On Aug, 9, 2013, I was an employee at AOL’s Patch, a job I’d held for the past three years, working primarily as the editor of the Waterford, Connecticut Patch site. It was a great job, a job where you felt like you were really making a difference in the community, but it seemed like it was all coming to an end.
In May of that year, there were some layoffs within the company, including a beloved manager in our region. And, earlier that week, there were news reports surfacing that Patch – although popular with readers – was losing a bunch of money, and there was going to be layoffs.
That day, Tim Armstrong – the CEO of AOL – required each Patch employee to attend an “all-hands” call, where we assumed he would address the layoffs. Obviously, there was a lot of trepidation leading into the call, as we were all worried about losing both our jobs and the sites we spent the last three years working so hard to build.
What none of us were expecting though was to witness one of the worst firings in the history of corporate America. And the reason I’m writing this today is, is because I think it should serve as a lesson of exactly what not to do.
A Bit of Background
I’m not going to go into every misstep Patch’s corporate team took along the way, as part of that is just life at a startup (and part of it was just mismanagement, but that’s another issue). Instead, I’ll just give you a quick look into the life of a Patch editor.
For those who don’t know, Patch was a collection of local news sites throughout the country, where towns got their own site (i.e. New London Patch, Springfield Patch, etc). As editors, we were responsible for reporting the local news, getting events on the page, getting other people to blog on the site, etc. Basically, our mission was to make our site a one-stop shop for everything you’d want to know living in that town.
We were journalists, and that means one thing, really: we were low-paid workers. I personally made about $40,000 a year, which was actually considered a solid salary for a reporter/editor (my previous reporting job paid $32,000 a year). However, in the year leading up to the call, Patch hacked salaries, to the point most editors hired after 2012 were making less than $30,000 a year.
You could almost make that flipping burgers. And this job required a college degree and experience.
Meanwhile, the demands were non-stop. We were responsible for creating approximately seven pieces of content a day, every day, forever. And we were basically always on call.
Police are involved in a standoff on a Saturday night? Go cover it. There’s a major accident in town with serious injuries just as you’re about to go to bed? Drop everything and find out what’s going on. Hurricane Sandy is coming through? Work for a week straight until everything gets back to normal.
But, despite the demands, it was by no means a bad job. In fact, I loved it. I loved the people I worked with, both my fellow editors and my bosses (Eileen, Elissa and Corey, all outstanding people). I loved the people I wrote about and the town I covered.
Most of all though, I loved the fact that I felt like I was an integral part of the town. When a little girl was sick with cancer, they used Waterford Patch to publicize it, and thousands were raised for her. During the two hurricanes we got in my tenure – Sandy and Irene – Waterford Patch was used as the primary conduit for town officials to reach townspeople.
One of the proudest moments of my life was when, after I took another job within the company and left my post as editor of Waterford Patch in May of 2013, Waterford’s First Selectman (basically the mayor) proclaimed me an “honorary citizen of Waterford.” That proclamation hangs in my office today, and I’ll probably never take it down.
So, in a nutshell, we were low-paid, overworked workers (aka a normal life for a journalist). But most of us really loved our job, we really cared about our site and we hoped that Patch could continue.
Back To The Firing
Anyway, now you understand the basic psychology of the 1,000 or so people calling into the meeting. As we called in, everyone in our 44-site region was talking on gchat and on a Facebook group we set up speculating on our future, realizing that this call would probably change our lives.
We were right.
Once we all called in, Armstrong took over, a fury of passion and emotion. He started the call by saying that if we were not totally committed to Patch, we could walk out right now, and save everyone the time.
Then he began talking about “impacts,” which is an obnoxious way for corporate people to say “a decent portion of you are losing your livelihood.” While he was talking, Abel Lenz was taking photos of him at the office in New York, like Abel did during every conference call we ever had.
Quick side note. Obviously, this conference call was different than every other one we’ve had. But still, Abel was doing what he always did, and as far as I know, was given no instruction to do something different.
Armstrong, still a fury of passion and emotion, didn’t exactly appreciate it. What happened next has since been leaked to the media:
“Abel, put that camera down right now!” Armstrong screamed on the call. “Abel, you’re fired. Out!”
Pause. And then Armstrong went on for another 30 minutes or so, making about 17 football references. At the end, his basic point was that there was going to be substantial “impacts.”
But, by then, nobody was listening.
Once he fired Abel, there was one topic on gchat and on the Facebook group we created – did that really just happen? Did he just fire Abel in front of all of us?
We honestly thought Armstrong was just hot and Abel wasn’t really fired. But the next day the call got leaked to the media, and we found out in those articles that Abel was indeed fired.
A week later, we were split into three groups, and told to dial into three separate and mandatory conference calls. About 200 people were in the first group and dialed into the first call, where they were laid off via a pre-recorded message, effective immediately.
The second group, another 200 people (which included me), were also laid off via a pre-recorded message in the second call, but with a caveat – it wasn’t effective for two months. A third group (everyone else) dialed into a third call, and they were told they were part of the “go forward” team, and would stay.
Eventually, I was offered a job before I was ever laid off with the go-forward team, which lasted until January. At that point, there was another round of layoffs, which eliminated 90 percent of the remaining workers, me included.
Truth is, they gave out generous severance packages and I managed to go full-time at VoiceGlance right after I was laid off (I was part-time during my last month at Patch, when the writing was on the wall that it was ending soon), so I was never really unemployed. But the resounding memory from that whole experience was when Armstrong fired Abel, in front of 1,000 of his colleagues, for no real reason.
Today, I was going to write about the best way to fire someone, as it fits under the broad umbrella of human resource functions, which I primarily write about. But I realized I couldn’t do that without first writing about the worst way to fire someone, which I witnessed myself.
I guess my point to CEOs and managers alike is this – don’t fire people in front of 1,000 colleagues for no real reason. To put it mildly, it doesn’t help morale.
If you are ever considering doing it, take a deep breath, and at least wait until you can meet with the person in private. Or, even better yet, perhaps you shouldn’t fire someone for no good reason at all, regardless of it is in public or private.
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