Management 101: Never Fire Someone Publicly, Even if You Are CEO of AOL

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Here’s a question that every manager and HR professional should ask themselves: Is it ever right to fire someone publicly?

If you have spent any time managing, or working in HR, you surely know the answer to that  — No, never, ever.

So, how do we explain AOL CEO Tim Armstrong firing one of his senior managers last week two minutes into a conference call with a thousand employees of the company’s Patch team? And how do we reconcile the very public firing of Patch Creative Director Abel Lenz with the act that got him fired — taking a photo of Armstrong leading the conference call?

Management 101: Never, ever fire in public

Once you sort through all the questions, the bottom line — and it is Management 101 — is pretty simple: you never, ever terminate someone in public, and Tim Armstrong’s doing so was a callous act of an over-the-top, out-of-control executive ego that simply confirms to everyone that he doesn’t have a clue when it comes to doing the single toughest thing a manager ever has to do.

So, why was Tim Armstrong channeling his inner Donald Trump? What else was going on between Armstrong and his creative director that led to this petulant pique in front of more than a thousand people?

The conference call was to explain cutbacks and upcoming layoffs at AOL’s Patch service. Patch is a group of local websites that have generally underperformed for AOL, and as Business Insider explains, “The point of the call was for Armstrong to rally the employees of Patch — the day after Armstrong told Wall Street analysts he planned massive cost cuts for the division.”

What happened on that conference call

Business Insider then gives this detail of exactly what happened:

About two minutes into a speech addressed to everyone on the call, Armstrong pauses to address someone in the room.

He says, “Abel, put that camera down, now.”

Then, without taking a breath, Armstrong says, “Abel, you’re fired. Out.”

One of the reasons the recording is so odd is that Armstrong hardly seems to give Lenz a chance to put down the camera before firing him.

Also: We’re told that Lenz, based in New York, would always take pictures of big speakers during conference calls, and later post the images on Patch’s internal Web site, so the 1,000 or so remote workers could see them.

He wasn’t doing anything unusual at the time.”

A job best done one-on-one

The Business Insider story goes on to speculate that Armstrong may have fired Lenz because he was unhappy with the Patch 2.0 redesign Lenz spearheaded, and perhaps that is the case. It may be that Armstrong had solid reasons to fire him, but why in public, when Lenz was simply doing his job (it appears), before an audience of a thousand co-workers?

There’s no good answer to that, because even if Armstrong was right in doing the firing, he was very, very wrong in how he did it.

I’ve written about this on numerous occasions, and my feelings remain the same:

There’s only one right way to fire a person — in person, face-to-face, supervisor to worker. There’s a reason for this, and it’s simple: It should be handled that way because management should be forced to personally confront the consequences of its actions.

I don’t know any good manager who likes firing people, but unfortunately, it’s part of the job. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you owe it to the person you are firing to sit them down and tell them the reasons why.

Can you do it by phone? Well, yes, but that should only be used in an extremely unusual or exceptional circumstance. I’ve had to travel across the country on occasion to discharge a remotely based worker in person, and although I hated having to do it, I always felt it was a trip worth making. Why? Well, when you have to fire someone in person, you find that you are a lot less willing to consider doing it in the abstract. And that’s why doing it by e-mail or phone is a cop-out. It dehumanizes a process that is pretty inhuman to begin with.

Taking a person’s job away, for whatever reason, is one of the worst things you can do to another human. Doing it in person doesn’t make it better, but it does make it more personal and is one small thing that can help the departing person walk away with some small measure of dignity.”

Sending a message, even if it is the wrong one

Baseball managers let people go all the time — that’s just the nature of the game — and as Baltimore Orioles Manager Buck Showalter once observed, “I don’t ever want to be good at it.  … When they’re sitting across from me, I want them to know that I’ve got a clear head and that it was important to me to give them the time to explain what’s going on. …”

I don’t know Tim Armstrong from the man in the moon, but I do know this — someone needs to take him to the woodshed and give him a good, swift kick in the keister. His public firing of Abel Lenz, during a conference call, in front of so many, shows how little respect he has for people, and that surely sends a clear and unmistakeable message to what remains of his workforce.

Is this someone you would want leading your company? If I’m a member of the AOL Board, that’s a question I would be asking myself, because treating one of the company’s executives like that has surely done irreparable harm.

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Managing is tough, and firing people is part of being a manager. But, you don’t do it like Walter White taking out a rival drug lord.

My guess is that Tim Armstrong’s actions sent a clear message to everyone at Patch and AOL. Unfortunately, it probably not the one he had in mind.

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UPDATE: Tim Armstrong sent an email to his employees Tuesday apologizing for his very public firing of Creative Director Abel Lenz, but it seems more like a message of “I’m sorry I got caught and called out in the media,” rather than “I’m really sorry for doing something really stupid.”

Although Armstrong admits that “at a human level it was unfair to Abel,” and that he has apologized to him “directly … for the way the matter was handled at the meeting,” there is no indication of anything Armstrong is going to do beyond the apology to make things right.

Maybe the now out of work Lenz is satisfied with this public mea culpa, but I’m not buying what Armstrong is selling.

A Bloomberg News story calls Armstrong’s action “a rare public apology,” but maybe that’s the problem — executives like Tim Armstrong who make major personnel missteps in a very public way need to not only apologize, and but also make meaningful amends.

Catholics call it making a “sincere act of contrition.” Tim Armstrong would  help his cause more if he were to do the same.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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