The sacking of Carol Bartz last week made theatre of the most superior kind. Watching the former chief executive officer of Yahoo go down spitting obscenities was exhilarating in an immediate sort of way, but it also confirmed at least four of my most deeply held prejudices about life, work and language.
The first prejudice says: never trust anyone who uses the phrase “going forward.” The e-mail Ms. Bartz sent to staff on Tuesday went like this: “To all, I am very sad to tell you that I’ve just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s Chairman of the Board. It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish you only the best going forward. Carol.”
At the time, various commentators applauded this message for being brief and straightforward. But I knew better. The “going forward” was a sure signal that Ms. Bartz would soon be going backward. Indeed, within 24 hours of her departure, she had given the most intemperate and ill-judged exit interview to the press I have ever seen from a chief executive.
The second prejudice of mine says that women leaders can be every bit as aggressive and foul-mouthed as men. Next time I hear diversity experts spouting their customary nonsense about female executives being consensual and nurturing, I will think of Ms. Bartz, incandescent with rage, ranting “these people fucked me over.”
The third principle is that honesty can be a poor strategy, especially at work. Corporate life is based on a system of deals, and observing these is generally a better idea than speaking your mind. The deal with being CEO is that you get paid a lot to do the job, but if things don’t go well, you get fired. When that happens, the deal is that you keep your mouth shut and your purse open to receive a ginormous pay-off. You don’t tell a journalist that your former board colleagues were “doofuses.” To do so might be honest, but it is also undignified and undermines the whole system.
Indeed, in Ms. Bartz’s e-mail to staff, the only bits that sounded good were the places where honesty took a back seat. She was evidently not “very sad” to relay the news to colleagues – she was livid. And surely it wasn’t a “pleasure” to work with “all” the Yahoo workers – I bet she didn’t enjoy working with the “doofuses” at all. And did she really wish them “only the best”? Or was she praying that whoever replaces her will make even more of a pig’s ear out of running Yahoo than she did?
Yet she did well to fall back on these untruths: They are part of the necessary, comforting script that goes with departure. Things only started to unravel when she departed from it.
The fourth prejudice is about swearing. I’m strongly in favour of swearing at work, but only in the right circumstances. Swearing can reduce stress, be good for bonding and for signalling that you aren’t a stuffed shirt.
However, it is always a mistake for CEOs to use the f-word in public, especially in the U.S. and especially to a journalist. It is only okay in an interview if one is 40 years younger than Ms. Bartz and in the music business.
As well as upholding my four prejudices, the Bartz farewell has encouraged me to adopt a new one. Sacking by phone may not be such a bad idea after all.
Until last week, I held the standard view that it’s best to fire someone face to face as it shows more respect and so on. But now I’m thinking the chairman may have done her a favour in waiting until she was on the other side of the continent and then calling to read out his legal script. Ms. Bartz claims this lacked class, but I wonder if she really would have found it classier if he had looked her in the eye and said: “You’re no good – off you go.”
The main benefit of being sacked over the phone (or by e-mail or text message) is that it gives the person being fired something small and uncomplicated to visit their rage upon. To work yourself up into a froth of righteous indignation over the crass manner of the firing distracts you from the nasty, humiliating truth that you are deemed to have screwed up big time.
The only thing wrong with encouraging people to conduct sackings by phone is that it makes life much too easy for the sacker, who ought to be made to suffer, too.
But in this particular case, given Ms. Bartz’s devotion to honesty, swearing and to anger, I’m not so sure. If the chairman had confronted her in person, axe in hand, she could well have wrested it from him and the play might have had an even more dramatic conclusion: Everyone might have been hacked to death.
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