If you haven’t heard the story of TonesterPaints, here’s the gist.
Tony Piloseno worked at Sherwin Williams paints and began to film himself mixing paint colours for customers. He uploaded the videos to TikTok under the handle @TonesterPaints, and his account went viral, reaching millions of views in short order.
He pitched the marketing department on how they could use TikTok to increase brand awareness but was turned down by the team. Then he got fired.
Tony shared his termination letter with Buzzfeed News. In it, the company alleged that Tony was guilty of gross misconduct and numerous other policy violations. All for mixing some paints. An official statement from the company to Buzzfeed News said he was fired due to an investigation prompted by customer complaints. Tony said in response that he never got to explain what he was doing — he was simply fired without HR ever talking to him during the investigation.
This is why HR can’t have nice things
These kinds of bad apple stories put HR in three very negative lights (that I can personally say do not apply to all HR departments).
The anti-business crusader: Tony started the TikTok account out of passion, but also pitched the marketing team on how they could use TikTok to increase brand awareness but was not allowed to present his ideas. Instead of engaging on this topic to learn how Tony’s actions might have been helpful once they heard about it, HR fired him.
Nothing more than policy pushers: TonesterPaints hit millions of views, giving Sherwin Williams some serious brand recognition with Tony’s million-plus followers. During HR’s investigation, Tony said they fired him for breaking company policies. Tony said he didn’t break any policies, but he said that he was not able to defend himself because HR didn’t reach out to him.
The anti-employee team: There is already a lot of concern that HR doesn’t actually help employees, but instead only looks out for the business. In this case, you could argue HR was not doing either, but it was definitely not looking out for employees. Things may have gone a lot differently if HR had come from a business and human-focused lens instead of a follow-policy-or-get-fired lens.
What HR could have done instead
As an HR professional, I understand that HR needs to ensure no laws or policies are being violated — they are in place for a reason. Once legal issues are out of the way, though, policy violations can be handled in a multitude of ways. Here’s how this could have gone down way differently.
Step 1: Legal check
Validate that no laws were being broken. In this case, Tony demonstrated that he purchased his own paint cans after filming a couple customer’s paint cans (never the customers themselves), so there was no theft involved, which was the main legal issue.
Step 2: Policy check
This is where HR chose to fire Tony, but here’s how it could have gone: The HR team could have looked into how policies were being violated and why they were being violated. Further, they could have assessed what damage was done or what harm was caused. Instead of simply acting in a binary — that breaking policy means you’re fired — HR should have learned Tony’s side of the story. Had they done that, they could have looked further into Tony’s claims that he was trying to show the marketing department he had a new idea.
Step 3: Find a business-first resolution
Sherwin Williams’ communications team said Tony’s official reason for dismissal came from customer complaints and other policy violations, including doing personal hobbies on work time. However, the HR team could have:
- Identified the root of the customer complaint (was the only possible resolution firing Tony?).
- Look into the business value of what Tony had created (millions of brand impressions).
- Look at Tony’s overall employment record (was he still serving customers even though he was filming TikToks on company time?).
Step 4: Support innovation
If HR felt the TikTok account was truly a bad thing for the company, the HR team could have taken the following steps:
- Told Tony he is no longer allowed to film during company time (and they could have required him to sign an acknowledgement that he would no longer do this or risk termination).
- Require Tony to put a disclaimer on his TikTok that the page is not affiliated with Sherwin Williams.
- Request that Tony no longer use Sherwin Williams paints for his clips or that he hide the brand/logo from his videos.
The other side of this could have been a huge HR win: realize that Tony was bringing huge value to the company and ask the marketing team to listen to his pitch. In this way, HR becomes a solid business partner and people partner. There may have been some backend remediation to handle, but it certainly did not need to end with Tony getting fired.
Perhaps this is precisely the process that Sherwin Williams followed. Perhaps they found that Tony had been neglecting customers for the sake of his newfound TikTok fame. We can’t know for sure, since the details of the termination are confidential. However, if this was the case, there’s a decent chance this would have been included in his termination letter that Tony provided to Buzzfeed News. Since there was no mention of this, and that the official corporate statement simply spoke of “policy violations,” but not customer service records, that casts a lot of doubt.
Care about people, get better results
To see how this story could have ended differently had HR cared more about Tony and his creativity, look no further than Starbucks. The frappucino, now one of Starbucks’ most famous (and profitable) menu items, was invented not by a central corporate team but at the store level. The Starbucks team cared about that employee, thought the idea was great and rolled out a pilot to see how it would go. The rest, as they say, is history.
A strong HR team drives results through a people lens. Their role is not simply to uphold rules and red tape but to remove roadblocks on the path to impact and success. Without this approach, you lose good people, limit diversity of thought, and miss out on the next great idea. So stop using your HR department as the policy police, lean into their potential and unlock the strategic partner your business needs to succeed.