How not to fire a person

I was shocked when I read reports of Donald Trump firing the (now former) FBI Director James Comey. It wasn’t the politics of it that surprised me, but the astounding lack of courtesy with which Comey was treated. I also wonder about the poor example this sets for the treatment of employees.

The New York Times reported Comey learned the bad news from a newscast. He had been delivering a speech to F.B.I. employees in Los Angeles when a TV broadcast in the background flashed up news he had been fired. Presuming it was a prank he laughed it off and continued speaking. Moments later Comey was ushered out of the room by staff to have the news confirmed. Talk about a public execution.

Keith Schiller had delivered the fateful letter from Trump to Comey’s D.C. office, but since Comey was addressing FBI agents on the other side of the country the media got the story before him.

Regardless of the political issues involved, is this not an appalling way to treat a person? Being fired is bad enough, but to have to learn about it from a newscast rather than from a personal meeting or, at the very least, a phone call, suggests a serious deficit of courtesy and human decency.

Most people would not be subject to such a public humiliation. Comey was, after all, a public figure in a position of high authority and responsibility. All the more reason he should have been treated with a high degree of respect.

In a subsequent press conference a journalist asked, “Why did [Trump] do it as he did it? Why did he have one of his long-time security advisors hand-deliver a letter to the FBI when the FBI director was, in fact, in Los Angeles. Didn’t he deserve a phone call or a face-to-face conversation? Why did he decide to do it like that?”

Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders response was telling. “He [Trump] followed the proper protocol in that process, which is hand-written notification. At the same time, no matter how you fire someone, it's never an easy process so he felt like following protocol was the best thing to do.”

Is ‘protocol’ really an excuse for incivility, for failing to treat someone with dignity? Is there not an implication somewhere deep in the protocols — if not stated — that whatever the protocol is, it ought to include respect and courtesy? Firing a person is always difficulty, but there are both better and worse ways to go about it. Avoiding face-to-face contact, shifting the responsibility to someone else, taking a person by complete surprise, and letting the press know before the individual are textbook examples of how not to fire someone.

Is ‘protocol’ an excuse for incivility, for failing to treat someone with dignity?

Coincidentally, The Australian Fair Work Commission (FWC) just delivered a scathing criticism about the way an employee was fired via email (which of course is merely a letter delivered at light speed). The FWC made the point that ‘treating workers as human resources runs the risk of ignoring that they are “easily damaged” human beings and that “when faulty they should be handled with more care than machines”.’

The FWC suggested ‘that communication of any decision to dismiss is conveyed in a manner that is respectful, and maintains basic standards of human dignity.’ 

Is that too much to ask? What would happen if we exercised a bit of moral imagination and at least asked what it would mean to fire someone the way that you would want to be fired?

What do you think about the way in which Comey was fired? What makes the difference between good and bad form in this delicate task? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.