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One Bad “Policy Change” Email Can Kill Company Culture (moz.com)
181 points by trevin on Aug 3, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 92 comments

I totally agree that how one communicates influences corporate culture, and the second email is a better communication than the first. They both suggest to me, though, a company which reaches for a broad, expensive technological (+) solution to solve a narrow, cheap people problem.

+ There might not be code involved, but you're imposing a state machine, so it's tech even if it is taught in the business school.

How you communicate policy changes is important, but if your communication includes "How do we massage the fact that we know this is going to inconvenience everyone in our organization regarding one of the core benefits they perceive from working here?", communication is not the problem. The only corporate culture problem there is that the hypothetical CEO did not say "As custodian of the corporate culture, I think that working-from-home is too important to us to touch. What other options do we have?"

(One possible solution: If three people with different managers are routinely ducking meetings that have to take place, have three quiet conversations. Another possible solution: if three people with different managers are routinely ducking meetings, have three quiet conversations with their managers about how any person who can be optimized out of a meeting should be because their time is valuable.)

[Edit: It occurs to me that I glossed over the point in the blog post where they actual business rationale is presented: "Company X has been having trouble with abuse of work-from-home privileges. Managers are finding that more and more people are getting less accomplished and a primary suspect is a lack of coming into the office." I had gotten my understanding of the problem, like employees, from the second email. If that is indeed the business rationale, I revise my opinion of the second email: it is terrible because it is lying to me, in a way which makes the policy seem insane. Hilariously, when I read it now I find myself actually distrusting the hypothetical problem statement -- which is dicta for the purpose of this exercise -- because in light of being lied to I find myself thinking "Management, who we have established are liars, are probably too incompetent to actually measure people's productivity. I wonder what the real reason for this is?"]

I completely agree with your edit.

The meta-meta issue here is that the 'policy change' (in the example) is a way for some (maybe all) managers to avoid an actual conversation with folks who work for them about what they are getting done. But that is what managers are supposed to do, have those hard conversations, its part of the reason the job is 'different' then being just a technical leader.

The hypothetical CEO has a real problem, things that need to get done aren't, or they aren't being done in a timely fashion. The managers that work for them (in a small company it might be one layer in a larger company two) need to talk with their teams about what they are doing and how they are doing it. And if someone on the team is spending a lot of time at home, and the manager isn't seeing them getting stuff done, then they need to have a talk with that person. Another scenario is that you talk to one of your people and they keep getting road blocked trying to get something done and the person they need to work with isn't in the office. That discussion is also straight forward, you tell the person who works at home that they either have to make it as easy for the people in the office who depend on them to work with them as if they were in the office, or they have to be in the office.

Most employees get that the company is a 'for profit' concern, and if you are straight up with them about these things I find the ones you want to keep respond the way you would hope they do.

I totally agree with the "meta-meta issue".

I realize this isn't the point of the original article, but I couldn't get around the fact that either way the theoretical CEO phrased it he was basically saying "Because of a few people abusing a privilege and our management team being too spineless to confront them individually, now everyone at the company has to be penalized. kthx bye."

It's also a permanent change in response to temporary problem.

If the email said we have a significant problem with X, we are considering our options, but it a big problem so for the next 3 months we are going to do Y, and while we work out a better long term solution.

And then 3 months from now they say: Core work hours are 11:00am-3:00pm and you are expected to be online and available then even while working from home. Each team is expected to come up with a mandatory 1 or 2 days a week where everyone is expected to be here for core work hours. You no longer need specific permission to WFH on non mandatory days.

Then yes, it's a big change, but it's more likely to seem reasonable AND it seems like people spent a while deciding on a reasonable solution vs. someone randomly sending a quick email.

Exactly. The reason policy changes like this kill morale is because there are only two outcomes. 1) The problem in the email was not caused by me, yet I am being penalized for it, so I am resentful towards management and the policy abusers. 2) The problem in the email was caused by me, and my coworkers are probably aware of that fact, and now they resent me for bringing about this policy change.

Very well said.

I've been a victim of #1 a number of times and it sucks. It breeds annoyance at anyone you suspect of abusing the policy and every level of management.

