How Not to Fire High Profile Employees

By Lauren E.M. Russell

The more technological of our readers may be aware of a brouhaha involving a website named Reddit.  Reddit is best known, among the general population, for conducting structured question-and-answer sessions called Ask Me Anything (AMA), in which subjects respond to questions posted by Reddit users. The subjects of an AMA may range from the mundane (a trash man) to extremely high profile politicians, including President Obama. One Reddit employee, Victoria Taylor, was largely responsible for organizing and facilitating AMAs. She was fired in early July, and the resulting firestorm offers many lessons in what not to do when terminating a high profile employee.

What Happened? Who Knows.

For those involved in Reddit’s online community (known as Redditors) Victoria Taylor was a high profile individual. She was well known and well-liked by the community, which has many active participants. However, when Ms. Taylor was terminated, no information was given to community members.

Admittedly, this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, employment attorneys frequently counsel clients not to disclose the reasons for employee terminations: human resources decisions are confidential and will not be discussed. This can be especially true in employee-friendly states such as California, where Reddit is located. Those states may have statutes protecting employee confidentiality, which could result in employer liability if breached. On the other hand, when a high profile employee is terminated, other employees should always be prepared for the change in direction, and some explanation should be available.

In the case of Ms. Taylor, Reddit initially provided no explanation for her termination. Consequently, the public began to speculate that she was terminated as the result of a particularly hostile AMA involving Reverend Jesse Jackson. Given Ms. Taylor’s history of highly successful AMAs involving controversial figures, individuals understandably felt that termination for a single gaffe was unfair. As it turns out the Jackson AMA had nothing to do with Ms. Taylor’s termination. Instead, Reddit decided to take a change in direction, encouraging public figures to join Reddit and interact with the community directly, rather than using Ms. Taylor as a middleman.

But speculation should have been expected when no explanation was provided. Had Reddit informed key members of the public-those responsible for moderating Reddit’s forums-of the change in approach it intended, it could have avoided the controversy that resulted. Instead, these key Redditors went on strike, and effectively shut down the website. The resulting firestorm was damaging to Reddit’s public image, and profitability while the website was down.

Know Your Audience

Reddit’s second major misstep was in addressing and correcting its mistake. In an effort to get Reddit back on line, founder Alexis Ohanian issued an apology, that was posted to various boards on Reddit. Mr. Ohanian’s post was followed by a second written statement by Reddit CEO Ellen Pao. However, the tone of the statements was viewed by the protesting parties as condescending, and insufficient to fully address the issues giving rise to the protest. More specifically, the moderators who disrupted the site felt that the way in which Ms. Taylor was terminated was symptomatic of other problems at Reddit, including a lack of effective communication and a lack of respect and appreciation for the work that Redditors do, on a voluntary and uncompensated basis, to contribute to the success of the website. As a result, the statements exacerbated the conflict, rather than resolving it.

It is admittedly difficult to address conflict after it arises-ideally careful handling of a high profile termination will avoid problems in the first place. But when they arise, a business must be able to effectively communicate with its employees and/or consumer base to resolve the issue. In this case, a more effective approach may have been a joint statement from Reddit and Ms. Taylor, both apologizing for the manner of the termination, and communicating Ms. Taylor’s support for the organization. If such a statement was not possible due to an acrimonious termination, then the tone of Ms. Ohanian’s and Ms. Pao’s statements should have been more cautious.

The Results

Weeks later, Reddit still hasn’t recovered from the controversy surrounding Ms. Taylor’s termination. However, it has resulted in additional shakeups. Reddit’s CEO, Ms. Pao, was terminated and its founder, Mr. Ohanian, was reinstated as CEO in an effort to quiet the situation. Ms. Pao was, admittedly, a highly controversial figure both at Reddit, and in the tech industry generally. But her poor management of the termination of Ms. Taylor-one of the most visible faces of Reddit-is undoubtedly the cause of her termination.

Bottom Line

High-profile terminations must be carefully managed, and planned out before the termination is affected. The effective use of a severance agreement and a public joint statement by Reddit and Ms. Taylor could have alleviated much of the strife in this particular case. Instead, Reddit alienated much of its user base and created an avoidable firestorm. Businesses undertaking similar actions-especially for the first time-are well counseled to consult with an attorney, public relations professional, or other expert to effectively plan for a termination that will inevitably become public news. Preparation is the best way to avoid public speculation, and the resulting unrest that arises from the worst-case-scenarios dreamed up by those who are not part of the decision-making process.