How Not To Fire People

Alberto Gonzales
Alberto Gonzales

Once again, I’m going to risk taking this blog into the political realm by discussing a current political controversy. But, I promise, the emphasis here is not on the who, or the why, but rather the how.

Alberto Gonzales, the United States Attorney General, is in a lot of hot water lately about the firing of eight US Attorneys around the country. This action has stirred up a hornet’s nest of political noise, and has once again backed the Bush administration into a corner. No matter the outcome, there is a lot to be learned from how this was handled.

Let’s begin by stating that I firmly believe the Bush administration has every right to have whoever they want as US Attorneys. These are political appointments, and often turnover between administrations.

But there are ways to handle this problem, and ways to not handle it. With most incoming administrations, the typical approach to these political appointments is to fire the whole lot of them, then fill the positions with people you want. This has the great advantage that you get all your own team, and more importantly is it eminently fair. Nobody feels singled out because everyone was escorted out. Sure it feels harsh, but it is hard to argue with the process.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gonzales took another approach. Drawn into the incessant politics that seem to permeate the Bush whitehouse, it appears that he yielded to the pressure of the machine. He picked only a few attorneys who had somehow angered the powers that be, and summarily fired them.

No job action should be a surprise.

The problem with this approach, aside from the overtly political nature of the process (a discussion I’ll leave to others) is that is was inherently unfair. Of course it was biased by the politics of the decision, but more importantly to our discussion, it violated my number one rule for job actions: no job action should be a surprise. As witnessed by the testimony of the fired attorneys on capitol hill a few days ago, clearly every one of these people was at least somewhat surprised by their termination.

All of the terminated attorneys received stellar performance reviews in the last several appraisals. They were praised for their hard work, their integrity, and their results. Then they walked in one day and — poof, they were fired.

Now this is just simply bad management. I’d like to recommend that Mr. Gonzales, the entire Bush administration, and you all read my FAQ on how to fire people correctly. It is a clear guide on how to move someone out when you’ve decided they need to go.

But to make matters worse, and perhaps a more devastating political issue than the suddenness of the firings, was the uniform denial of the reason for the action by the entire Bush clan. They denied the fact that they were political actions (which I will remind everyone the Bush administration has every right to do), but instead called them actions based on performance problems.

The facts do not back up a claim of performance issues.

Just as I note in the FAQ article, this is bad management because it’s not being honest and straightforward with the victim, and is likely to cause them to get upset. Especially when the facts do not back up a claim of performance issues. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the terminated employees cried “foul!” And it should come as even less of a surprise that an overtly political process handled poorly would become a firestorm.

Too bad, because if they had simply handled it right, we’d all be arguing about vastly more important things, like how to get out of a quagmire and who the next person to lead us there should be.

4 thoughts on “How Not To Fire People

  1. Nancy Williams

    Should the person responsible for the firing in each state where a “replacement” US Attorney was desired have explained that, sorry, but you’re getting too close in your current investigation to uncovering some uncomfortable links between the target you’ve been following and …. well, some of us who are your bosses? That’s where the accusations of corruption arise and that’s where the problems lay, apparently. In several key states cause for dismissal was fabricated and no lead-up performance review gave the victim a hint what was coming. How would you tell someone to back off your investigation or you’re going to lose your job, when the investigation WAS the job? No wonder there’s a big flap with more to come.

  2. Chris Williams Post author

    Yep, they should have pulled them in, and given them a lousy performance review — “not following direction well”, “priorities do not represent those of the organization”, and “failed to follow specific guidelines”. Do that twice, then fire them.

    That would’ve been clean and kosher. They were warned, the disregarded the warnings, and they got fired. The fact that these are political jobs has NEVER been a secret. The fact that their priorities change with the administration has never been a secret.

    The flap is all about how, not whether or why (IMHO).

  3. Nancy Williams

    This is a bit different from a corporation. I refer you to the long dissertation made by Josh Marshall in his “Talking Points Memo” yesterday regarding what we are entitled to expect from law enforcement, a sitting judge – or the tax collector, for that matter. Whether or not the position is an appointed one and therefore political in nature, we assume we receive political blindness in the performance. Or should. That’s the difference from “doesn’t represent the priorities of the organization” that is wholly appropriate as just cause in a corporation.

  4. Chris Williams Post author

    I think expecting pure political blindness in this situation is asking too much. But my point is, nonetheless, that the whole situation would’ve blown over if done correctly.

    For example, John McKay (the Seattle victim) said yesterday on Meet the Press that he intended to resign, and was ready to accept it until the higher ups claimed it was for performance reasons. That’s when he and others reached out to each other and began to object. Had Alberto followed my advice, we’d never even known about this whole mess…

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