If you approach your immediate supervisor with the reasoning of "that's not me, how closely do we need to follow it?" you've put them in an awkward position of "punishing" you or not enforcing it closely and you being an exception. Generally, exceptions are not good and complicate things further.

If people on your team aren't getting things done, go to them directly. We're (mostly) adults.

I mostly agree with Patrick, and to supplement his post with one more suggestion, I think most of these category of "behavior" memos have no business going to all employees. They should stop at X level of management, which should be entrusted/empowered/delegated to make the necessary changes within their purview. One of the biggest reasons these generic communications suck is because they're generic.

Fix the management problem and you largely fix the communication problem. For the rest (benefits changes, business strategy, etc), the exec whose name is at the bottom would be well served to be as transparent and honest as possible, and for sensitive topics to include formal feedback/Q&A paths to clarify any uncertainties. There is a huge perception gap between levels of employees and it's literally the case that individuals at different levels in the hierarchy (or different LOBs/divisions) have no idea how to relate to one another; what usually happens is that they freeze and avoid engagement, which only hurts the company.

You really get at the crux of this for me, that these emails are kind of an abdication of responsibility. They are leapfrogging over (what I assume is) discomfort at actually dealing with people in favor of tasking the employee. Why have managers if they aren't responsible for the productivity of their underlings? Why make this an all-hands piece of information? It's passing the buck.

The two emails are two extremes of this: the first uses authority, the second uses information. "Tell us why we shouldn't hate you," vs. touchy-feely Lumbergh-ism. Both are too much. Tell the bosses of the people slacking off and let the employee's manager deal with it under pain of their job being at risk. Isn't that what a management hierarchy is for?

Rand should have headed this off by drafting an email for a policy that was clearly pants-on-head retarded[1], instead of only somewhat thick. The topic of this blog post is communication and culture; judging it by the content is wrong-headed. Yes, in this particular instance communication is not the biggest problem, but there's still a lesson to learn about communication.

Since we're on the topic... you're right, that the solution is not addressing the problem. He states that what he wants from the policy is just information, so he can decide on an appropriate action. That requires sending information to your manager, it does not require that your manager have the ability to deny request. But somehow managers gained that ability. That's a misfire.

[1] "Our CFO informs me that the biggest threat to our company's continued solvency is our monthly water bill. Starting Monday, staff may not use the lavatories without first submitting form 27B/6 describing their intended usage, for approval by the managers. Employees seen entering the Taco Bell across the street will be reprimanded."

You can't take a bad policy (in this case a passive-aggressive, reactionary attempt at micro-management due to the inability to have effective conversations with individuals directly) and transform it into a good policy just by making the words more soothing and less distressing.

I've seen this thing a lot in businesses and this way of doing this is always the worst way of handling things. One person makes a mistake or misbehaves and the result is a new policy or a mass email that dances around the issue and makes everyone's lives more difficult.

You can't engineer a functional workplace through crafting just the right rules, you have to interact with human beings as individuals in order to make sure everyone is getting along, working well, etc.

To: allhands@reynholmindustries.co.uk

From: douglas.reynholm@reynholmindustries.co.uk

Subject: Time & Management Communication

Hi everyone,

Over the last month, our employees have been concerned that our CEO spends about half his time drafting fiats from his office with the assistance of his executive staff.

One challenge has been how to fill these emails with as much management jargon as possible. Words like "collaboration", "visibility", "communication delays" and "productivity" probably aren't enough as when I'm either in the office or at home I find that these specific emails cause me to run out of filler words.

Consequently, we've decided to do something different and get more focus on this problem domain. If you're planning on doing any work, please put it aside for an hour and see if you can find any words we might have missed. As you can see, I've started to do this myself, starting with this email, having already found innovative uses for the words "focus", "problem domain" and "challenge".

Both the management team and I know that you've all been working super hard lately and this might be seen as a pain. I'm sorry for that. But, as we've learned from so many things expanding our business, management's time is valuable and we are just spending too much of it drafting these emails. Your lists of words are invaluable and will ultimately make life easier for everyone.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated, even if you feel like we are total boneheads that's ok. After all, that's why we need your skills in expanding our vocabulary - an informed company is a great company!

