The “You’re Fired!” Heard Around The World

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 14, 2013 – 5:58 AM

AOL’s CEO, Tim Armstrong, fired someone late last week.

Corporate CEOs fire people all the time. But what made this firing newsworthy is that Armstrong fired one of his executives during a conference call, on which more than 1,000 employees of AOL’s local news platform Patch were listening in.  

Armstrong was upset that Patch Creative Director Abel Lenz took a photo of him during the conference call, at which point he icily—and casually—said:

“Abel, put that camera down, now. Abel, you’re fired. Out.” (Audio below.)

Armstrong (kind of) apologized in a memo addressed to “AOLers” yesterday, but something he wrote caught my eye:

“As you know, I am a firm believer in open meetings, open Q&A, and this level of transparency requires trust across AOL. 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.”

If Mr. Lenz willingly disregarded a warning not to record his CEO, his firing may have justified.

But what struck me is how preposterous it is for Mr. Armstrong to expect that a conference call with more than 1,000 employees—many of whom are journalists—would remain confidential.

We’re not operating in 1996 anymore (although AOL would probably like that). When speaking to large groups of people, corporate executives—or any of us, really—should have no reasonable expectation of privacy. They should act as if everything they say could be made public, as it was in this case, and comport themselves accordingly.

If this was an in-person meeting, I suppose a brutish team of security guards could have sequestered each attendee’s smartphone, stripped them of recording devices, and collected their notepads. But no similar precaution could be taken when more than 1,000 people are listening in from various sites around the country.

Now, whether CEOs should be able to talk privately to their employees without their words being broadcast globally is a different topic. I’m sympathetic to those longing for days when they could have a frank exchange without fear of it being made public. But longing for those days is like longing for a return to the heyday of the eight-track tape and the facsimile machine. It ain’t going to happen.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (9)

  1. By Daphne Gray-Grant:

    This wouldn’t have remained a secret in 1996. Or 1986. Or 1976. I think you’d have to go back to 1966 before journalists could be cowed into keeping news like this under wraps. Armstrong was breathtakingly naive.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Daphne,

    Thank you for your comment. You’re probably right.

    It’s interesting to note that the years you mentioned as “not being able to keep the secret,” 1986 and 1976, were post-Watergate. The year you selected for “keeping the secret,” 1966, was pre-Watergate. I’m wondering if perhaps your selection of years was intentional, as journalism changed to a less insular culture and to more of an investigatory, “gotcha” culture after the Watergate break in? And I’m wondering whether that same trend may have followed, at about the same time, in corporate life?

    Something to think about…thanks very much for the comment!

    Brad

  3. By Nikki:

    The interesting point in his memo you referenced, is that clearly someone WAS recording the entire thing! Did that person get fired too?

    What is very clear from this recording, long before he fired Abel, is the very pompous nature this exec displayed. By not waiting to discuss Abel’s shortcomings one-on-one, he effectively undermined his own image as a leader to the same group listening in (and now world-wide).

    Transparency is great, but so is common courtesy.

  4. By Brad Phillips:

    Nikki,

    Great points!

    Yes, someone was recording it. I suspect they don’t know who the “guilty” party was, lest that person would be fired as well.

    You’re right about his tone. He comes across as a bully, and now the world knows what his employees have probably known for years.

    Thanks for commenting,
    Brad

  5. By Danny Skarka:

    Tim said repeatedly in the recording that he didn’t mind leaks or people telling secrets. So I believe your premise that he thought the meeting would remain confidential is incorrect. He fully expected what he said to get out. My guess is he wanted it to.

    I think the firing is not really related to this specific meeting, but was an ongoing issue that happened to come to a head when Tim was trying to give a serious, rather depressing message to his team. He wasn’t in the frame of mind to deal with the guy with the camera.

  6. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Danny,

    Thank you for your comment. I do understand where you’re coming from, but I interpreted his comments on the tape and written statement differently.

    For example, on the tape when he says, “Leaking information isn’t going to bother me,” I don’t believe he’s saying he’s okay with leaks. Rather, he’s almost offering a dare: “Leak all you want, but it’s not going to stop me from doing what I want to do.”

    Read the language in his statement carefully (I’ve bolded two phrases for emphasis here): “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.”

    He clearly views this as a confidential meeting, and that’s where I think he’s naive. He might want it to be, but as I say in my piece, it’s an unrealistic expectation in today’s smartphone culture.

    Thanks again,
    Brad

  7. By Eugenia Kaneshige:

    While I agree that Armstrong’s behavior was ungentlemanly and not what one would expect from the ‘ideal’ leader, we don’t know the whole story or the big picture. What struck me are the comments that it’s preposterous and naïve to expect people to participate in a conference call and abide by rules set by the host.

    Have our moral standards really sunk so low? Are rules made only for ‘other’ people? Are we suggesting that they are made to be broken, and that the rights of the individual are more important than what’s good for the community as a whole? I’m a big supporter of transparency as it relates to employee and shareholder rights, but this incident makes clear that not everyone can be trusted with the responsibilities that accompany rights.

    Armstrong’s firing the photographer suggests that he wasn’t ‘daring’ anyone to break the rules. Rather, he was saying that if you break his rules, you can expect immediate and unpleasant consequences. While one might say that he went too far, apparently even that message failed to come across, since someone else recorded and leaked the incident. Had Armstrong quietly fired the photographer, there would have been speculation as to why–a ‘personality conflict,’ for instance. Leadership should never be a popularity contest, because it entails making unpopular decisions in the short-term, in order to achieve long-term goals.

    Respect and loyalty are two-way streets. If you don’t respect management or leadership, then you should vote with your feet. Otherwise, it’s called hypocrisy. If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. Hanging around and trying to sabotage management will only destroy your own self-respect, integrity, and happiness. As a career and job search coach, I’m passionate about this subject, so forgive me if I’ve digressed.

    I want to make it clear that I’m not condoning Armstrong’s behavior or offering excuses for it. I’m simply saying that I personally don’t know enough to judge either him or the other players.

  8. By Brad Phillips:

    Eugenia,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment.

    I hear you. I feel the same way you do about the importance of being an honorable employee who doesn’t gratuitously leak information to sabotage the company’s leadership.

    But we’re dealing with two separate issues here. On one hand, there’s the way we wished people acted, and perhaps even the way they should act. On the other hand, we’re dealing with the way people actually do act, for better or worse. When dispensing communications advice, I can’t linger too long on the way people should act. My advice in this article is geared for the culture in which a great many executives operate, one in which employees occasionally leak and purposefully make an executive look bad. Do I endorse that behavior? No. Do I understand the need to prepare companies for it? Absolutely.

    I really appreciate your comment, and am glad you took the time to write such a thoughtful counterpoint!

    Best wishes,
    Brad

  9. By Charles Mitchell:

    Tactless, autocratic statements like Mr. Armstrong’s do one thing, scare the employees into knuckling under to whatever they perceive are Mr. Armstrong’s whims. Whether his approaching was intentionally Machiavellian or just careless it certainly dimmed the opinion of him by his workers and the public. Which is it? To the employees it doesn’t matter. To the companies future success, it is a step toward making them an undesirable business client, partner or supplier. In short, not good for the bottom line. Mr. Armstrong has a lot of work to do to recover, not for his benefit, but for the companies. Take note AOL board of directors.

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