Emerging Technology

A sorry situation: Key lessons from AOL chief Tim Armstrong apologising over conference call firing

Patrick Stafford /

Just two days after AOL boss Tim Armstrong made headlines after firing an employee in front of 1,000 colleagues, the chief executive has issued an apology for his behaviour.

The move has been welcomed by analysts, who criticised Armstrong for the display, which occurred during a company-wide conference call designed to boost morale for staff who are enduring a business-wide restructure.

They also say it is a good learning opportunity for other people in positions of authority to own up to their personal leadership mistakes.

“I am writing you to acknowledge the mistake I made last Friday during the Patch all-hands meeting when I publicly fired Abel Lenz,” Armstrong said yesterday in the memo, according to TechCrunch. “I am the CEO and leader of the organization, and I take that responsibility seriously.”

However, Armstrong doesn’t say the company will re-employ Abel Lenz, instead defending his decision by saying Lenz was previously told not to record the meeting.

“Internal meetings of a confidential nature should not be filmed or recorded so that our employees can feel free to discuss all topics openly,” said Armstrong.

Motivational psychologist and SmartCompany blogger Eve Ash says the apology is a good example of why people in leadership positions need to act as quickly as possible to mitigate disaster.

“In these situations you need to apologise as soon as you can.

“There is an exponential response after doing something damning, and we know with social medial the speed at which news spreads is rapid. The sooner the apology comes, the better.”

Ash points to the iconic incident with United Airlines back in 2009, when a passenger whose guitar was broken by a baggage handling crew wrote a song about the incident and uploaded it to YouTube after receiving no apology from the company.

The song attracted millions of views and harmed the company’s reputation.

But while Ash notes the speed of the apology is important, leaders also need to address more issues beyond just the basics.

“An apology alone is not enough. You need to give reasons as to why the incident happened, and not just justify the action but say how things should have been done in the first place.”

While the Armstrong memo contains more information about why the termination occurred, there is no specific explanation for how the incident should have happened – only that Armstrong regrets how the incident was handled.

“We all know that as soon as public apologies are made, there’s always the chance of something positive coming out of it.

“The longer it’s talked about and complained about, with no reaction from the company or leader in particular, the worse it can become.”

Steve Shepherd, group director at Randstad, also says the intent of the apology is important – if the memo is being sent because it was advised by “spin doctors”, it will come out soon enough.

“Once trust is broken, it takes time to recover. His actions moving forward are going to tell more about whether he was genuinely apologetic than the statement he actually made.”

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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