What AOL's Public Firing Taught Us About Workplace Rejection

For some, being fired at work is the ultimate form of rejection in one's professional life. The emotional pain, the humiliation, and the loss of income would scare many people into doing whatever it takes to hang onto their job, even if they hate it. Now, what about being fired by your multi-billion dollar company CEO in a conference call with 1,000 colleagues? This kind of rejection might be too strong to be called rejection. There needs to be a new word for it - something like 'repumiliation' (rejection with public humiliation). Meet AOL's creative director Abel Lenz, who got repumiliated by CEO Tim Armstrong in exactly that way. Worse, the news lit up social media, with audio clips on the web everywhere. So what did Lenz do to warrant having his name be forever associated with one of the most infamous public firings in corporate history? Lenz took a picture with his phone, after Armstrong claimed that he didn't care for such thing.

History is filled with mismatches between crimes and punishment, illustrated by this gif. But this AOL firing might reach its own legendary status in corporate America.

I have always maintained that rejection says much more about the rejector than the rejected. It can't be truer in this case. However, the rejection's impact is much more profound on the rejected. For Armstrong, he might be chided by media and lose some respect as a CEO. But for Lenz, he lost his livelihood (at least temporarily) and is in danger of having his once promising career derailed.

Moreover, the emotional impact could be much worse if not managed correctly. I don't know what is more difficult - Frodo Baggins' climbing of Mount Doom with one big eye watching him, or Abel Lenz' walking out of the executive conference room with a thousand different eyes watching him. How did he feel when he was driving home that day? What about when he opened his door and saw his wife and kids (assuming he has both)? One of the greatest fears for any father is the fear of being rejected by his children due to perceived failures. How will he explain this to his kids when they hear from their friends and classmates?

Yet, Lenz did nothing wrong, at least nothing close to justify what he received in such a public and humiliating manner. And now, he has a choice to make. He can let this 'repumiliation' affect his own emotional and relationship well-being, as many people would and have a good excuse to. Or he can use this as an opportunity to strengthen what the rejection is threatening to undermine.

Indeed, it is up to the rejected to make the most of a rejection. I want to ask Mr. Lenz to hold his head high, and use this crisis to install rejection-handling into his own character. I want to ask him to tell his wife, that this could be the lowest point of his career, or the highest point, depending on how they handle it together. I want to ask him to look into his children's eyes and say something like "dad got fired today and it was unfair. You will hear about this a lot going forward. And you will probably experience this yourself someday. I want you to know that dad will not be hurt by other people's rejections and opinions, and neither should you. I want to be an example to you."

I still remember when I was 7 years old, my teacher lost her cool over a trivial mistake I made, and yelled at me like a maniac in front of the whole class. She followed it up by throwing my pencil box (something all Chinese kids use in school) against the wall, as I watched my favorite pens and sharpener broke into pieces in horror. She stayed as the teacher of my class for the next 5 years and never stopped tormenting me and other students. I used to be angry at her and feel sorry for myself. But as I grew older, I started to use my experience with her as an opportunity to learn forgiveness. I even made forgiving her in-person one of my life goals.

Sometimes life can throw a brutal rejection/punch/pencil box at us. It is how we handle and react that make who we are, not the rejection.