Tim Armstrong, Steve Jobs, Carol Bartz, and More Dramatic Firings
From Steve Jobs to Tim Armstrong, the brutal business of dramatic public firings. By Nina Strochlic.
When news of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s sudden, blunt firing of an employee leaked, online observers were shocked that an executive would be so harsh before a conference-call audience of 1,000 employees. The axing has inspired countless articles on appropriate dismissal methods. Then, this week, news broke that Brian Lewis, a longtime aide to Fox News chief Roger Ailes, was unceremoniously escorted out of his office for apparent "financial issues."
Here are a few examples of the more brutal side of the business world.
Lewis was the right-hand man of Fox News chief Roger Ailes before he was fired last month in spectacular fashion. Reportedly canned for “financial issues and other performance problems,” as The Hollywood Reporter put it, Lewis was given no special treatment for his 17 years of service; he was unceremoniously escorted from his office, it was revealed on Tuesday. “He was terminated for cause on July 25,” a Fox spokesperson curtly said in a statement.
“Abel, put that camera down right now. Abel, you’re fired. Out!” Armstrong told Patch creative director Abel Lenz during a now infamous all-staff meeting and conference call earlier this month. The recording, which was leaked to media blogger Jim Romenesko, quickly sparked a firestorm online. Armstrong later apologized, explaining he had forbidden photos in confidential meetings—a rule Lenz had disregarded multiple times, the CEO said. “On Friday I acted too quickly and I learned a tremendous lesson,” Armstrong said in an email to AOL employees. “I am accountable for the way I handled the situation, and at a human level it was unfair to Abel.”
When Yahoo CEO found herself unceremoniously sacked on the way back to New York from Maine in 2011, she penned a quick email to 14,000 staffers, saying simply: “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.” Within a day, she told Fortune that “These people fucked me over,” and of the call, said she told chairman Roy Bostock to ditch the script, asking, “Why haven’t you got the balls to tell me yourself?”
Bartz was not one to skirt firings herself. “I always do my firing in the morning because that’s when I’m fresh. I mean, why sit there all day thinking: I’m going to fire Joe at 4:59?” she once said.
The story of Steve Jobs’s firing (technically he was demoted and then resigned) from Apple, the company he started, is a landmark moment in the lives of both the brand and the man. But the legendary founder was a ruthless leader himself. In 2008, when MobileMe launched, Jobs was furious at the product’s flaws. After gathering the team in Apple’s auditorium, he fired the division head and named a new one on the spot.
When it was necessary to make cutbacks at Pixar, Jobs made them immediately without severance pay, and when a human resources employee requested two weeks’ notice, he replied: “OK, but the notice is retroactive from two weeks ago.”
Not usually one to go out with a whimper, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann bid his top-rated Countdown a sudden on-air adieu in January 2011, saying he’d been told “This is going to be the last edition of your show.” Olbermann’s departure came as a shock two years into his four-year contract. In the middle of the program, NBC issued a statement that the two parties had “ended their contract.” Olbermann had been suspended a few months before for making donations to political candidates, leading observers to speculate the two issues were linked. He finished his surprising last show by reading a short story by James Thurber. A little over a year later, Olbermann was fired from Current TV and has since returned to ESPN.
For Twitter news junkies, Reuters’s deputy social-media editor, Matthew Keys, was a go-to for breaking developments. So it came as a surprise when news surfaced that the respected journalist had been indicted for allegedly conspiring with the hacker collective Anonymous to access the Los Angeles Times’ servers in 2010. He was suspended, but after his Twitter coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and engaging in a public feud with his boss, Anthony De Rosa, Keys was fired from the company. As was only fitting, a social-media storm from both sides ensued, with Keys tweeting all the details of his dismissal.
The NBC cult-hit Community employs a cast of characters as outlandish as their on-screen personas. Perhaps none so much as Dan Harmon, the show’s creator and head writer, who was fired in the spring of 2012 and found out in a text message from his agent as the plane he was on landed in Los Angeles. Harmon didn’t take the news lightly. Online, he railed against his dismissal, posting on Tumblr a bitter takedown of the network and studio. A year later, he was asked back and returned to the show.
In November 2011, a child-abuse scandal that shocked the country came to a head with the news that Joe Paterno, the worshipped Penn State coach, had been fired along with university president Graham Spanier. Paterno reportedly received a call from the chairman of the PSU board informing him he was relieved of his duties. Minutes later, at a press conference outside his home, the 84-year-old Paterno addressed a crowd, saying: “Right now, I’m not the football coach. And I’ve got to get used to that. After 61 years, I’ve got to get used to it. I appreciate it. Let me think it through.” As word of his firing spread, thousands of students swarmed the campus, chanting support for Paterno. The history-making coach died two months later, and his statue was later removed from campus.
Legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had a firing streak like no other. In 17 years, he blew through 19 managers, five presidents, 15 pitching coaches, and 13 general managers. He even once fired Yogi Berra. Longtime team employee Bill “Killer” Kane was distinguished by the New York Daily News as the likely holder of “most times fired by George Steinbrenner” and was once dismissed by “the Boss” for refusing to move the team’s waiting plane from Newark Liberty International Airport to La Guardia Airport. Steinbrenner also fired manager Billy Martin a not-insignificant five times.