AOL: What Happened to the Era When Firing Was OK?

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Maybe the era when firing people in public was acceptable has ended. Perhaps some executives can still get away with it. Clearly, Tim Armstrong of AOL Inc. (NYSE: AOL) took a beating for dismissing a person “in front” of a large number of other AOL workers. Too bad for him that he does not run a company during the 1960s, or he is not Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle Corp. (NYSE: ORCL) or Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) and “the greatest CEO of the last century.”

Firing workers in public may have disappeared as political correctness became a part of the workplace. The terrible plight of women who were harassed by male workers is mostly gone, or at least there are consequences for doing so, even for chief executives like Mark Hurd, formerly of Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), and Brian Dunn of Best Buy Co. Inc. (NYSE: BBY). Of course, harassment is a heinous form of discrimination. Dismissing people, in public or private, has never risen to that level.

There was a time when sacking people in front of others was a sign of power. Allegedly, Henry Ford II, tired of Lee Iacocca’s angling to get his job as CEO of the auto manufacturer founded by his grandfather, fired Iacocca in front of other Ford executives. Even if he did not, he certainly fired Iacocca in the media, making it clear to the press who was the boss at Ford and who was not. Using public humiliation was fine, if you were part of the founding family. Or perhaps one small step away from the founders. Steve Ballmer of Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) fired an employee in front of others for not yelling out the name of the firm’s search engine Bing loud enough at company meeting. Ballmer got away with all kinds of bad behavior, including throwing furniture around his office. But Ballmer is invincible, at least as far as his role as CEO goes.

It may be that in 2013 public dismissal of employees has been left to founders and fictional characters. Don Draper of Mad Men fired fellow executive Burt Peterson in front of several other people. But doing things like that in fiction is OK.

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