Lessons to Learn from Yahoo's Firing of Carol Bartz

by Vault Careers | September 09, 2011

It can happen at any moment. No matter how good a job you think you are doing, a boss can call you into his or her office and fire you. In this economy, the fear of being terminated is certainly on everyone’s mind, but unless you are a public figure, being fired is usually a very private matter. Sure, your co-workers and loved ones may know, but to save pride, if someone you know asks why you are no longer working at Frank’s Deli Meats, you can say, “it was just time to move on” or “I needed a change of scenery.” Or if you want to get close to the truth, you can use the Bank of America excuse and say “they laid off 28,000 people and I was one of them.”  If you are the CEO of Yahoo, however, it’s really hard to hide the truth. It might not be a great idea to discuss it publicly either.

YahooIn case you haven’t heard, after months of rumors suggesting that Yahoo was looking to replace its controversial CEO Carol Bartz, the gossip proved true when she was indeed ousted on Tuesday, September 6, 2011 and temporarily replaced by Tim Morse. How the firing was handled is a subject of much controversy. Who is right?  Who is wrong?  What mistakes were made? 

How should someone be fired?  According to Bartz, in a recent interview with Fortune Magazine, she recalled exactly how she was terminated, noting that it occurred over the telephone. Yahoo has justified these firings due to scheduling conflicts that made it difficult to perform the task in person. As the economy struggles, these types of firings have become very common, but since she worked for Yahoo since 2009, a telephone termination seems harsh. Firing someone over the phone probably does not do much for company morale. Knowing that the next time they get a phone call from work could be a virtual pink slip only increases the stress of employees always on the edge during an economy where anything can happen. In most cases, if a company is going to terminate someone, it would be best to perform the action face-to-face. There should be warnings in place. The firing should not come as too much of a surprise and there should be a frank and honest discussion (as much as possible) between the employer and the employee on why the termination has occurred.

How should one respond to being fire?  Bartz’s response was enviable to those who have been fired and wish they could lash out on their employers. She reached for her iPad and emailed 14,000 staff members at Yahoo stating, “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.”  In one message, she let her staff know exactly what she thought of Yahoo’s handling of the situation and took control of the situation by notifying them first before Yahoo had a chance to shape the story. She then agreed to an interview with Fortune and told the magazine that “These people f****d me over,” while going on to call the company’s board of directors “doofuses.”  She received a lot of money working at Yahoo (although her comments may cost her $10 million due to a non-disparagement clause in her contract, according to Fortune), but most people don’t make that much money. Public comments may come back to haunt you, even if they are anonymous (like those made by a disgruntled worker in a letter attacking Whole Foods). You could be instantly blacklisted and become untouchable in your industry. No one wants to hire someone who doesn’t act professional when faced with adversity.

How a firing should be handled. In situations involving a CEO, both parties usually work on an agreement where it is announced that the CEO resigned, thus saving face for both parties involved. Others might be able to work out a similar agreement with their employers depending on their relationship. For everyone else, you should certainly be professional when dealing with a termination. Unless you have a wrongful termination suit on your hands, there might be a realistic reason why you were terminated. Listen to the explanation and try to learn from it. Go home and after some time, think about what your next steps should be. You need to become a public relations expert fast and determine the best way to put a positive spin on a negative situation. It might be tempting to lie, and if you want to come up with an excuse for those close to you, that’s fine. But lying in an interview about why you left your prior employer could create trouble if your prospective employer contacts your former boss. Tell the truth and explain what happened, what you learned from the situation, and how you have become a better employee as a result. Employers will handle honesty better and will also be impressed by your ability to own up to mistakes, learn from them, and strive to do better.

Being fired is horrible, but how you handle it will determine your future. Think clearly. Stay focused. And never let anger be your guide.

--Jon Minners, Vault.com

Filed Under: Interviewing | Job Search | Workplace Issues


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