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Posted: August 14, 2013

AOL’s epic HR fail

Tim Armstrong forgot Rule No. 1

David Sneed

In case you missed it, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong fired employee Abel Lenz recently during a conference call to 1,000 employees. Employees he was trying to motivate.

The alleged reason? That Lenz, the company’s creative director, took a picture for the internal company website; something he had done numerous times before.

That’s right, a guy named Lenz…took a picture…of a conference call and was fired outright in front of 1,000 coworkers.

I think this goes into the ‘fail’ column for AOL, Armstrong and AOL’s subsidiary, Patch.

I understand, we don’t really know if we know the whole story. Maybe Lenz had run over Armstrong’s dog earlier that morning or had left the break room messy after heating up a Hot Pocket. Maybe Lenz was one of those mouth breathers and the boss couldn’t take it anymore and finally snapped.

But this I do know: You don’t punish people in public unless you’re Stalin or a 17th Century Puritan mayor with a witch phobia. Tim Armstrong is neither of those.

But he doesn’t seem to know Rule No. 1 about people, either: Praise in Public, Punish in Private.

I learned this when I was like 12. I didn’t know that it was part of B.F. Skinners Reinforcement Theory, of course, but I knew intuitively that when someone does something good you praise them in front of everyone. For so many reasons.

And when someone needs punishment, it’s between you and them. As a society, we’re past the point of believing public flogging is actually a deterrent. Executing admirals doesn’t encourage the rest of them, no matter what Voltaire says.

That’s assuming you’ve thought it out and wish to make a point. Armstrong wasn’t doing that, though. It seems to me that his true colors came out, and he showed himself as a guy who will come home and kick the cat when he has a bad day at work.

Bosses have a responsibility to be deliberate. We’ve accepted a responsibility, and with it comes power.

We can’t use this power on a whim depending on the mood we’re in or the stress we’re under. That would make us petulant children instead of CEOs. Especially not the CEO of a company that was once synonymous with ‘internet.’

So did it make everyone else on the conference call feel good about their boss and the company they work for? You tell me. Would you feel relaxed, knowing that if you keep your head down and do the work you might be randomly fired in front of everyone?

Probably not.

David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company,and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss– The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company." As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at

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Readers Respond

Thanks for the thoughts. Mine: "Punishment" is just a word, and in this case a way to clearly oppose of "Praise" with the benefit of being alliterative. Probably not the precise word, but there's little doubt that a may have cause to discipline errant behavior. The penalty is oftentimes referred to as 'punishment.' I'd say firing someone falls under the coverage of this word. Either way, it seems a glaring lack of self-control to snap-fire someone publicly. By David on 2013 08 14
I thoroughly enjoy punishing my children in public. Especially at the check out line of Bed, Bath & Beyond when they ask to buy hangers. It shames them into better behavior and makes me look like "Mother of the Year". Win-win if you ask me. By Joan Crawford on 2013 08 14
Atta-boy, David! By Laura on 2013 08 14
Most true leaders never think in terms of "punishment". It is far more inspiring, authentic and objectives-focused to practice positive discipline instead. It is considered psychopathic to want to cause others discomfort intentionally. By Cheryl Swanson on 2013 08 14
To me, an "inappropriate time" would be a private moment when another employee just found out her grandfather died. Is a conference call really an "inappropriate time" for a guy in charge of taking pictures to photograph a company event? By David Sneed on 2013 08 14
If you know the back story...that Tim Armstrong had repeated cautioned this employee about filming the internal team at inappropraite times...then Tim did the right thing. Sometimes the offense is so public that a public response from the employer is the best response. By Linda Sommer on 2013 08 14
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