‘I’m Sorry, But You’re Still Fired’

What AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong Should have Done 

By Stephen Burkhart

The Hoffman Agency, San Jose

I felt sorry for Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL, when he publicly fired an employee during an internal conference call recently.

You see, I knew what humiliation would rain down upon him and AOL exactly at the wrong time. Of course, I also had empathy for the publicly humiliated employee and for other employees who needed to feel confidence in his leadership.

I think you would agree, however, that CEOs are human too and deserve a second chance to grow, evolve and inspire their employees.

After the outcry, and the onslaught of negative media coverage, I am sure Tim huddled with his PR team to craft a response.

Not surprisingly, he came up with the aha moment of offering an apology. I know this is part of the crisis communications 101 handbook, but I would suggest that he and his PR team could have executed the idea better.

He did craft a nicely worded memo to employees (published in AllThingsD) in which he took accountability for his actions and said he had learned a valuable lesson. (I wish he would have articulated what lesson he learned, but what the heck, it was a good first step).

He even offered an apology to the fired employee. All very good. I saw the path of restoring his good reputation ahead of him. I was rooting for him here. He made a mistake, and now he was correcting it. This was a wonderful human moment.

And then I experienced the big thud.

He made the apology to the employee, but he didn’t remedy the decision made in a flash of frustration. The employee was still fired.

“I’m sorry, but you’re still fired,” meant that Tim lost an opportunity to restore trust with his employees.

I would have advised him to not only rehire this employee, I would have also told Tim to use this as a platform to show his human side, maybe even flash a little humor.

At the next all-team meeting, he could have held up a sign that said, “Filming Welcomed Here.” And when it’s not, he could have held up a second sign that said, “Filming Not Allowed Here.”


It probably would have elicited a chuckle. The ice would be broken. And he could get back to the business of growing his business with the support of his employees. 

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