The Comey Dismissal, A Masterclass In What Not To Do

Whatever our political views, I hope we can all agree that the sacking of FBI Director, James Comey, was egregious. This extraordinary incident was a masterclass in how not to fire an employee.

How Not To Fire An Employee

James Comey first learned he had been fired when television screens in the background began flashing the news of his fate while he was addressing staff in the Los Angeles field office. At the same time, Donald Trump’s former bodyguard, Keith Schiller, who now serves as the president’s director of Oval Office operations, delivered by hand a letter to the FBI headquarters in Washington. Not to Mr Comey directly.

Meanwhile a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to the president was also released by the White House. Compounding this very public political axing, CNN showed footage of Mr Comey boarding a plane, and the story quickly reverberated around the globe. One FBI official reported that Mr Comey was “surprised, really surprised” and was “caught flat-footed”, when he learned the news. Mr Comey decided to scrap his speaking engagement in Los Angeles and return to Washington.

For Trump to  send a letter to an office which Comey was unprofessional and cowardly. It’s akin to breaking up with your longtime partner by text. Put simply, employees should be fired in person, face to face, straight from the person making the decision. There should be a certain standard for firing anyone. But the higher the person’s standing at the firm, the more delicate the handling of their dismissal process should be.

If you’ve ever had to fire someone, you will know just how difficult it is. Most business owners would agree that dismissing an employee is a horrible experience for everyone concerned. We don’t like to do it. Whatever the circumstances, a decision to fire an employee will impact their personal and financial circumstances, impact on their family, and could affect their chances of getting another job.

Firing an employee is a serious business and should be managed fairly, respectfully and gracefully – always.

Need help from a former CEO? If so simply use this link to arrange an informal Skype coffee chat. There’s no hard sell. Just solid advice and a straightforward, honest assessment of whether 1:1 business coaching (or business consultancy) would be right for you.

How To Fire An Employee Gracefully

I’ve managed staff for over 25 years and at one time had around 150 employees. I’ve been involved in countless management investigations and chaired numerous disciplinary hearings. I’ve also represented employees ‘from the other side’ at Employment Tribunal in cases of unfair dismissal.

These experiences helped open my eyes to the ‘right way’ to fire employees. I hate firing people. But if I absolutely must fire someone, I do so after thoughtful deliberation. Because making a decision about somebody’s future employment is something I take very seriously.

As an employer, you need to know how to fire an employee. Here are five tips I’ve learned on how to fire an employee gracefully.

1. Be Clear When You Hire

The starting point is when you first hire an employee. There’s a maxim I’ve found to be very true: hire slow and fire fast. Follow a rigorous and thorough recruitment process to maximise your chances of getting ‘the right people on the bus.’ Organisations like ACAS provide excellent guides on to recruit and induct new employees.

2. Be Fair When You Fire

If a work performance or concern about conduct is brought to your attention, investigate this fairly and dispassionately in order to establish the facts. They are not always as they seem.

I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve received allegations that are either malicious or partially true about employees. When I’ve investigated the circumstances, I’ve found that these have not always been as first conveyed to me.

This is important when it comes to protecting your business from potential claims of unfair dismissal. But it also goes to the heart of your reputation as an employer and as a brand. Whilst saying ‘you’re fired may make for good reality TV (if that’s what floats your boat) it will soon earn you a reputation as an unfair and capricious employer. And create a toxic culture in the workplace.

3. Make Sure Your Actions Are Legal

Here in the UK, we have very clear employment legislation to ensure that dismissals aren’t unfair or discriminatory. If you are thinking about dismissing an employee, check the ACAS Code Of Practice, consult your HR advisor, and if necessary an employment solicitor. Defending a claim for unfair dismissal or discrimination is a costly business.

4. Don’t Humiliate The Employee

If you must fire an employee, do so with grace and dignity. Always fire someone in private behind closed doors. This costs you nothing. But the costs of humiliating an employee can be exponential.

Employment termination isn’t just bad for that individual, it’s also bad for other employees. Other employees don’t know if or when they’re going to be for the chopping block. Other employees have relationships with the fired employee, and they will talk.

Consider firing the employee after your other employees leave. That way, the terminated employee does not need to leave your office (or wherever you fire them) in front of their co-workers.

5. Have A Witness

When you have to fire an employee, make sure there are two of you. If you don’t have an HR department or outsourced representative, have a witness, like a trusted employee or your business’s lawyer.

Having someone in the room is important in case the employee comes back at you with a lawsuit. A witness can confirm you acted legally and ethically while firing the employee.

6. Leave The Element Of Surprise Out

Before you fire an employee, give them warning that they are not performing well. (If you are firing an employee because of misconduct, that’s a different story). If their performance is poor, do a performance review before firing them. In the majority of cases, giving your employees an honest performance review will kick them into gear.

Always give the employee every possible chance to improve first; firing should be your option of last resort. Make sure that you have documented the employee’s performance “in writing” as part of your official performance review process. This documentation is necessary to make sure that the employee is never surprised by your actions, plus it may help you defend your actions legally if necessary.

If the employee still doesn’t improve after you have given them fair warning or if they’re guilty of misconduct, consult your HR adviser and follow your internal employment procedures.

Need help from a former CEO? If so simply use this link to arrange an informal Skype coffee chat. There’s no hard sell. Just solid advice and a straightforward, honest assessment of whether 1:1 business coaching (or business consultancy) would be right for you.

Join The Conversation

Question: Have you had to dismiss an employee? What tips do you have for doing so in the right way? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share how you’re going to use this in the comments box below.

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Work With Me

I’m Denyse Whillier, a Sussex and London based business coach and consultant. I work with responsible businesses to build profitable and successful brands of the future. To do so, I draw on Built To Succeed™, my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO.

I’d love to start a conversation about whether we’re a good fit to work together. Simply use this link to arrange an informal Skype coffee chat. There’s no hard sell. Just solid advice and a straightforward, honest assessment of whether 1:1 business coaching (or business consultancy) would be right for you.


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