The "You’re Fired!" Heard Around The World

AOL’s CEO, Tim Armstrong, fired someone late last week.

Corporate CEOs fire people all the time. But what made this firing newsworthy is that Armstrong fired one of his executives during a conference call, on which more than 1,000 employees of AOL’s local news platform Patch were listening in.

Armstrong was upset that Patch Creative Director Abel Lenz took a photo of him during the conference call, at which point he icily—and casually—said:

“Abel, put that camera down, now. Abel, you’re fired. Out.” (Audio below.)

Armstrong (kind of) apologized in a memo addressed to “AOLers” yesterday, but something he wrote caught my eye:

“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.”

If Mr. Lenz willingly disregarded a warning not to record his CEO, his firing may have justified.

But what struck me is how preposterous it is for Mr. Armstrong to expect that a conference call with more than 1,000 employees—many of whom are journalists—would remain confidential.

We’re not operating in 1996 anymore (although AOL would probably like that). When speaking to large groups of people, corporate executives—or any of us, really—should have no reasonable expectation of privacy. They should act as if everything they say could be made public, as it was in this case, and comport themselves accordingly.

If this was an in-person meeting, I suppose a brutish team of security guards could have sequestered each attendee’s smartphone, stripped them of recording devices, and collected their notepads. But no similar precaution could be taken when more than 1,000 people are listening in from various sites around the country.

Now, whether CEOs should be able to talk privately to their employees without their words being broadcast globally is a different topic. I’m sympathetic to those longing for days when they could have a frank exchange without fear of it being made public. But longing for those days is like longing for a return to the heyday of the eight-track tape and the facsimile machine. It ain’t going to happen.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.