Whatever our political views, I hope we can all agree that the very public sacking of the FBI Director, James Comey, was egregious and ignominious. The Comey firing was a masterclass in how not to fire an employee, and this action will surely rebound on the President. The Comey Sacking, A Masterclass In How Not To Fire An Employee

The Washington Post has created a helpful timeline of the events leading up to James Comey's dismissal. In summary, Comey was addressing staff at the Los Angeles field office when the news he'd been fired flashed up on one of the television screens in the background. Initially Comey thought the story was a (bad) joke. At the same time this story was breaking, Keith Schiller, Donald Trump’s former bodyguard delivered a letter by hand to the FBI headquarters in Washington, confirming Comey's firing. The letter was not given to James Comey directly.

Compounding this 'reality show' political axing, CNN showed footage of James Comey boarding a plane, as the news quickly reverberated around the globe. One FBI official reported that Comey was “surprised, really surprised” and was “caught flat-footed”, when he learned the news. Comey decided to scrap his speaking engagement in Los Angeles and return to Washington.

By publicly humiliating Comey, Trump displayed his callous, cold-blooded side. But he also didn’t think through the unintended consequences of his actions. Public opinion quickly compelled the appointment of special prosecutor, the indomitable and equally ruthless Robert Mueller. And it triggered Comey’s revenge, starting with three hours of gripping public testimony to Senate Intelligence Committee during which Comey set out a time line of specific statements from the President that he described as either untrue or potentially criminal for Mueller’s team to follow up. Who knows what Comey has said during interviews with the special prosecutor.

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Ironically Trump would have been justified in removing Comey from office at the start of his Presidential term. The director's public comments about the pending Hillary Clinton email investigation had clearly violated long-standing Department of Justice policy requiring no comment, particularly during election periods. This in my view warranted Comey's dismissal even before Trump was sworn into office.

Trump however made a calculated judgement, that by allowing the director to remain in office, Comey would owe him substantial favour; only to realise that Comey could not be trusted to do his bidding in the troubled times ahead.

To say it’s unwise to publicly humiliate an employee during the dismissal process is an understatement. Put simply, employees should be fired in person, face to face, straight from the person making the decision. Here in the UK, certain standards apply when firing an employee and are governed by the ACAS Code of Practice on Discipline and Grievances At Work. It should also go without saying that the higher the person’s standing in the organisation, the more delicate the handling of their dismissal process should be.

If you’ve ever had to fire someone, you’ll know just how difficult and unpleasant a task this is. And how serious the consequences. Whatever the circumstances, a decision to fire an employee will affect their personal and financial circumstances, have a wider impact on their family, and almost certainly negatively influence their chances of getting another job.

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

How Not To Fire An Employee

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 ‘on the other side’ at Employment Tribunal and won a number of cases of unfair dismissal.

These experiences opened my eyes to the ‘right way’ to fire employees. I hate firing people. But if the circumstances are warranted, I do so after thoughtful deliberation. Because making a decision about somebody’s future employment is not something I take lightly.

Here are five tips I’ve learned on how to fire an employee gracefully.

1. Prevention Is Best

The starting point is when you first hire a new 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 appointing ‘the right people.’ Organisations like ACAS provide excellent guides on to recruit and induct new employees.

2. Be Fair

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 first appear. I’ve received allegations that are either malicious or partially true about employees countless times. When I’ve investigated the circumstances, I’ve found that these haven’t 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. Act Lawfully

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 and resource intensive business.

4. Never Humiliate An Employee

If you have no alternative but to fire an employee, do so with grace and dignity. Always fire someone in private behind closed doors. And make sure the terminated employee does not need to leave the building in front of their co-workers. This costs you nothing. But the costs of humiliating an employee will be exponential.

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

5. No Nasty Surprises

Before you consider firing an employee, talk to them about any concerns you have about their performance. If their performance falls short of expected standards, follow performance management procedures. In the majority of cases, giving your employees honest feedback about their performance will ensure they pull their socks up.

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.

Firing an employee has serious consequences. The wise person does so quietly, respectfully and in a way that preserves the person’s self-respect.

Join The Conversation

Question: Have you ever 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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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.

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