrected and an apology issued – as it was.

None of us is perfect. We all make mistakes and have the capacity to grow. In our Civil Treatment® training, we assess workplace conduct in light of the law, and our values and context are critical.

And where values such as integrity are concerned, when we make mistakes, we must admit them, fix them, apologize and move on. Ironically, that appears to be the point of Ms. Sherrod’s initial statement.

Posted Under: Government, Workplace Training


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