October 11, 2015

The Shirley Sherrod Incident

I was going to post another blog today until I saw the Van Jones Op-Ed piece in the Sunday, July 25, New York Times entitled “Shirley Sherrod and Me.” Not only do I agree with his conclusion that the Obama Administration decision to fire Ms. Sherrod was wrong and destructive, but it might have been one of the most harmful actions the Obama Administration has taken on any issue.

Government officials have become more risk-averse over time, and less effective as a result, precisely because, in varying degrees, they are judged by different standards from private sector employees. Over a decade ago, I had dinner with an executive who had been fired by the U.S. Postal Service, after he had worked in the private sector for a good part of his career.

His observation about being a government executive was that the highest risk situations for a government employee were either unwanted media scrutiny, the threat of a government investigation, or the threat of a Congressional hearing. There was another long-term Postal Service executive who was fired a few years later because of a relocation package he received, which received excessive media scrutiny, even though it had been approved by the Postal Service’s Office of the General Counsel, its chief ethics officer, and the Inspector General. One thing I learned about the Postal Service is that, after a 1992 scandal involving vendor-related events at the Barcelona Olympics, it operated at the highest ethical standards. The firing was unfortunate, but the Postal Service apparently felt that it had to eliminate even the appearance of ethical problems.

The trouble with the Sherrod firing, as well as other incidents like it, is that as Mr. Jones put it most eloquently:

“Life inside the Beltway has become a combination of speed chess and Mortal Kombat: one wrong move can mean political death. In the era of YouTube, Twitter and 24-hour cable news, nobody is safe. Even the lowliest staff member knows that an errant comment could wind up online, making her name synonymous with scandal.

The result is that people at all levels of government are becoming overly cautious, unwilling to venture new opinions or even live regular lives for fear of seeing even the most innocuous comment or photograph used against them, all while trying to protect and improve the country.”

Not only is he right, but, unfortunately, the Sherrod incident will be remembered for a long time, and will affect behaviors all over all levels of government. Government officials and employees will attempt to figure out not only whether what they said or did could get them into trouble, but whether someone could misinterpret and distort words or actions to hurt them. They will refrain from doing or saying something, rather than doing something that needed to be done.

I had that experience a few times while I served as CEO. It was unnerving. People literally heard something different from what I said, and, on two occasions, an otherwise competent and well-meaning attorney told me that the company could get into trouble not only for what I said, but for what people incorrectly thought I said.

Having people live in perpetual fear is a bad way to run government, business, a non-profit organization, or any other grouping of people. It is a bad way to force people to live their lives. The notion that people should be held accountable for distortions that other people might create or project on to a situation is dangerous.

The Obama Administration has to realize that it did severe and probably irreparable damage to the effectiveness of government at all levels, and needs to pull back from knee-jerk behaviors based on appearing to defend the highest standards of ethics and race relations. It actually achieved the opposite effect: individuals will be scared to talk constructively about race issues in situations in which a dialogue could help race relations. Moreover, the impact will be felt in a wide range of other situations and on a wide range of other issues.

The President should take the step of framing how he thinks about the level of initiative he wants from government employees, and have a concrete set of actions, which he should announce in a prime time nationally televised address. He should then follow through on his commitments, and make it clear to government employees that a misinterpretation and distortion by someone else will never again subject an employee to disciplinary action.

I may come across as an alarmist, but I really think this situation has far more serious consequences than might first meet the eye.