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CEO fires staffer in public blow-up

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

During a speech to 1,000 employees, Tim Armstrong lost it. When the chairman and chief executive of AOL spotted a staffer taking photographs, Armstrong paused in the middle of his remarks and said, “Abel, put that camera down, now.”

Almost immediately, Armstrong added, “Abel, you’re fired. Out.”

Ironically, the purpose of Armstrong’s speech was to lift the spirits of AOL employees the day after he told Wall Street analysts that he planned substantial cuts to their division. Yet about two minutes into his conference call to far-flung employees, Armstrong stopped to lash out. In a few seconds, he foiled his attempt to boost morale.

Abel Lenz, creative director of AOL’s local news division called Patch, often photographed executives during conference calls. He’d then post his photos on the com­­pany’s intranet.

That makes Armstrong’s response all the more puzzling. It’s strange that the CEO didn’t give Lenz a chance to put the camera down; instead, he fired him almost instantaneously.  

Because the incident was taped, it went viral and became an online hit. ­Armstrong eventually apologized, but the damage was done.

In his statement to employees, Armstrong said, “It was an emotional response at the start of a difficult discussion dealing with many people’s careers and livelihoods.”

When 1,000 employees hear a CEO fire someone on the spot, fear spreads among them. It lowers the odds that they’ll take prudent risks to benefit the company—and increases the odds that they’ll play it safe and shift into a mindless, order-taker mode.

There’s a reason why top leaders praise in public but chastise in private: It shows maturity and sensitivity to others’ feelings. By ignoring that rule, Armstrong left himself more vulnerable than ever.

— Adapted from “AOL’s Armstrong: Boss or Work­­place Bully?” Linda Dulye, Fox Small Business Center.

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