Thanks gang,


P.S. Anyone still experiencing stress at the end of the day will be fired.

Absolutely agree. This is how the email should look like:

"Hi Everyone,

Starting next week if you want to work from home you must send an explanatory writeup to your manager who will decide whether to allow it."

On a tangential issue: I hate when people sign their emails (especially internal ones) when there's a perfectly serviceable from field. If you have to then please be thoughtful and use the -- signature convention.

I don't like your proposed email, because it proscribes a solution without describing the problem.

Neither of the given examples were a search for alternative solutions to the problem. If you're after suggestions, that's cool - but when you're giving orders, call them orders.

No, but at least the second one explains the problem — or at least what is perceived as the problem — it's trying to solve.

Which opens up the ability for discussion of alternative solutions, or the criticism of there being a problem at all.

Which is a miscommunication, if the CEO is not actually open to such discussion or criticism.

The title of the article was "...Kill Company Culture", not "...Demonstrate that the Company is Dead".

If the CEO (or the intervening levels of company) are not open for discussion, the choice of email really doesn't matter. If they are, and the terse, uncommunicative, fiat email is sent out inadvertently, then that email is damaging.

It's not gathering opinions, it's conveying a decision. I'd appreciate the terseness as it values my time.

...maybe I'm just jealous of companies who allow you to work from home.

I don't necessarily expect to be asked for my opinion on policy, but I'd at least like to know what problem the policy is solving.

It's conventional to sign letters even though it's also conventional to put one's name and address on the top of e letter, especially business letters, and on the envelope.

It's also conventional to use people's names when talking to them even both speaker and subject know who they are.

Meh. The long version is massively worse. I got to the end of it and was left confused about what, specifically, I could expect. I definitely prefer the initial "bad" version. (Though I would make it shorter.)

If you want to add explanation, make that short and sweet as well.

Here is an example following the lines of the first that is even shorter.

To: Allhands@CompanyX.com From: JoeTheHRManager@CompanyX.com Subject: New Work-From-Home Policy


Our work from home policy is changing next week. Employees wishing to do so must get an OK in advance from their manager. This is to improve progress on projects that depend on collaboration in house.

Managers, if your employee is not currently working on a project where in house collaboration is critical, please be generous in OKing working from home requests.

As always, please send feedback to HR@CompanyX.com.


That message explains the policy, indicates why, and should leave people with comfort that a favored perk is not simply being eliminated wholesale.

If you want fuller context for my advice, I highly recommend buying http://www.amazon.com/How-Talk-Kids-Will-Listen/dp/038081196... and reading it. (Ignore the bit about that advice being for kids - it works with grownups as well.)

This is better than both I agree.

Of course the real issue is one should not be changing corporate policy because of a few bad apples.

Better, if possible, to address the undesirable behaviour first before taking more drastic measures.

This is far better than either of the sample emails in the article, but I would cut out the second stanza - communication to managers about management shouldn't really be global.

Why shouldn't communication to managers be global? In this case it is an important part of managing expectations, which is part of culture.

With it in, people have a pretty good sense of whether they are likely to be impacted. With it out, people will assume that they are impacted whether they are or not, and will resent it. Also including it in what everyone got significantly reduces the risk that some low-level manager who never liked the work from home policy will try to eliminate it locally.

Those strike me as pretty good reasons to leave it in.

I disagree. I don't see any difference between email 1 and email 2 except for email 2 has a bunch more filler words.

If I was to rewrite this it'd look something like this:

    To: Allhands@CompanyX.com
    From: JoeTheHRManager@CompanyX.com
    Subject: New Work-From-Home Policy

    Hi Everyone,

    All of upper management have just put in their notice!
    Bagels in the break room! 


What I mean to suggest is this type of email should NEVER be sent out in the first place. Blanket "Policy Changes" like this that impact everyone is a complete failure of management. This puts at-risk every employee you have.

Whatever reason for making the policy change (person X is not following the rules) needs to be resolved otherwise discontent and resentment will build (You know why this happened probably because Frank works from home ALL THE TIME).

I don't buy that.

Policies aren't intrinsically bad - guidance is fine and great for new starters to help them understand how stuff works.

