Emerging Technology

AOL chief executive fires an employee…in front of 1000 colleagues

Patrick Stafford /

Criticising employees in public is usually frowned upon by most business owners, but flat-out firing them? It’s nearly unheard of.

But over the weekend, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong appeared to do just that when he actually fired someone during a company-wide conference call in the US.

While the audio is an unusual piece of corporate theatre, it also represents a key lesson for employers about when, or when not to, publicly criticise an employee.

As he was giving a speech to hundreds of staff at AOL subsidiary Patch about upcoming layoffs – a speech reportedly designed to boost morale – Armstrong pointed out a specific employee who allegedly held up a camera. That employee was told to leave.

Business Insider has reported that the employee – Abel Lenz – had nothing to say when contacted, simply saying “I have nothing to share. Go Patch!” in a tweet. It’s still unknown whether Lenz remains at the company or not.

Media blogger Jim Romensko said one source claimed Armstrong then said he didn’t want anyone taking pictures of the meeting.

AOL was contacted by SmartCompany this morning but was unavailable for comment.

Even if the firing remains unconfirmed, the act itself remains incredibly unusual for a chief executive. Not only to fire someone personally, but to do so in front of other employees.

While such an act would be unlikely in Australia, given immediate dismissals require serious misconduct, the act still represents a key question – how and when should you critique your staff?

Steve Shepherd, group director at Randstad, told SmartCompany the discrete approach is usually the best when it comes to performance issues.

“We always advocate that performance related conversations and ultimately terminations should be done behind closed doors, with conversations taking place.

“Those who aren’t involved don’t need to know the details. It’s really just a matter of respect for everyone involved.”

Shepherd says the dynamics of public critique are important to consider. By effectively shaming an employee, you won’t necessarily motivate them to do their best work. And in any case, firing someone in front of others will instil a culture of fear among other employees.

“[Armstrong’s] message was all about rallying the troops and moving forward, but this would probably create a feeling of fear within the business.”

Ultimately, Shepherd says, the issue is simple: “Treat others as you’d like to be treated”.

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Patrick Stafford

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

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