When a Public Mistake Requires an Old-Fashioned

 

Everyone makes mistakes. We make bad decisions and insensitive statements, we speak before we think, and we let our emotions get the best of us. But since we hold very senior executives to a higher standard, when they mess up, it often becomes a public spectacle. 

Consider the case of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong. On August 9, 2013 — a time of disappointing quarterly results — he held an all-hands conference call with 1,000 Patch (AOL’s hyper-local news division) employees. During the meeting, which was called to announce layoffs and site closings, Armstrong publicly fired Patch’s creative director for apparently recording the meeting. This “brutal” firing created a firestorm of negative publicity both for AOL and for Armstrong. Several days later, Armstrong issued an apology to all AOL employees, in which he admitted that he had “acted too quickly … [and] learned a tremendous lesson … .”

Six months later, Armstrong was forced to apologize for another incident. In announcing his plan to delay retirement contributions, he mentioned the high cost of health care benefits and cited two individual cases in which the company paid $1 million dollars to care for “distressed babies.” Not only were his remarks callous, they also violated the privacy of the employees involved. After another round of disastrous publicity, Armstrong again issued a statement saying, “I made a mistake and I apologize for my comments.” He also reversed his decision to delay retirement contributions.

Of course, Armstrong is not the first, last, or only senior executive who has made troublesome public remarks. Tony Hayward, the former CEO of British Petroleum, famously complained that he “wanted his life back” in the midst of the 2010 oil spill. (He later apologized to the families of the workers who had died in the tragedy, as well as the thousands of people whose lives were totally disrupted.) Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had to apologize in 2005 for his contention that “innate differences” between men and women accounted for the under-representation of women in the sciences. Senior advertising executive Justine Sacco was fired for posting an insensitive and racist tweet about AIDS in Africa. And more recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella apologized for suggesting that women should not speak up about pay inequities.

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