An AOL Employee Was Publicly Fired During a Conference Call

Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL Inc., speaks at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers 2013 Spring Conference in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Update Aug. 13, 6:30 p.m.: Updated with details about Tim Armstrong’s apology.

Just a week after editorial staffers at Cleveland’s Plain Dealer were laid off over the phone, one unfortunate employee of AOL’s local news operation, Patch.com, suffered an even more undignified termination: He was reportedly fired by Chief Executive Officer Tim Armstrong during a conference call this morning. That means about a thousand people were listening in when the boom came down. So much for being discreet. In a cruel twist, the subject of the call was the company’s forthcoming layoffs.

JimRomenesko.com reported that it was likely Patch’s creative director, Abel Lenz, who was sacked. The alleged crime? Pulling out a camera during the call.

Here’s one account a “tipster” told Romenesko:

“Abel, put that camera down. You’re fired. Out,” Armstrong said. After a pause of about five seconds, he then continued the call as though nothing had happened.

Then after about five more minutes of talking about whatever, he threw in “and the reason I fired Abel before was I don’t want anyone taking pictures of this meeting.” He invoked some kind of comparison to a sports team’s locker room.

But he seriously fired someone live on a conference call with the entire company … a call that informed us that no one would be laid off today but that instead the layoffs (sorry, “impacts”) would happen at different junctures next week depending on the success of finding “partners” for moribund Patch sites.

If Lenz was indeed fired, he’s in good company. Over the next seven days, 400 of Patch’s roughly 900 community sites will be closed or partnered with other sites, and hundreds of employees will be laid off. Started in 2007, Patch faces growing pressure to reach profitability.

AOL and Patch.com have not responded to immediate requests for comment.

Update: The following Tuesday, Aug. 13, Armstrong sent a memo to AOL staff apologizing for the way he fired Lenz. In the message, published on Business Insider, he wrote: “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. … 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. … On Friday I acted too quickly and I learned a tremendous lesson and I wanted you to hear that directly from me.”

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