Shirley Sherrod’s Cautionary Tale

"It only took me 20 seconds to do it," she said. "Call this 800 number to block telemarketers from calling your cell phone for 5 years." I was thinking "This sounds familiar" when my step-daughter replied she'd just called the number and got some kind of Reward Center with "money saving offers." Then my son-in-law emailed saying he thought there was no such database. My friend said she assumed it was valid because she got an email about it from her company's IT department. A quick check of the facts at an urban legends website ( yep, it's bogus. There is no national database for do not call, and, yes, it was familiar. This ruse has been around since 2004.

I remembered my friend's assumption when reading about USDA employee Shirley Sherrod being forced to resign under a maelstrom of criticism as a racist. After the outrage, after the media flogging, after she resigned, someone finally stopped long enough to check the facts and learned she was the victim of a twisting of facts and truth - on purpose - designed to embarrass the NAACP. We know by now we cannot always believe what we see on the internet, but we trust the news media to check their facts. Right?

Apparently not. You see, the edited video where Sherrod appeared to be confessing her racism fit neatly into the belief system of Fox News and many of the people who heard about it.

Besides the news agency neglecting their duty, what was her employer thinking when they forced her out before they had all the facts? Even the greenest human resources professional knows to check the facts and the motivation behind charges against an employee. Where were the skeptics: like the ones who fill my Respect in the Workplace classes, looking for a hidden motive behind every claim of sexual harassment? "She wants to get back at him for breaking up with her." "She's mad because she didn't get the promotion," etc., ad nauseum. Talk of an ulterior motive can be wishful thinking by employers in denial, sometimes it's an impulsive leap to the defense of a colleague, and often it's pure retaliation: an attempt to deflect the heat from the accused.

But, like a stopped clock, sometimes these claims of ulterior motive are right.

I hate ulterior motives. It takes too much energy to watch out for them and too much work to figure them out. The world I want to live in is one of respectful, honest communication and collaboration among coworkers who always act in a friendly, professional manner. But until we create that world, it's HR's job to consider every angle, motive, and assumption when investigating an incident or claim against an employee (or the employer). Regardless of the boss's belief system or theirs, it is HR's (and the news media's) job to advocate for the truth. Period.

I'm thinking the USDA is looking for a new HR exec about now. And Fox needs a fact-checker who hasn't drunk the Kool-Aid.


Betsey has over 18 yrs exp. as a Human Resources generalist & over 20 yrs exp. in management. Prior to merging her successful consulting firm, NASH HR SERVICES with UNITED STAFFING ASSOCIATES, her experience included 10 yrs in HR with The Home Depot before being recruited by Bed, Bath & Beyond to be District HR manager for the busy San Fernando Valley. Since 1983, Betsey continues to be a popular teacher of classes in management, human resources & communication for professionals in b...

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