The implication here is that if someone is out of line then their manager should take that up one on one. That's fine (and right) but the other side of it is how do they know what "in line" is if it's never codified and communicated?

No, policies aren't inherently bad, but wide-sweeping policy changes for perceived problems or in response to relatively few bad actors are company killers. You might not see it right away, but your people who have options will leave you eventually.

The part that's bad in email 2 is "we've decided". No one likes being a slave to anothers will or reminded of the fact.

If I ever send out a bs policy update without discussing informally with staff or managers beforehand I expect everyone here to walk.

We spend a lot of money hiring talent. They do whatever the fuck they want so long as they get the job done. If they're not getting the job done, then we talk. We don't punish everone for one guys non performance.

Bad policy emails are a sign of weak management.

Wait, what are you talking about? WE decided? MY best interests? How do you know what MY best interest is? How can you say what MY best interest is? What are you trying to say?

I'M crazy? When I went to YOUR schools, I went to YOUR churches, I went to YOUR institutional learning facilities? So how can you say I'M crazy?

All I wanted was a Pepsi, just one Pepsi, and she wouldn't give it to me!

I disagree. Email 2 is far far better. Specifically, it does a better job of providing context and helping me understand what the underlying issue may have been that led to the change. It would also leaves me feeling more comfortable if I wanted to ask questions about it.

When sending something company-wide I think management should err on the side of over-communication. Communicating via the written word is difficult enough and examples like Email 1 are the kind that (over time) begin to grate on people.

I'm sorry, but the bagels email is far better. It presents critical information in an easily digestible form, is succinct and would probably go much further in improving morale and productivity in the workplace than emails 1 & 2. If only more companies would send such a missive!

Generally these fail when nobody believes the rationale. So in the 'work from home' example, everyone will believe that management doesn't think people are working hard enough and so they want people at the office where they can watch.

I watched a number of these types of emails get sent out at Google while I was there, changes in 'policy' which were really reducing the kinds of things Google used to do that cost money and they didn't want to spend that money any more. Nearly everyone I queried 'read between the lines' and picked up a 'your screwing us and trying to make it look like your not' message, even if the Eric and the others didn't think that was what they were saying.

Perhaps only way to message this is in the results direction. Something like:

"Hey Team, we need to ship the X project because its vital to the company, That means we're going to meet every day at lunch time (we'll provide lunch) to make sure everyone has what they need and are getting stuff done. See ya there."

Then let people work around the requirement to suit their needs.

Reply to: All

> "Hey Team, we need to ship the X project because its vital to the company, That means we're going to meet every day at lunch time (we'll provide lunch) to make sure everyone has what they need and are getting stuff done. See ya there."

Thanks Eric. Just to clarify for everyone, as per California State Labor law, you are entitled to a 30 minute lunch break free from work responsibilities. Meetings are not free from work responsibilities, so just so everyone is clear, legally everyone can still take their normal lunch period after this all hands meeting. Any problems run into, email me and I'll put you in contact with my attorney, he's really good at resolving labor law issues. Also, I'm going to have a meeting about whether we should organize a union here, if you're interested the first meeting to discuss this will be right after the first all hands meeting, in the same location in the cafeteria.


Random Worker

I can channel Eric's response to this,

"Hello Random Worker,

I see from your email to everyone in the company that you are interested in the California State Labor Law. I've sent Janice over, she is your Business Associate from People, Places, and Things. She is coming over to explain the part in California State Labor law that defines 'At Will Employment', she should be there by the time you read this. Oh and don't worry, she has a box with her.

Sincerely, Eric"

If he sent that email, he would be admitting to firing someone for reporting labor law violations, which is illegal.

We're being pedantic here of course, Google has a wonderful mandatory training course called "Keeping it Legal" which our employee would have attended so that he could attest to that fact when he signed his personal copy of the code of conduct, and it would caution you against firing folks for reporting violations, however Random Worker here didn't report a violation, no, they played the 'labor law' card without ever having gone to a meeting where lunch was provided. And none of the mythical company behavior had any impact on their ability to take a 30 minute break. So really it what was happening here is that a mandatory meeting was called, and this employee decides to be rebellious (which is totally within their rights of course), and the company can sever their employment relationship with this person which is totally within their rights too.

