Trump’s ‘You’re fired’ style fails Management 101
In ousting FBI chief James Comey, president ignored basic rules: Don’t catch people by surprise, and deliver bad news in person
There are plenty of big questions about President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey last week: What does this mean for the investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russia? How will it affect the likelihood of a special prosecutor being called in?
But there’s another question — less weighty but still important — that many people have asked since Comey’s startling dismissal: Why did it happen that way?
According to reports, the man who built a reputation for firing people across a boardroom table on reality television did not make his most high-profile termination as president in person. Instead, Comey was reportedly caught by surprise when the news flashed on a television in a room where he was speaking to FBI employees.
In doing this, the real estate billionaire who said he would bring a business executive’s acumen to the White House didn’t follow what experts call some 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. Management experts say Trump’s approach to the firing not only raised the risk that a surprised Comey could have spoken openly about the firing to the press, but it could also have a negative effect on career FBI employees or his successor.
“That’s pretty basic as a management principle,” said Max Stier, chief executive of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “When you let someone go, it’s a basic organizational concept that they ought to know it’s coming, that they’ve been communicated with before.”
According to reports, Comey was speaking to FBI employees in Los Angeles when a television in the room flashed news about his dismissal. A report in the New York Times said Comey laughed in response, saying he thought it was a prank. His staff then asked him to step into a nearby office, where the news was confirmed.
“At this point, he had not heard from the White House,” the Times reported. “Shortly thereafter, a letter from Mr. Trump was delivered to the FBI’s headquarters.” A report in the Los Angeles Times described Comey as being caught “flat-footed.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, according to The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson, told reporters Tuesday night that an email had also been sent to notify the FBI at about 5 p.m. As to why Comey was not given the news in a personal phone call, Spicer said, “I think we delivered it by hand and by email and that was — and I get it, but you asked me a question and that’s the answer.”
Then on Wednesday, when asked in the daily press briefing whether Comey deserved a personal phone call or face-to-face meeting, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump “followed the proper protocol in that process, which is handwritten notification.” She said that “no matter how you fire
someone, it’s never an easy process and he felt like following protocol was the best thing to do.”
Trump has not been a conventional president, and any private conversations that may have occurred between the two men are not clear. But experts said that in most cases, high-profile political appointees are first given the chance to resign.
“Most presidents don’t fire appointees in such a visible display of disaffection,” said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University. “They lead their appointees forward to resignation. Ordinarily, you give them an ounce of dignity when they walk out of the office.”
Before Bill Clinton fired William Sessions during an investigation into unethical behavior and expense-account padding — the only other time a president has fired an FBI director — Sessions was first given chances to resign. According to a 1993 story from The Post about the firing, Clinton telephoned Sessions to deliver the bad news.
Light said that while a surprise firing like the one Comey reportedly experienced is highly unusual in any realm, the approach is particularly hard-hitting for government executives. “These are public servants,” he said. “No matter how misguided or inept their leadership may have been, you don’t summarily fire them, and you don’t do it this way.”
It doesn’t just hit the person making the exit — it can also have lasting aftershocks with the organization and the successor. “The firing process itself sends a signal to potential FBI directors that they could be subject to the same humiliation,” Light said.
Others suggested that Trump’s impersonal dismissal of Comey could affect the FBI itself. Management research has shown that survivors of job cuts work harder when they perceive that their colleagues were treated with dignity.
Stier at the Partnership for Public Service notes that the FBI, in particular, has employees with particularly long tenures and that the agency has traditionally been above political whims: “This has all kinds of implications, not the least of which is for the FBI itself. It is a traumatic event to lose your leader, and it’s made more traumatic by the way in which it was done.” (In the media briefing Wednesday, Sanders said Trump would be discussing morale with the FBI’s new acting director, Andrew McCabe, and would offer to speak to employees.)
Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studies human resources, says that when people are not given the news in a personal way that gives them an opportunity to absorb it first, it also creates an unintended risk. “If the press catches the guy off guard, and they start asking him questions, and he reacts and says things he might not have had he had time to get himself prepared,” Cappelli said, “there can be political damage.”
Of course, management experts were not the only ones who questioned or commented on how Comey learned the news. On Twitter, some noted the irony that a president who had fired people on television “kinda fired the FBI director via TV.” Others, including Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), said the way Comey found out, “if true, that’s poor form and plain unprofessional.” Meanwhile, New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, who has covered Trump since the early 2000s, had a simple explanation: “He doesn’t like interpersonal conflict.”
FBI Director James B. Comey saw news of his firing on television before he had been informed about it. The White House says it followed protocol by delivering written notification, a decision criticized by management experts.