Dear Mr. President,
I don’t care that you fired Mr. Comey.
I don’t care why you fired Mr. Comey.
I don’t even care when you chose to fire Mr. Comey.
Many political leaders, members of the news media and various experts have weighed in this past week on the who, what, where, when and why of your decision to terminate Mr. Comey. I’ve listened to all the angles, the assumptions, comparisons and underlying agendas and I find a piece of the conversation missing for me. I want to raise the topic of the 6th W – the Way in which it was handled.
As the President and, in essence, the CEO, of the USA you had the right to make this decision. As the most visible World-wide representative of our country and a global leader – even you have admitted to having a few pinch yourself moments – you have a platform to model leadership behaviors that go beyond politics and pettiness to making a real difference in our conversation about the value of the employment relationship.
A couple of points I’d like you to consider:
You claim to be for the American worker. You claim to be fighting to bring back all those solid, well-paying working class jobs that made America great. However, the message you send with your approach to firing people in your “organization” is to shame them, denigrate them, embarrass them – the message is clear – ‘working class please stay at your level. I am the boss so what I say goes.’
Employees who are willing to express an different point of view offer you an amazing gift. A gift to delve deeper into an issue, to consider alternative approaches, to get it right the first time. By firing Ms. Yates and then Mr. Comey you send a message to every single person in the federal government that say’s ‘when I want your opinion I will give it to you.’ Our democracy not only supports, but requires from each of us, having an opinion and standing up for what we believe in.
Most people believe that one should lose their job for 'just cause' not ‘because’ I said so. Whimsical behavior like this in a leader makes it very difficult for employees to take reasonable actions and make sound decisions – in short do their jobs. An environment of fear and ambiguity diminishes an employee’s productivity and overall performance that no corporate tax cut can fix.
With all the issues facing our country, I ask you as one of its citizens, to please not stifle the men and women who work in our federal government. For my sake and the sake of my family, community and country, I need them to be at their best.
I’ve lost count of the number of times over my career I said to an employee, using my best Martha Stewart “it’s a Good Thing” voice, that we are all Employee’s-At-Will. That it was a “Good Thing” because it meant they could quit whenever they wanted and in reverse the company had the right to let them go whenever we wanted. I’m not sure Martha would agree this is a “good thing.”
It sounds so reasonable and adult like; until it comes time to execute that is. At that point, if you choose to quit we apply all kinds of rules around it such as amount of notice that is required, what benefits you are entitled to and in many cases, see it as a breach of loyalty and shun them like an Amish teen choosing to leave the community. We act like an angry parent, demanding the kids eat their peas before they get dessert.
In contrast when the company decides to exercise the Employee-At-Will option we switch to the role of angry landlord and kick them unceremoniously to the curb with their box (or suitcase) in hand. If we are especially anxious for them to leave we may even offer to mail them their belongings.
I’m not suggesting you abolish Employee-At-Will – I’m suggesting that you set the model of engaging in an adult to adult conversation – please practice the Art of the Deal and negotiate the separation.
It’s Not About You
When someone is fired, terminated, eliminated, down-sized, RIF’d, put on “special assignment, or any other euphemism you want to use for telling an employee they no longer have a job, please try to remember that it’s not about you. It’s about them. Thanking Mr. Comey in a letter for something about you is insensitive, rude and crass. I’m sorry but there are no good adjectives that I can apply to this.
Your behavior reminded me of a story a prior colleague shared with me. Her boss called her into his office to tell her that her position was eliminated effective immediately and then switched the conversation to talk about his upcoming heart surgery. Shades of Jerry McGuire in that one!
When you have the responsibility of sitting across from an employee what you feel, think, believe, or assume is not relevant. Your job is to treat the human-being across from you with dignity and respect, regardless if it is for cause or because.
Mr. President, I have fired many people over my career, I have been fired twice, I have participated in countless unemployment hearings, Arbitrations, and one wrongful termination lawsuit. I know what it feels like from all sides of the table. The next time you fire an employee I would like to humbly suggest the following to spare both you and the employee:
Be Gracious – if it’s not in your character to be kind at least be gracious. One of the first things I tried to teach my son was how to be gracious with others. I think it is a skill that we can all practice more.
Be Silent – don’t smear that prior employee. Be bigger than that. Feel free to use your choice of corporate euphemisms – decided to “pursue other opportunities”, “spend more time with his family,” or my favorite, “philosophical differences.” These tried and true statements fool no one but demonstrate a certain degree of class, composure and compassion that people respect.