Courting Controversy at AOL

Tim ArmstrongAs you just might have heard, AOL chief Tim Armstrong is making headlines again, this time for attributing recent alterations to the company’s 401(k) plan in part to rising medical costs associated with two employees’ families “distressed babies.” Armstrong has since apologized, and emailed AOLers two days after making the contentious comments, to announce his reversal on the changes.

This latest flap comes just months after Armstrong made news by angrily firing an employee during a meeting; a move he apologized for within four days.

So, Armstrong has offered up the expected mea culpa here, expressing his regret for singling out two employees’ children as factors in AOL’s climbing medical costs.

But we thought it would be interesting—albeit in hindsight—to ask a handful of HR experts how they would handle Armstrong’s penchant for creating controversy, and perhaps give HR leaders a few pointers on how to keep executives at their organizations from making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:

Rita McGrath, an associate professor of management at the Columbia Business School in New York, says a little coaching could go a long way for Armstrong.

“If there were ever a case for why a top-notch executive coach would be great for a CEO, this would have to be it,” says McGrath, who was quick to offer the disclaimer that executive coaching is “not the work that I do.”

“As an executive, everything that you do has substance and symbolism. In both of Armstrong’s somewhat bizarre communications—firing an employee in a public meeting, blaming cutbacks on ‘distressed’ babies—the symbolism conveys mean-spiritedness at best, and at worst [reveals] a guy who is unable to control himself in a public forum.”

A good executive coach, she says, “would be able to do two things: increase his awareness of the perception of his communications, and put in place mechanisms to help him change the more dangerous aspects of his behavior.”

Lou Solomon, founder of Charlotte, N.C.-based communication consultancy Interact and author of Say Something Real, doesn’t quite get why Armstrong was commenting on employee benefits at all, let alone making questionable remarks about “distressed babies.”

“Any changes in employee benefits should be facilitated and communicated by HR,” says Solomon. “There is nothing more destructive than a lone, loose-cannon CEO. The folks in HR and communications have to scramble to pick up the pieces, when they should have been out front to begin with.”

(Incidentally, Solomon raises an interesting point there. In a Feb. 10 column, Forbes contributor Dan Munro went a step further, wondering if the comments—whether uttered by Armstrong or anyone else—were not only insensitive, but perhaps constituted a HIPAA violation as well. Read it here.)

The fact that Armstrong even knew of these two employees’ healthcare situations is cause for concern, adds Rob Wilson, president of Employco USA Inc., a Westmont, Ill.-based employer management, contract staffing and human resource outsourcing services provider.

“From an HR perspective, you cannot talk about individual cases or personal employee issues,” said Wilson, in a statement. “Further, taking that information and using it as a scapegoat to cut retirement benefits is a poor business move.”

Matt Eventoff, owner of Princeton Public Speaking in Princeton, N.J., suggests HR can help keep executives from committing similar slips by helping them take a good look at themselves. Literally.

“Exposure is often very, very valuable for an executive,” says Eventoff. “Prior to an important call, presentation, panel discussion, etc., prep the executive by asking continuous questions and allowing the executive to answer—all while being taped, and then allowing the exec to review the tape.

“This is obviously very sensitive training, but simply seeing the answer on tape is eye-opening, especially for an executive who’s used to speaking ‘off the cuff.’ ”

The second step would be taking the executive’s answers to the aforementioned questions and “illustrating how they might sound and look to different audiences,” he continues, adding that HR may want to bring in an outsider for this part of the process.

“Asking difficult questions of a C-level executive can be uncomfortable for all parties, especially if they work together every day,” says Eventoff. “And it’s also difficult to tell your boss he or she is wrong on a regular basis. Every boss says they want this feedback, but the number [of those that truly do certainly does not include] every boss.”