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

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY JENA MCGRE­GOR

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.”

CAR­LOS BARRIA/REUTERS

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.

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