Employment and Labor

Invoking the 24 Hour Rule: Shirley Sherrod Firing Provides Valuable Lessons for Management

Invoking the 24 Hour Rule: Shirley Sherrod Firing Provides Valuable Lessons for Management

When a video clip of a presentation Shirley Sherrod made earlier this year at an NAACP event was distributed through the internet, Sherrod’s resignation was quickly requested by Agriculture Department Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook. The request, attributed to the White House, left the federal government dealing with a public relations fiasco. 

The posted clip portrays Sherrod, an African-American, saying she referred the farmer to a white lawyer so “his own kind could take care of him.” However, the full video clearly shows that she was recounting the story to illustrate that poor people of all colors experience bias and that she had ultimately helped the farmer and had enjoyed his friendship ever since.  

Today’s social media environment increases the risk of inaccurate information being spread virally and can lead to snap decisions on the part of management. Controversial issues are likely to go viral, instigating pressure from stakeholders such as customers, management or investors to rectify the problem. The rapid paced nature of the internet spurs people to believe that there must be an immediate response. 

Management, including HR professionals, has much to learn from Sherrod’s experience. Organizations that hastily act to terminate an employee place themselves in a situation ripe for liability and damages. In most cases, the HR professional must don the multi-tasked role of protector, not only of the organization, but also of the employee.   

The 24 Hour Solution

As a matter of practice, directive or policy, employers should vow not to terminate any employee within the first 24, 48, or 72 hours of an incident. The amount of time should be based on whatever works for your organization. Every company needs a clear directive or policy in place that becomes second nature to all managers. The 24 Hour Rule would simply require that management must take a minimum of 24 hours to investigate an incident before terminating an employee. While managers may be authorized to suspend employees with or without pay based on their own authority, terminations are much more significant and the organization’s HR professional should be an integral participant in the investigation and decision making process. Employment decisions should never take place in a vacuum without consultation, and no individual manager should have the authority to terminate without an HR review. 

When an employee must be relieved of his or her duties, removed from the premises and not allowed to act on behalf of the employer, consider other options, such as placing the employee on leave with pay, reassigning him or her to a different position, or taking other steps appropriate for the employee in question. Employers must gather and study the facts, including the employee’s version of what happened. 

Conducting a timely investigation is an absolute must. An experienced HR professional will understand the need for confidentiality. He or she will know how to conduct a thorough investigation and will, especially in controversial situations, obtain sworn statements. Investigators should be aware of the rights of certain classes of employees and know the employer’s policies and procedures in order to determine whether the employee committed a policy violation. In the case of an arrest, an employee may not be criminally charged, but the actions can still rise to the level of a violation of a policy or internal rule. The investigator should not overlook reviewing the disciplinary database to determine if there are similar situations so that discipline is administered in a non-discriminatory manner. Human resources should be front and center in leading the organization to carefully consider the impact of the employee’s and the employer’s actions upon the organization’s vision and mission. The employer should also contact employment counsel as early in the process as possible.

Importance of Policies

There is no substitute for clearly constructed HR policies which also provide guidance when employee altercations occur outside of the workplace. In the case of public service employees, the policy should address issues that might adversely affect public trust. The employer will have to be extremely careful about taking action against employees for actions outside of work. Care must be taken because of the difficulty with remaining objective and consistent in meting out discipline. While drawing a definitive line is nearly impossible, employer policies should advise employees that they might be subject to disciplinary action for actions outside of work, such as derogatory statements made through social media or actions that might cause intense media attention. Every employer should be able to answer the question: what happens when a good thing turns bad, as in the case of Shirley Sherrod? She was addressing the NAACP as an extension of the experience she’d gained through her work with the USDA. Had the Department had a policy in place, perhaps they could have turned the bad press about Sherrod into a positive statement about her and the Department.

It is the HR executive’s responsibility to speak up for the employee and the employer. No matter the circumstances, every individual deserves fair and respectful treatment. Ultimately, the organization’s leader must appreciate and empower the HR professional, thereby adding significance to their role. Policy should enforce the prominent inclusion of the HR department immediately. HR must be a strong organizational partner who is able to take control and lead the organization through the situation.