Regardless of your political views, most will agree that President Trump’s firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey was fraught with potential controversy. Employers can find at least four takeaways from what was, in short, a retaliation “how not to do it” checklist.
First, regardless of the reason for a proposed termination, look back in the personnel file (and elsewhere) for contrary statements and words of high praise. President Trump praised Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails just months ago, yet handling the emails was identified as one of the reasons for Comey’s termination.
Second, when you have a clear-cut, obvious reason to fire someone as well as a less clear-cut reason, don’t omit the obvious one. Comey gave the President a gift when he had to correct his sworn testimony before Congress. The President could easily have said that Comey’s admittedly false testimony to Congress eroded the President’s confidence in him.
Third, don’t box yourself into limited, extremely specific reasons for a discharge when there are multiple reasons. President Trump’s surrogates listed only a few, specific reasons for the termination decision, such as Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails. Ordinarily, this would box the employer into defending just these reasons. The Administration should have explained that there were many, many reasons for the decision, such as the Clinton email investigation and Comey’s correction of his Congressional testimony and that the President looked at a multitude of factors to reach this difficult decision.
Fourth, if a proposed termination raises red flags, consider addressing them head-on (and spinning them if necessary). For example, the Administration could have acknowledged that Comey’s firing looks sketchy to critics and conspiracy theorists, but President Trump made the decision despite the optics because the American people deserve the best F.B.I. Director possible, and Comey’s performance showed he did not fit that bill. More employer life-lessons from the Administration to come, no doubt, so stay tuned!