In Comey Dismissal, A Lesson in How Not to Fire Someone
Politics aside, President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is a stark example of how not to fire someone.
President Donald J. Trump became famous for starring in a reality television show in which he looked people in the eye, pointed at them and said, “you’re fired!”
But in dismissing FBI Director James Comey from his post on Tuesday, Trump did none of those things.
Instead, the 45th president of the United States, a man who campaigned on his executive credentials as a billionaire businessman and built a global brand on firing people to their faces on TV in front of millions of viewers, sent Keith Schiller, who has long served as Trump’s bodyguard, to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., to hand-deliver a dismissal letter to Comey’s office.
This alone would’ve given any experienced business leader pause. But wait … there’s more.
Comey wasn’t at his office in Washington, D.C. He was in Los Angeles, addressing a room full of FBI employees as televisions in the room flashed the news. Comey, seeing the news as he addressed the workers, initially laughed it off, thinking it was a prank, according to The New York Times. After shaking hands with the employees in the room, Comey stepped into a side office, where, according to the Times, he confirmed he had actually been fired. He had yet to hear from Trump or anyone else at the White House. Unbelievable.
Never mind the politics of this situation. Comey, as head of the country’s top law enforcement agency, was leading an investigation into possible links between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russian interference in the election, a fact that has critics of the administration pointing to potential abuse of power and even members of the president’s own party questioning the suspiciousness of the move. Comey was also scheduled to appear at an Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, where he was expected to open a session on “worldwide threats,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Comey’s dismissal, particularly how Trump decided to carry it out, is exactly the wrong way to fire anyone, let alone one of the government’s top executives.
Put simply, people should be fired in person, face to face, with their boss doing the firing directly, not some human resources manager or other intermediary. This is especially the case the higher status the position in the organization. In most instances, there should be a certain standard for firing anyone, but the higher up the person’s standing is at the firm, the more delicate the handling of their dismissal process should be. Most important, any executive dismissal should come straight from the person making the decision, either in person or, if that’s not possible, over the phone.
For Trump to have a messenger send a letter to an office where Comey wasn’t even at is, in a word, incredible. It’s akin to breaking up with your longtime partner in a text message. It’s lame — and, in Trump’s case, unprofessional and, dare I say, cowardly.
Firing people is a painful experience, one that no executive relishes having to do — even when the dismissal is based on entirely legitimate reasons. Still, it’s simply part of the job.
You would think Trump would embrace this point, since he made his living firing people, both in public on television and, presumably, in private as the CEO of his real estate company. He also doesn’t come across as the type of person worried about any backlash from an in-person firing. By all accounts — Comey firing included — Trump seems to embrace conflict and controversy.
Not this time. This time, Trump chose to send a letter to Comey’s office while he was away. And never mind having someone in the White House let Comey know before word leaked to the public. No, Comey found out he was fired like everyone else in the world — on TV.
That’s not how it is supposed to happen. Not in business. Not in politics. Not anywhere.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.