AOL CEO’s Impulsive Action Leads to Public Apology

Here’s how not to fire an employee:

  • Don’t do it during a conference call with 1,000 employees.
  • Don’t do it when you’re about to lay off hundreds of those employees.
  • Don’t do it by sounding like Donald Trump.

Because when you do these things as you fire an employee, you end up having to make a very public apology. If you have good news, you can offer it in public. But when you are delivering bad news, like firing someone, you should do it in private. Otherwise, you end up apologizing as AOL CEO Tom Armstrong did on Tuesday in a memo (which you can see in its entirety at to 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.”


Armstrong was caught in his own web of impulsive behavior when he fired Patch network (Patch is a news company owned by AOL) creative director Abel Lenz. On Monday the NBC Today Show reported that the firing came during a conference call with Patch’s employees. That call was admittedly a tough one—letting employees know that as many as 500 of them would be laid off.

During the conference call he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence, having noticed that Lenz had picked up a camera and was shooting pictures of the meeting. Apparently he had been asked not to take photos. Armstrong turns on Lenz and, in his best Donald Trump imitation, fires him, “Abel, you’re fired. Out.” Probably picking up the camera wasn’t the best idea, but given the alacrity with which Armstrong jumped from talking to the Patch employees to his outburst firing Lenz, Lenz’s head was probably already on the chopping block.


While impulsive actions may be satisfying in the moment, they often turn out not to be the best course of action. We know this because inevitably, when we act impulsively and it turns out to be the wrong action, we end up apologizing. We’ve all heard those familiar words: “What on earth were you thinking?” You weren’t thinking because if you had been you would have done something else.

My advice: Think first before you act and reduce the number of times you have to apologize for yourself.

What could Armstrong have done instead? Not confused the two issues: Lenz using the camera when told not to with Armstrong’s apparent prior decision to fire Lenz. He should have dealt with the camera issue by telling Lenz to turn it off and sit down. Later, after the meeting and in private, was the time to fire Lenz.

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