No what Random User did was self-identify as someone who wasn't really signed on to this whole "The guy who pays you is the same guy who gets to put requirements out there which you have to follow to collect the pay." part of the equation which is where the 'at will' part of the law comes into play.

I realize that droithomme was just being snarky but if you're thinking about sending this kind of message to everyone in the company, even if it is in response to what you think of as a morale killing policy change, I would advise against it. That was the point I was trying and failing to make (and be clever at the same time, which perhaps is the root of the failure).

The "at will" statues are really broad, and as most employment lawyers will tell you, once you are actually suing the company you work for, you probably don't want to work there anyway, so just quit.

The bottom line is that if you feel compelled to threaten to unionize or quote labor law at your manager, you really should think about working somewhere else. Those are big warning flags that you are not a good fit for the company.

Hold on, there. Every one knows it is impossible to get a copy of the Code of Conduct.

I agree with being more forthright, but any company that believes the answer to a tight deadline is to have more meetings is doomed doomed doooooomed.

Absolutely true that 'tight deadlines' and 'meetings' are anathema. After all you're not working if you are 'meeting'.

That said, the thing that most affects delivery schedules are communication delays between inter-dependent people or groups. I really got to appreciate this at NetApp when a project was spread across two teams, one based out of Bangalore India and the other in Sunnyvale California. The 12 hr delay that occurred during non-overlapping sleep schedules tripled the length of time the project took.

The mechanism is a variation on the makers schedule / managers schedule problem which pg discusses nicely in his essay on the topic [1]. The essence of that is that "makers" have a synchronization time, when they change gears. Think of it as a 'makers near / makers far' issue and it has properties that are remarkably similar to computer memory synchronization issues. Engineer is cranking along on some part of the project and hit a problem in some other engineers part of the system. If they can turn/walk over and start talking to them they carry their context in their heads, discuss, resolve, and keep cranking. If on the other hand the other engineer is 'far' and not immediately available, they have to stop, create an imperfect summary, message it out, and then wait. The 'far' engineer gets the message, reads the summary, then responds with questions (generally the first engineer who has the whole picture in their head leaves stuff out of the summary) and those go back, which then interrupt the first engineer in what they were now doing so they task switch back into that original problem, add additional detail to the summary and respond, maybe at that point they can pick up the phone and call (not often to India but certainly for a remote office in the same time zone that works). And the process continues. The problem gets resolved and our original engineer is off and running again. Often times people won't even really realize how much time they are spending synchronizing as opposed to working.

The more intertwined the system these folks are working on is, the more these synchronization points occur, and the more they risk slowing everything down.

So if the problem is 'things are not getting done in a timely way' and the cause is engineers being spending time being stuck waiting for some time with another engineer who knows the part of the system they are stuck on, the solution is more rapid communication between engineers. You can focus on fixing that issue. Sometimes just having an IRC channel where folks can talk is enough, sometimes you need something more. Sometimes a sync meeting is the correct answer.

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

Disagree. Depends on the meeting.

If you're on a tight deadline, there are different workgroups involved, a quick meeting can ..

Get all parties talking.

Coordinate resources.


Spend 10 minutes doing this, break until the next meeting, or agree to skip it, depending on circumstances.

Now, if you get stuck with a manager who insists on rambling on .. and on .. then yeah: big time waster.

I agree with both you and ChuckMcM that occasional meetings, carefully targeted and run, can help. But he was describing having meetings every day, which I think is completely nuts. If you decide to have one meeting to figure out where communication needs to happen, that's fine, but regularly scheduled meetings without even having something specific to meet about are crazy.

So I like what he's trying to say but his "this is how to do it mail" makes a few mistakes:

1) Paragraph two says almost nothing. Overall the mail is too long for what it needs to say. Don't kid yourself that extra bulk makes bad news more attractive it doesn't, it just irritates people that you're wasting their time as well as doing stuff they don't like. If you want a bullshit free mail, always check the length - if it's longer than it has to be there's a good chance that a lot of the excess is bullshit.

