The White House fired F.B.I. Director James Comey last week, and it was one of the worst HR mistakes we’ve ever seen.
While I won’t delve into any of the political aspects of his tenure, I wanted to focus more on the firing of the FBI director can be a lesson for HR managers. If you work in HR, you probably cringed when you heard how it went down. In case you missed it, here are some of the mistakes that were made — and what should have been done instead:
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Mistake #1: Telling the press before telling your employee
You should always tell your employee that they’re fired before you tell the national news. Seems like a no-brainer, right?
But that’s exactly what didn’t happen last week. James Comey was speaking to F.B.I. employees in L.A. when T.V. monitors in the room announced that he had been dismissed by the White House.
It wasn’t until later that Comey received an official termination letter, hand-delivered by the head of President Trump’s private security detail. An email carrying the news wasn’t sent to the F.B.I. until 5 pm that day.
As The Washington Post reports:
“The real estate billionaire who said he’d bring a business executive’s acumen to the White House didn’t follow what experts call one of the most basic rules of management: Don’t catch people by surprise when they’re getting the ax, and deliver bad news in person or, if needed, by phone.”
Mistake #2: Creating a confusing narrative
HR managers generally protect the privacy of a fired employee. When announcing the news to your team, you might say something like: “He/she is no longer working with the company, and we’re beginning the search for a replacement immediately.”
But if you’re terminating someone in a high-visibility position like F.B.I Director, that standard line isn’t enough. The White House is supposed to provide a clear message to its staff, other government agencies and the press.
Except the message wasn’t clear at all.
Initially, “Mr. Trump explained the firing by citing Mr. Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server,” reported The New York Times, a decision that was purportedly made at the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Later, in a TV interview with Lester Holt, Trump declared that the firing was entirely his idea, not his staff’s because Comey was “incompetent, “a showboat” and “a grandstander.”
Trump later admitted that his decision was motivated by Comey’s focus on the connection between Russia and the Trump election campaign.
These differing narratives made it impossible for White House communications staff to stick to one story, making a sticky situation even stickier.
It’s important for everyone involved in an employee termination to maintain a consistent message. Otherwise, you’ll lose trust—fast.
Mistake #3: Not being prepared for blowback
Terminating an employee can be an explosive situation, and it’s vital that you cross your t’s and dot your i’s to avoid problems.
In most cases, you consult key stakeholders when considering firing someone. You have multiple discussions before a final decision is made, and you come to a consensus (as much as possible) before the termination takes place.
That didn’t happen this time.
“Reaction in Washington was swift and fierce,” according to The Washington Post. Politicians including New York Senator Chuck Schumer came out against the action. And not only Democrats: “Many Republicans assailed the president for making a rash decision that could have deep implications for their party.”
The White House claimed that the F.B.I. agreed with the decision because many agents disliked Comey, but The Washington Post reports that “F.B.I. agents were enraged by the firing.”
These negative reactions caught the White House off-guard and unprepared.
How can HR professionals learn from these mistakes?
1. Don’t let your employee hear the bad news from someone else.
2. If you must disclose the reason for termination to your team, keep it clear and consistent.
3. Get buy-in from key stakeholders before taking action, and be prepared to handle blowback.