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Fired by conference call

AOL’s chief executive shows poor leadership in heat of the moment termination

By Todd Humber

There’s really no good way to fire somebody, but there are plenty of bad ways.

Tim Armstrong, chief executive officer of AOL, chose the latter last week when he turfed a worker during a mass conference call with about 1,000 workers listening in, according to CNN.

The fired worker, Abel Lenz, was a creative director and founder of Patch, a series of hyperlocal news websites. Lenz was attempting to snap a picture of Armstrong during the call, which was discussing the future of Patch, and the CEO didn’t take kindly to the snapshot.

“Abel — put that camera down right now,” he said, according to audio obtained by “Abel! You’re fired! Out!”

Let’s call that precisely what it is: Poor leadership.

Because couched in those words are a slew of hidden messages to the 1,000 employees listening in to the call, and to countless other employees under the AOL banner.

A termination should never happen in front of other workers. That’s inexcusable behaviour for any manager, let alone the CEO. The chief executive sets the tone for the organization. More than any other individual, he has the power to influence the workplace culture.

What makes the best culture is up for debate, but generally speaking organizations are working hard to establish supportive, collaborative cultures where bullying isn’t tolerated and speaking up is encouraged.

But a clear message was sent to AOL workers: If you annoy the wrong person at the wrong time, you’re done.

I don’t know the exact context the photo was being taken in — I don’t know if Armstrong gave strict orders not to take his photo during the call. But it doesn’t matter. He could have asked, or ordered, Lenz to put the camera down. Repeatedly, if necessary. The discipline should have come later, behind a closed door.

Now, any bully manager at AOL will feel emboldened — “If the CEO can do it, so can I.”

Employees will now be afraid to speak up, and hesitant to offer ideas to senior management. After all, they’ve seen a temper from the top dog who has a bite that matches his bark.

Armstrong is hardly alone in choosing the wrong way to end the employment relationship.

Over the years, stories about bungled terminations have dotted the pages of Canadian HR Reporter. Like the story about Nice, a Brussels advertising agency, that turned a difficult decision about laying off an employee into a PR stunt.

It created a website and sent an email to 100 of its clients, asking them to choose which employee to let go. The campaign went viral, and the top vote-getter was a cameraman who urged people to vote for him: “I don’t want to keep working for an agency where they’ll turn to something like this to send someone out the door,” he said on the website.

Then there’s the story of Crystal Bell, a spa worker in Kelowna, B.C., who was fired via Facebook. (Ironically, she was also hired via Facebook, so I guess that story came full circle.)

And there have been tales of workers being let go by text message and even fax.

I’ve written many times over the years about the landmark Wallace v. United Grain Growers Supreme Court of Canada ruling. In it, the court underscored how important work is to one’s self identity, and put an onus on employers to act with care with firing a worker, for cause or otherwise.

Firing a worker for what seems like a minor annoyance while on a conference call with thousands of workers doesn’t come close to acting with care. It’s reckless leadership, it damages AOL’s employment brand and it sets a very poor example for all workers at the company.


After this blog was initially posted, Armstrong issued a memo to employees apologizing for the way he handled the termination — but the termination still stood, according to numerous media reports.

"It was an emotional response at the start of a difficult discussion dealing with many people's careers and livelihoods," Armstrong wrote in the memo. "I am the CEO and leader of the organization, and I take that responsibility seriously. We talk a lot about accountability and I am accountable for the way I handled the situation, and at a human level it was unfair to Abel. I've communicated to him directly and apologized for the way the matter was handled at the meeting."
Armstrong said internal meetings of a confidential nature "should not be filmed or recorded so that our employees can feel free to discuss all topics openly. Abel had been told previously not to record a confidential meeting, and he repeated that behavior on Friday, which drove my actions."
He admitted he had acted too quickly, adding he had "learned a tremendous lesson" and wanted employees to hear that message directly from him.



Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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