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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

The Right and Wrong Ways to Fire Someone

Jon Elswick/AP

President Donald Trump gained international fame for firing people on television. So why isn’t he better at it?

Trump’s very public termination of FBI director James Comey was notably maladroit. Here’s how a responsible manager fires an employee:

Do it in person

Instead of telling Comey the news in the Oval Office, Trump had an assistant deliver a letter to FBI headquarters, either not knowing, or not caring, that Comey was in Los Angeles at the time. Comey learned about his dismissal from televised reports.

Telling an employee they no longer have a job isn’t pleasant, but it’s a manager’s duty to tell them face to face. A manager should be able to defend their decision, and answer any questions. A face-to-face meeting also sends a message of accountability to the rest of the organization, that the manager stand by the decision. Telling someone via email or letter—or worse, via an emissary—looks like cowardice.

Show compassion and be sincere

Whatever the circumstances, firing someone will have a huge impact on their lives and those of their families. Managers should be aware of the consequences, and respect the gravity of the situation. If they believe the employee could be a contributor at another company, they should offer to help with a letter of recommendation. What’s not helpful is offering trite platitudes like the one Trump sent Comey: “I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.”

“Given how short and terse the letter was, it just came across as sarcastic,” Rachel Suff, a UK human resources expert, told the BBC.

It’s not about you

The conversation should be short and to the point. It’s not an opportunity to deliver lectures or settle scores. While Trump’s letter is brief, he manages to find room to remind Comey “on three separate occasions, I am not under investigation.” It’s a political message intended for public consumption, and doesn’t belong in his letter. Likewise, the line about finding new FBI leadership “that restores public trust and confidence” is a cheap shot.

Talk to the team

It’s important to communicate with departed employee’s team, to address rumors and to reassure them about their own positions. Don’t divulge details, and be encouraging about the future of the organization. It probably wouldn’t be practical for Trump to speak at the FBI in person on short notice, but he easily could issue a statement to their rank-and-file that he valued their work and has their best interests in mind.

Be discrete

Perhaps it goes without saying, but terminating an employee should be kept confidential. It’s best handled in a private office behind closed doors, ideally at the end of day. Not, for instance, in a letter distributed to the media.

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