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Tim Armstrong, AOL CEO, may have acted impulsively during a conference call when he terminated an employee on the spot. Frustrated with Patch, a division of AOL that hosts websites with local news and information, Armstrong was explaining the future of Patch to about 1,000 employees. Part of the plan is to reduce the number of sites from 900 to 600.

At about 2:00 into this clip, Armstrong tells Abel Lenz, Patch's creative director, to "put that camera down." Apparently, Lenz regularly recorded meetings and posted pictures on AOL's intranet. Then Armstrong said, "Abel, you're fired. Out." After a few seconds of silence, Armstrong continued, "If you guys think that AOL has not been committed to Patch, and won’t stay committed to Patch, you’re wrong. The company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars, the board of directors is committed, I’m committed...."

 

According to sources, the call lasted one hour and forty minutes; it's unclear at what point during the call this segment took place.

SFGate explains Armstrong's position:

"A few minutes later, Armstrong complained about leaks to the media. He said the leaks were making Patch seem like 'loser-ville' in the press.

"He said, 'That's why Abel was fired. We can't have people that are in the locker room giving the game plan away.'"

Lenz has been quiet about the incident. He gave a "No comment" response to PR Daily and told Jim Romenesko, "I appreciate the interest, Jim, but I have nothing to share. Go Patch!"

Two days later, Armstrong sent this email to all AOL staff

AOLers -

I am writing you to acknowledge the mistake I made last Friday during the Patch all-hands meeting when I publicly fired Abel Lenz. It was an emotional response at the start of a difficult discussion dealing with many people’s careers and livelihoods. 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.

My action was driven by the desire to openly communicate with over a thousand Patch employees across the US. The meeting on Friday was the second all-hands we had run that week and people came to Friday’s meeting knowing we would be openly discussing some of the potential changes needed at Patch. 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.

We have been through many difficult situations in turning around AOL and I have done my best to make the best decisions in the long-term interest of the employees and the company. On Friday I acted too quickly and I learned a tremendous lesson and I wanted you to hear that directly from me.

We have tough decisions and work to do on Patch, but we’re doing them thoughtfully and as openly as we can. At AOL, we had strong earnings last week and we’re adding one of the best companies in the world to the team. AOL is in a great position, and we’ll keep moving forward.

Discussion Starters:

  • Defend Armstrong's actions. What else could be happening at the company to justify the firing?
  • What are the potential dangers of an employee intranet site, where news and other company information is shared among employees?
  • How do you asssess Armstrong's email to staff? What works well, and what could be improved?