Ouch! Why a public firing is so awful for everyone involved

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It's a terrible thing to get fired—and even worse when it happens in public.

That's probably why so many people were shocked by reports that Tim Armstrong, the chairman and chief executive of AOL, appeared to fire a company creative director in the midst of a conference call.

"It looks like big business being a bully," said Jim Webber, who conducts workplace training and runs a human resources advice blog called Evil Skippy at Work.

According to the media blog JimRomenesko.com, Armstrong fired Abel Lenz several minutes into a call with employees of AOL's Patch.com local news operation.

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During the call, Armstrong is heard abruptly interrupting his own train of thought to say, "Abel, put that camera down right now! Abel, you're fired. Out!"

After a moment's pause, the CEO resumes talking business strategy.

On Tuesday, Armstrong sent a memo to AOL employees "to acknowledge the mistake I made last Friday during the Patch all-hands meeting when I publicly fired Abel Lenz." In the memo, a copy of which was obtained by CNBC, Armstrong also said he had apologized to Lenz directly about how the matter was handled.

Lenz, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as the creative director at AOL Patch.com, did not return a call or respond to an email from CNBC seeking comment. Earlier, an AOL spokesman declined to comment.

Of course, most people will never know what happened prior to the incident. But even if there is good reason to fire someone, experts say the proper way to do it is privately, and in most cases after repeated warnings about the person's performance.

Some bosses may think that publicly firing an employee will make them seem tough and decisive, but Ron Ashkenas, a senior partner with Shaffer Consulting in Stamford, Conn., said there are better ways to establish your reputation.

"If he was trying to make himself out like Donald Trump, then this isn't the way to do it," Ashkenas said. " 'The Apprentice' is a staged television show."

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Instead of rallying the troops, an executive doing such a thing runs the risk that all employees will fear for their jobs, he said. That's certainly not going to boost morale, let alone encourage workers to take risks.

"This could make them feel like maybe they're next, and particularly if it's seen as arbitrary or ... impulsive," Ashkenas said.

The workforce might not be the only ones to doubt the company's leadership. When a public firing goes, well, public—as it did with a bang in the Armstrong-Lenz case—customers and shareholders are given serious reason to pause, Webber said.

"It makes me wonder about all his other decisions concerning personnel, and is he always shooting from the hip?" he said.

There's also the question of how the employee might react to being humiliated in front of co-workers and strangers alike. Such a scene could start an ugly legal battle.

"A lot of people go immediately to consult with a lawyer and say, 'Do I have recourse here?' That never ends well for anybody," Ashkenas said.

There are a number of examples of firings that have gone public—and viral.

Two years ago, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz turned the scenario on its head when she e-mailed employees to tell them she had just been fired by phone. That set off a debate over whether it's appropriate to fire someone in such a manner.

And this past spring, a television anchor in North Dakota was fired after he was caught cursing on camera his first day of work. That sparked a discussion on whether that was a big enough mistake to justify the newbie's losing his job.

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If you are fired publicly, Webber said it's not worth lashing out, regardless of how awful you may feel. For one thing, there's probably nothing you can do to make your boss look worse. And for another, you always want to make sure you look like the saner party.

"The right thing to do is to take the high road and say, 'Yeah, that was really crazy, but I'm just going to move on,' " Webber said.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.
—CNBC's Julia Boorstin contributed to this report. Follow her on Twitter @JBoorstin.