2) The second one makes one of the worst mistakes in these situations and goes with the "I'm one of you" approach. In my experience little gets people's backs up more than this. As CEO you're not one of the team when it comes to this stuff. Yes you can make out you're doing it but volunteering information is different to being asked for it - it doesn't have the implied lack of trust. As a general rule don't pretend you're the same unless you're sure you really are in every way, not just superficial ones.

3) Different writing styles and all but I'd never include an exclamation mark in a "bad news" e-mail. Exclamation marks usually say funny / whacky, neither of which are things you want anywhere near bad news.

All that said, paragraphs one, three and four are good, actually very good - explains what's happening and why. If I got those with a straight forward friendly sign-off I'd probably be fine. I may even nick them as an example.

I doubt that he went through his whole process for this example email but here are my thoughts (at the risk of over-analysing).

1) Para 1 and 2 provide a reference frame from which to consider the rest of the email. Yes, length can sound bullshitty but used well it can also provide helpful context. In this specific example I do agree that it could be shorter but not necessarily by much. Para 1 by itself doesn't say enough.

2) This is highly dependent on the type of company. I guess for Moz-ers this is usual (same for the sign-off).

3) Normally I'd agree with you but in this example there's only one and it work in the email's favour (for me at least).

Point 1 is interesting as some people like more bulk and context, others are just yeah, yeah, yeah, get on with it. Broadly I think the mail is too long and this was the paragraph that stood out, but I accept that different people might see it differently.

Point 2 I still disagree on. I don't think it depends on the company at all - saying you'll put something in your diary isn't the same as being asked to account for your time. One is voluntary, the other isn't. You know the CEO is only doing it to try and put himself in the same position but you also know he's not the one who isn't trusted.

CEOs aren't the same as the rest of us. They're answerable in completely different ways, for different things. Yes they need to limit their "special treatment" but it's a mistake for them to pretend that the same rules apply to them because everyone knows it isn't true (and so long as they're doing their jobs and treating us OK, that's fine).

I don't like either email.

Assuming we have open communication, I would respond to the CEO's email and propose implementing a different policy - if we are expected to come to the noisy distracting office where it is hard to get work done, managers must send an email asking us, explaining why it is necessary, and it will be up to the engineer's discretion to determine whether or not he wants to lower his productivity by coming in.

Heh, I do like this. Mostly because it fits with the philosophy around soul-sucking time-wasting meetings, most of which are often started at the behest of management, which often have no purpose, focus or goals associated with them.

However, the only organizations where something like this would have a snowball's chance would be those that don't already have a dysfunctional management culture. In which case you probably wouldn't be so put off by either approach since you would already have a relationship of trust, the freedom to decided to do what is needed and a general lack of resentment towards management and the business in the first place.

I would ask for hard numbers, per-employee.

I realize you can't just single out employees in an e-mail; this wouldn't fly:

"Robert, Helen and Ricky are required to get approval from their manager before working from home. John, Ed and Taavi can work remotely at any time."

But at the same time, if I'm provably more productive working from home than I am in the office, requiring me to get approval is counter-productive.

(On the gripping hand, if I am more productive at home, all of my requests ought to get approved, provided that my manager is aware of the facts.)

Yes, the problem in the given scenario is that there is a certain number of specific employees who are saying they are working from home but are doing shopping, taking the kids to school and doctor, watching TV, running errands, surfing the net and so forth, never getting around to actually doing any work.

As you point out, the "approval method" is a elaborate attempt to hide the fact that unproductive employees ABC are now not allowed to work from home and productive employees DEF are still allowed to. Rather than communicate this directly to persons ABC, an elaborate system of misleading emails is constructed.

A more effective and less damaging way to handle this is to meet individually with the specific persons who are having problems and explain it has become clear they are not productive when working from home, and so they'll have to work from their office from now on. And if that doesn't work out, then they can be dismissed.

Instead of handling this situation in the obvious manner, which would be effective and would not publicly shame anyone, we have two emails proposed to be sent to the entire company establishing a global policy to deal with a minority of people who are having problems. The wording doesn't matter, the problem is that the email is sent to everyone to deal with a specific problem with specific employees.

This is done this way because management is comprised of ineffective cowards who are terrified of confrontation and communication.

