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AOL boss apologizes for firing staffer during massive conference call

FILE -- Tim Armstrong, chief executive of AOL, at the company's offices in Palo Alto, Calif., April 25, 2011. Armstrong, on Aug. 13, 2013, issued an unusual apology to his entire staff for the public manner in which he fired an employee during an internal conference call on Aug. 9, 2013.

PETER DASILVA/NYT

As if getting fired isn't hard enough. How about having 1,000 of your colleagues witness the demise of your livelihood?

When AOL chief executive officer Tim Armstrong began a rallying speech on the future of Patch, AOL's news and information platform, he probably didn't plan on destroying the career of one of his subordinates.

"There's a couple of things I want you guys to realize and really think about and sink in," Armstrong is heard saying on a leaked recording, the unsteady cadence of his voice bespeaking the power trip to come. "And if it doesn't sink in and you don't believe what I'm about to say, I'm going to ask you to leave Patch."

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He goes on to lay down the law of the land at Patch, but two minutes into his speech, Armstrong's zealous tone peaks:

"If you think what's going on right now is a joke, and you want to joke around about it, you should pick your stuff up and leave Patch today, and the reason is, and I'm going to be very specific about this, is Patch from an experience— [and without pause] Abel, put that camera down right now! Abel, you're fired. Out!"

And there you have it: the firing of Abel Lenz, a creative director at Patch.

After a brief and surely awkward silence Armstrong carries on his speech about commitment. Yet the recording of the conference call hit the web and quickly went viral.

Now Armstrong is apologizing for his error in a mass email sent to AOL employees, with a subject line stating, "Accountability starts with me."

Armstrong begins with an assent: "I am writing you to acknowledge the mistake I made last Friday during the Patch all-hands meeting when I publicly fired Abel Lenz."

Yet the email soon reveals itself as a series of justifications that are more defiant than sorry:

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"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."

It is not clear if it was Lenz who had leaked the recording. The Internet rumour mill is a buzz, with some suggesting that Lenz was already on Armstrong's hit list long before the spontaneous termination.

But if Armstrong's "apology" is any indication, Lenz is probably still fired.

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