AOL's Tim Armstrong fires exec on conference call

1,000 people were listening when he booted a top Patch employee, prompting some observers to deeply question his management style.

By Aimee Picchi Aug 12, 2013 10:54AM

Updated 4:30 p.m. ET

Unhappy companies apparently each have their own ways of being unhappy, to rephrase Tolstoy. Now, thanks to AOL (AOL) chief executive Tim Armstrong, the corporate world has a new path to finding emotional ground zero.

Armstrong reportedly fired an executive on a conference call Friday, just three minutes after the 9 a.m. meeting had started and with about 1,000 people listening in. The employee was creative director Abel Lenz of AOL's hyper-local news site network Patch, who offended Armstrong by snapping his photo in the New York meeting room where the CEO was holding the call, media reporter Jim Romenesko reports.

"Abel, put that camera down. You're fired. Out," Armstrong said, according to audio from the report. 

After a brief pause, Armstrong continued the call as normal, although he explained his actions about five minutes later. "The reason I fired Abel before was I don't want anyone taking pictures of this meeting," he said. 

Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL., center, talks with attendees before speaking at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) 2013 Spring Conference in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 2013 (© Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)Ironically, the conference call was organized to announce layoffs and the closings of sites in AOL's Patch local news service. Armstrong (pictured) also lowered the boom on about 400 of Patch's 1,000 sites, with affected locations either shuttered or partnered with other media companies. Patch operates news sites for towns such as Hoboken, N.J., and Woburn, Mass.

The impromptu action has some observers questioning Armstrong's management techniques. 

"The meeting was designed to rally the troops," CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin says in the video above. "I'm not sure that happened."

AOL's Patch was never terribly well thought out, as InvestorPlace noted last week. The company rolled out hundreds of hyper-local news sites without understanding how to make money from the product. 

With headlines like "Strength training for seniors! Registration OPEN!" and "Winner Named in Town's 'Battle of the Bottles,'" many of Patch's stories aren't exactly gripping reads. 

But some are pointing to Armstrong's leadership -- and his decision to humiliate an employee by firing him publicly -- as a bigger issue facing the one-time highflying Internet company. 

"When a struggling organization has as many fundamental problems as AOL does, a CEO who behaves like this doesn't make things better," one commenter on ValleyWag wrote. "If there was any justice the board would conference people in on its next meeting, where the first order of business would be canning Armstrong."

Update: There may be more to the firing than meets the eye. Business Insider, citing information from a source, reports that Armstrong was unhappy with a redesign of the Patch service that Lenz helped spearhead. "Maybe Armstrong was so quick to fire Lenz over such a small offense because he was already planning on letting him go because he didn't like his work?" asked Nicholas Carlson. "That would certainly make Armstrong's behavior easier to explain, if not excusable."

Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi. 

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Aug 12, 2013 2:25PM
Get RID of Armstrong!.. period.. no class.... He obviously makes too much money to care about human decency. boot him....
Aug 12, 2013 2:22PM

A Boss who does that is a boss that has a power trip going on and has no reason to be a boss to start with. I say your fired now and give the guy you fired your job now. I bet that would something to watch.Just because you are a boss does not give you the power to treat other's so bad. Karma back to you.

Aug 12, 2013 2:30PM

Given AOL's status, it's obvious Armstrong is the one who needs to go. 


Aug 12, 2013 12:32PM
Armstrong put down the phone, your fired!  Get out now!!
Aug 12, 2013 2:29PM
Looks like this CEO has (again) proven why 1 out of every 4 CEO's are clinical psychopaths........  On the upside, he just let everyone know that AOL is NOT 'too big to fail.'
Aug 12, 2013 3:58PM
That was very tacky and unprofessional.  Armstrong should be fired for such unprofessional actions.  Terminations should be done behind closed doors "period".

He might as well pulled out a gun and shot himself in the foot after that....


Obviously no social skills or managerial experience... How he got the job I dunno.....

Aug 12, 2013 1:56PM
He's a dI*&k..........many of them are (including the gals).
Aug 12, 2013 4:35PM

I was fired along with 22 of my colleagues in 2001 from Johns Manville(Bershire Hathaway). Talk about a shock. Told us the conference call was about earnings, yeah right. This happened on December 22nd, what a great Christmas that year. They had a fire after that at one of their plants in Cleburne Texas. I wasn't anywhere near Texas. They have been a non factor after that. Some of these guys were with the company 25+ years. But to do it on a conference call? No Class.


Aug 12, 2013 4:37PM
I can't stand people like Armstrong who treat people with such disrespect! Where'd he learn that from? ... His "cousin," Lance? If I had AOL stock, I'd dump it as a vote of "no confidence."
Aug 12, 2013 2:06PM
Everybody is always jumpy on a sinking ship.   Ready life boats!!!
Aug 12, 2013 3:15PM
what a jerk thing to do to someone. didnt even know these guys were still around
Aug 12, 2013 3:08PM
"You Got Mail" ............. a pink slip.
Aug 12, 2013 2:31PM
He'll do well in the banking industry.
Aug 12, 2013 3:07PM
Yep.  Same old AOL.  In my mind, nothing but a criminal enterprise.
Aug 12, 2013 4:26PM
Companies have no class even in the recruitment process these days. They cannot bother to return calls or e-mails to candidates. No one in human resources wants to work; they farm out the basic screening to third party vendors who know nothing about the company and often do not represent people well to the actual employer.
Aug 12, 2013 2:47PM

Ahhh.  AOL.  That darling of the dial up internet service providers.


Does anyone still use dial up?


Does anyone still have a phone line?

Aug 12, 2013 12:39PM
Maybe it was a contest to see who was the bigger psychopath. Tell us all again, what does AOL do besides being just another business platform robbing America blind through QE investments?
Aug 12, 2013 4:22PM

Fire that sorry a&& excuse for a CEO!  Even his smile says; look at me, i'm and idiot!

I would like to see his reaction if one of the shareholders took his picture, or "tape" an investor's meeting?

Sniveling creep!

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