These emails show that the real problem here is highly ineffective management. To improve things management needs to change their ways or get out.

> This is done this way because management is comprised of ineffective cowards who are terrified of confrontation and communication.

This one sentence sums up why managers won't directly confront these problems, but instead apply new policies to the whole group: Employees often lack empathy for their managers, and when given criticism, will take it very personally. (I'm not blaming employees. I think this is human nature.) Managers don't want to risk pissing off an employee who, while good, has one or two things that could be improved. Better to have a slightly less happy but still productive employee.

That's not to say that the policies are often not asinine, but my suspicion is that draconian policies are often the result of management not having enough time to deal with the issue in an intelligent way combined with a small handful of employees who don't make good judgements when left to their own discretion.

> Employees often lack empathy for their managers

You're very right. I've only had one boss I disliked/didn't respect, but I've always worked at small companies.

At larger companies, managers are more beholden to their bosses than you. At my current company, my manager knows that I provide value to the company, so if his boss told him to fire me, he'd fight for me. Empathy: granted.

If I were working at say, IBM, seventeen levels down from the CEO, the manager would be more worried about being fired by his boss than he would be about my loss of productivity. So if his boss told him to fire me, I'd be out looking for a new job. Empathy: lost.

Absolutely! Confronting the people who are abusing the system is much more effective and doesn't affect the group morale (the general email would effectively punish everyone because of those few). Managers should, y'know, manage.

I agree that email #2 is marginally better than #1, but I'd not be thrilled by either one. Here's why:

1. I am all about respect, and I tend to take things personally (yeah, it's a character flaw, but whatever). If you send an email that even hints that you don't respect me and my judgment enough to just leave me alone and get my job done, it's going to rub me the wrong way and create an antagonistic feeling. My feeling is going to be "if you don't trust me, why am I working here?"

2. I wasn't consulted about a change that's going to affect me. Unilateral policy changes that aren't based on input from the people affected by the change are mondo bogus. This is also going to get my goat and annoy me to no end.

All of that said, I agree that people focus on the negative more than the positive, and that one "bad" email can outweigh 10 "good" emails (if there is such a thing).

My theory is that everybody has a mental balance scale tucked away in their heads, labeled "quit my job" with the ends labeled "yes" and "no". At any given time, neither bucket is completely empty, but it's usually fairly evenly balanced. But if enough little things build up and build up and build up on the "yes" side, eventually it tips the scale. Emails of this sort are definite additions to the "yes" side of the "quit my job" scale.

Ha, I was just thinking about this in a very similar way the other day.

Employee happiness is basically Good Will > Bullshit. Good Will is things like flexible working hours, office perks, interesting projects. Bullshit is anything that the employee percieves negatively.

Retention builds on this. It's Good Will + Compensation > Bullshit. Compensation here can be salary or benefits. Many employees can be unhappy (Good Will < Bullshit), but not quit because they need the money or whatever. But, at some point, the BS will outweigh even good compensation, and that's when employees quit.

If you send an email that even hints that you don't respect me and my judgment enough to just leave me alone and get my job done, it's going to rub me the wrong way

What if you do have a problem with that, though?

But an email is the wrong way to do this. The right way is to personally talk to everyone and say "this has been a problem, so we're going to try something new." It takes a lot longer, but no one said management was easy.

Of course the second email sounds better: it's an entirely different message.

Email #1 says: "If you want to work from home, ask for permission with an explanation."

Email #2 says: "If you want to work from home, let us know when."

Email #1 demands that you ask permission. That's what kills the culture. Most managers are going to approve 99% of the time anyway, so skip the power trip. The message of email #2 doesn't mean you lose the ability to deny either.

He's trying to manage through policies. Not gonna work. If you have 50 people under you, there are 50 different situations to consider.

For example: Joe has been working at home because his wife just had a complicated labor and needs help at home for a while. Better leave that one alone. Frank has been working at home because yeah, he's slacking. You should already have fired him, but you're a coward. Eric has been working at home because he's depressed about his carer arc and hates the office environment, and he's one of your best employees. Go talk to him and fix it before he quits! Lisa hasn't actually been working at home at all. She's on the road this week helping a third party integrate with your system, and you even knew about that but forgot when you saw a bunch of empty desks in the office and snapped.

