Let us remember that before he became a reality TV star, a presidential candidate, then president of the US, Donald Trump was the CEO of his own family company, a man used to hiring and firing at will. And let’s remember that as a reality star, his most famous line, one he tried to trademark, was “You’re fired!”
Those who have followed the ins and outs of corporate executive behavior for years, and experienced it ourselves, know that when a company puts out a statement like, “we have full confidence in our CEO,” that means the board is about to fire him or her. Examples are countless. In June of 2011, Yahoo’s board stated they had “full confidence” in Carol Bartz as CEO. In September, she was fired over the telephone by Yahoo’s chairman, Roy Rostock, one of the company’s co-founders.
On July 25, 2010, BP publicly stated that Tony Hayward, the CEO famous for running the company during the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill, “has the full support of the board,” only to announce the next day that US BP chief Bob Dudley would take over; Hayward had been still negotiating his severance package. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, under fire for the company’s sexist culture, “absolutely” had the full confidence of Uber’s board in March, according to director Arianna Huffington. While Kalanick is unlikely to be completely pushed out of management—he controls the board—Huffington now says there will be “restructuring of the management team,” including the hiring of a chief operating officer.“When a CEO says, ‘You have my full confidence,’ I often advise the person to update their resume.”
And on Feb. 13, Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC that then-national security advisor Michael Flynn enjoyed the “full confidence of the president.” Flynn was toast the next day. “When a CEO says, ‘You have my full confidence,’ I often advise the person to update their resume,” Dee Soder, managing partner of the CEO Perspective Group in New York, which advises top executives, tells Quartz.
Which brings us to former FBI chief James Comey, who has placed himself at the center of disputes surrounding the character of presidents and presidential candidates. It’s curious that a man as sophisticated with the cut and thrust of political and corporate life wouldn’t understand, as Comey testified to Congress, that when a guy like Trump says stuff during a single dinner like asking whether he “wanted to stay on as FBI director,” that “lots of people wanted my job,” and “he would understand if I wanted to walk away,” that Trump was already telling him he wanted him out. For Comey to find this conversation “strange” rings as disingenuous.
“When there is a closed-door private conversation and management is saying, ‘I am confident about you but concerned about X,’ or ‘John is really gunning to take on this project,’ or ‘we have confidence in you, but we understand if this isn’t your skill set,’ those are red flags,” says Randi Melnick, an employment lawyer in New York. “That is a soft signal. That is a boss saying ‘Please don’t make me fire you.’ ”
So when your boss suggests you may want to leave your job, you know your days are numbered. Those employed “at will,” who can be fired without cause and at the boss’s whim, should begin documenting their meetings with said boss. That’s exactly what Comey did. Such memos can serve as ammunition when, for instance, one is negotiating severance pay. Or political payback. (Or a lucrative book contract.) “Lots of people document things in some kind of hope that it will get them a reward down the road that may not come,” says Melnick.
Perhaps Comey understood all this far better than he’s willing to admit.