Wednesday, February 19, 2014

‘Distressed babies”, I’ll show you one baby who ought to be distressed

If you’ve asking yourself, whatever happened to the AOL-hole CEO who fired an employee, in real-time, while said CEO was conducting an audio-based all hands meeting? The answer is: he’s back.

And it seems that there’s room in his mouth for both of his feet.

A week or so ago, Tim Armstrong made the news with a big old whine about Obamacare, and how he was going to have to trim contributions to employee 401K’s to compensate for it. (And, side benefit, I suppose, to punish the AOL workers who voted for Obama.) Obamacare was the talking point when Armstrong went on CNBC to discuss the 401K cut backs, which I do have to point out was about contribution timing, so most of the impact would have been felt y employees who left within the year (which, given what a jerk Armstrong appears to be, may be quite a few; plus it screws folks who get laid off). Anyway, there was so much blowback from employees over the decision to lump sum 401K payments at the end of the year that Armstrong reversed the policy.

Armstrong also had to apologize for going into more explicit detail when, in talking to AOL employees directly about the 401K changes, he inserted his second foot in his mouth:

In a meeting with employees, Armstrong said the health-care expenses of two workers in 2012 played a role in his decision on which benefits to cut, Capital New York reported last week. The two employees had “distressed babies that were born,” costing AOL $1 million each, he said, indicating that he’d rather give priority to health care over retirement among the company’s benefits. (Source: Bloomberg)

Well, taking care of “distressed babies,” and others who require long term and expensive health care, is precisely what insurance is for. And while it sounds like AOL self-insures, well, having Million Dollar Babies (and heart transplants, and stage 4 cancer) pop up and suck big bucks out of the care pool are the risks that self-insurers bear. They’ve gambled that with their young, healthy employee population they can take care of health insurance more cheaply on their own than they would if their premiums were clumped in with the sorts of companies – insurance, banks – that have a lot of older, health-care sucking geezers on their payrolls.

Anyway, while I know it’s gauche to point this out, Armstrong could have played the hero by renouncing some portion of his $12M (2012) salary…

Meanwhile, Armstrong may not have counted on the mother of one of those distressed babies being a writer – Deanna Fei - who eloquently took to the pages at Slate to talk about her experience, and her reaction to Armstrong’s using her family as Exhibit A:

I take issue with how he reduced my daughter to a “distressed baby” who cost the company too much money. How he blamed the saving of her life for his decision to scale back employee benefits. How he exposed the most searing experience of our lives, one that my husband and I still struggle to discuss with anyone but each other, for no other purpose than an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting. (Source: Slate)

Fei goes on to recount the story of the premature birth of their daughter, and the tremendous struggle to keep the baby alive. (She spent 3 months in the NICU.)

All of which made the implication from Armstrong that the saving of her life was an extravagant option, an oversize burden on the company bottom line, feel like a cruel violation, no less brutal for the ludicrousness of his contention.

…For me and my husband—who have been genuinely grateful for AOL’s benefits, which are actually quite generous—the hardest thing to bear has been the whiff of judgment in Armstrong's statement, as if we selfishly gobbled up an obscenely large slice of the collective health care pie.

Yes, we had a preemie in intensive care. This was certainly not our intention. While he’s at it, why not call out the women who got cancer? The parents of kids with asthma? These rank among the nation’s most expensive medical conditions. Would anyone dare to single out these people for simply availing themselves of their health benefits?

Needless to say, Armstrong has apologized for detailing specific cases in his remarks. Insensitive for starters, these “distressed baby” situations were certainly recognized by colleagues of those who had the misfortune to have given birth to one of them. So there’s a bit of a privacy violation in play here, too.

I have a couple of questions here:

How does Tim Armstrong, who appears to be a colossal lunkhead, keep getting away with tricks like this? I guess I can answer that one: AOL just announced a profitable quarter.

And doesn’t anyone in HR and/or corporate communications prep this guy? I thought the folks in these departments were supposed to make sure that the talking points aren’t clumsy, insensitive, controversial. Or maybe they have tin ears every bit as tin as Tim’s.

I, of course, don’t know Tim Armstrong. But it’s pretty easy to imagine him being annoyed right about now. Ticked that he’s getting it in the neck (or the press or the social media) for being the kind of guy who tells it like it is, who gets into the weeds on just how and why something came about, who’s the buck-stops-here guy in charge.

I bet he’s feeling plenty self-pitying distressed right now.

Big baby.



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