Ouch! Why a public firing is so awful for everyone involved

Ron Ashkenas comments on Tim Armstrong, the chairman and chief executive of AOL, apparently firing the company creative director in the midst of a conference call.

By Allison Linn - Special to TODAY

It’s a terrible thing to get fired – and even worse when it happens in public.

That’s probably why so many people were shocked by reports that Tim Armstrong, the chairman and chief executive of AOL, appeared to fire a company creative director in the midst of a conference call.

“It looks like big business being a bully,” said Jim Webber, who does workplace training and runs a human resources advice blog called Evil Skippy at Work.

According to the media blog JimRomenesko.com, Armstrong fired the employee several minutes into a call with employees of the company’s Patch.com local news operation.

During the call, Armstrong is heard abruptly interrupting his own train of thought to say, “Abel, put that camera down right now! Abel, you’re fired. Out!”

After a moment’s pause, the chief executive resumes talking business strategy.

A spokesman for AOL declined to comment Monday. Abel Lenz, who Romenesko identifies as the employee and whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as the creative director at AOL Patch.com, did not return a call or respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Of course, most people will never know what happened before Armstrong appeared to fire the employee. But even if there is good reason for an employee to be let go, experts say the proper way to do it is privately, and in most cases after repeated warnings about the person’s performance.

Some bosses may think that publicly firing an employee will make them seem tough and decisive. But Ron Ashkenas, a senior partner with Shaffer Consulting in Stamford, Conn., said there are better ways to establish your reputation.

“If he was trying to make himself out like Donald Trump, then this isn’t the way to do it,” Ashkenas said. " ’The Apprentice’ is a staged television show.”

Instead of rallying the troops, Ashkenas said you run the risk that every other employee at the company will fear for their job. That’s certainly not going to help morale, let alone encourage employees to take risks.

“This could make them feel like maybe they’re next, and particularly if it’s seen as arbitrary or if it’s seen as impulsive,” Ashkenas said.

It’s not just employees that might question the company’s leadership. If the public firing goes beyond the company’s walls, Webber said customers and shareholders also may start to question company executives’ decision-making.

“What it does is it makes me wonder about all of his other decisions about personnel, and is he always shooting from the hip?” Webber said.

There’s also the question of how the employee might react to being publicly shamed. For some companies, it may end up being the start of an ugly legal battle.

“A lot of people go immediately consult with a lawyer and say, ‘Do I have recourse here? That never ends well for anybody,’ ” Ashkenas said.

There are plenty of examples of firings that have gone public, and viral.

Two years ago, Yahoo chief executive Carol Bartz turned the scenario on its head when she e-mailed employees to tell them that she had just been fired by phone. That set off a debate over whether it’s appropriate to fire someone by phone.

And this past spring, a television anchor in North Dakota was fired after he was caught cursing on camera on his first day of work – again setting off a discussion over whether that was a big enough mistake for the newbie to lose his job.

If you are fired in a public way, Webber said it’s not worth lashing out, regardless of how awful you may feel. For one thing, there’s probably nothing you can do to make your boss look worse. And for another, you always want to make sure you look like the saner party.

“The right thing to do is to take the high road and say, ‘Yeah, that was really crazy but I’m just going to move on,’ ” Webber said.

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