Most likely you’ve heard about AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s recent remarks during a conference call, where he blamed high healthcare expenses due to “distressed babies” as an excuse for changing the way AOL handles their 401(k) benefits for employees. The comment was unpopular for many reasons. It was insensitive to people who had already had tough times from medical problems. It was arguably a violation of those employees medical privacy. It was a dig at President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. It made Mr. Armstrong seem like a misogynist and possibly a fan of economically motivated abortion. Finally, it made him seem rash and foolish. How someone who behaves like this could be in such a senior post is a mystery. That’s not even to mention that he is apparently a ‘distressed’ CEO, as he has an artificial hip. OK, that was just silly.
Subsequent to Mr. Armstrong’s statements that likely had a horrible impact on employee morale, he apologized. That’s what the mainstream press is celebrating. Here’s an article from ABC on how he’s increased the share price of AOL. It also lists some of his good and bad deeds. Here’s an article from a site called “The Wrap” that has a snippet of his apology.
First of all, based on this event and just a few things listed in the ABC article, Armstrong is a rash and impulsive leader who treats his employees as an expense and a commodity. While AOL seems to believe in buying small companies to fuel it’s growth, the only way I’d sell a company of mine to them is if I had never had to work there, or if I had a diamond studded golden parachute ready for the inevitable spontaneous firing for a minor infraction. If you’d like to see a previous example of his impulsive moves to alter people’s lives in negative ways, and his subsequent apologies, look here.
But most important in all of this, is understanding what he did when he “apologized” and how that is not actually what an apology is. Here’s the snippet from The Wrap:
I made a mistake and I apologize for my comments last week at the town hall when I mentioned specific healthcare examples in trying to explain our decision making process around our employee benefit program
This was broadcast out to all employees. It was apparently accepted by some, including the mother of one of the “distressed” babies. Any reasonable person will wonder if these acceptances of the apology were real, or just a move for job security in the face of a rash and vengeful leader.
The NY Times ran an article questioning whether his apology was sincere. It seemed a bit limp to me.
Let’s start off by understanding what an apology actually is. Lifehacker has an article on it. Some good points in it. I’ll add my own brief summary.
An apology is your effort to understand the hurt you’ve inflicted on someone, take responsibility for it, and try to assure them you know better and won’t do that again. With that in mind, an apology is usually best if fairly brief. Don’t use ‘but.’ Don’t do a fake apology, where you apologize that something hurt someone. Apologize for hurting someone. And it has to be personal. Mr. Armstrong’s HR generated, boilerplate apology, emailed out to *@aol.com is far from that. Imagine if you forgot your child’s birthday. Would you kneel down, tell them you’re sorry, ask them to forgive you, hug them, and take them out for a present and a treat, or would you send a typed excuse to their bedroom on file, and likely repeat the offense later on?
Why does this really matter? After all, AOL is apparently rising from the dead. Mr. Armstrong’s $12 million compensation is well spent, earning his shareholders good money. It matters for reasons an anachronism like AOL cannot seem to fathom. Companies are increasingly judged by potential consumers by their actions. PR gaffes reveal the inhumanity of executives who care about people’s money more than people. Shareholders need to think about more than the quarterly profit, and focus on the ongoing reputation of their company, which in the age of social media is something that can make a company crumble rapidly.
If you’re wondering where AOL could possibly be making money, here’s a list of their acquisitions from Wikipedia. If you’re not happy with Mr. Armstrong, the easiest way to let the board of directors know that there’s more to life than profit is to not give them more money. Don’t visit their sites.