You can't abstract away the heterogeneous nature of your employees. You have to talk to each one and deal with them individually. Yes, it's hard.

Yep. If people aren't meeting expected reasonable results for no good reason, that's the issue in a nutshell, and that's the issue to deal with directly. The issue has nothing to do per se with working from home, so no fix should mention that aspect, especially not to a whole team.

Totally agree and also note that handling things on an individual basis is a net win for everyone and the company culture.

To me, the real difference is knowing why. If you don't tell me why, I'm going to assume the worst. And history has shown that at least one of my co-workers will, too, and he or she will go around to everyone else and talk about these fears. Since they can't be countered (co-workers don't have any information about the situation), the fears will fester and rot until someone finally does explain the situation.

In most companies, that explanation never comes. After you've been there a few years, you've got an insane backlog of things you're still worried about. You'll probably have forgotten most of them at any given time, but it just takes a small trigger to bring it back to active memory.

That's the real morale killer.

If you’re at a company where these sorts of communications aren’t considered strategically, you might try talking to your managers/execs about it. I bet that more than 50% of the time, there’s a good reason and good motivation underneath those overly-corporate, soul-destroying emails. Convincing them that being more open about the reasons and more considerate in the presentation will have a positive impact probably won’t take much work.

This was a great post and of great value to me as I get started building a company where I want to create a better than status quo culture (the Valve post is also great, so far it's been a good morning).

However, I had to laugh at the comment above a bit. If you are in a company that has this sort of problem, it probably isn't the e-mails that are destroying company culture but the culture that's creating the soul destroying "policy" e-mails and micro-management. Trying to change that culture by gently suggesting ways to "frame things" differently is going to be about as effective trying to dig up. But hey, good luck anyways.

> “Office Happiness Update.”

I've had many emails like this. Dilbert, Office Space, Brazil, C Stross, all parody this kind of thing excellently.

His suggestion is much to wordy. Some people will have a bad feeling before they start to read it, and the conversational positive tone doesn't really stop that feeling.

I look forward to the ever-happy always positive dystopian science fiction.

While doing some research [1] on the 1990s "fun at work" trend, I ran across this amazing passage in a management book:

> Now make a log of your workday that records how much time you devote to playing, having fun, and actually engaging the world around you. Then note the number of times you and your colleagues laugh. Use this "inventory" as a baseline for redefining the role of play and fun in your performance.

Good news everyone, we're on track to exceed quarterly laughter targets! What a great place this is to work!

[1] http://www.kmjn.org/notes/funsultants_and_gamification.html

I was on a Delta flight some years ago and the flight attendant announced "This flight has been designated a surprise and delight flight", which made it clear they'd been ordered to do that. Then they gave out some little trinket they'd presumably been paid to hand out; a web search finds people who were given breath mints by Delta in 2004. Needless to say, I was surprised but not delighted.

I love the second email. I have found that short emails, especially from senior people can lead to a lot of "what does he/she actually mean"?

I worked for a company where the CEO loved sending off 1 sentence emails. Short, yes. To the point, yes, but it was incredible the amount of time that was spent trying to interpret the real message behind the message or even if there was one.

Without the nuances of body language, tone, expression, etc of a face to face conversation it is extremely easy to misinterpret an email. In general long emails are annoying but this is, to my mind an extremely important exception. The more detail, background, colour that you have about important emails, the better.

I find this balls if you ask me, the first one actually cuts out all the bullshit, the second one doesn't. I find the second email condescending and I would quite easily see through the crap of what they were trying to say.

Personally we have had those emails and after a day of people crying about it people just live with the new policy and get on with it.

I thought the whole point of the email was to cut through the bullshit, the second one had me looking through the dictionary working out what it meant.

The second email reads like it was written by a MBA (no disrespect to MBAs intended). There are lot's of fluff words (visibility, collaboration-dependent, solo productivity, etc). Perhaps it sounds softer than the initial email, but it leaves one wondering what the intent is. I'd much rather receive a more direct email that requires less reading and less interpretation.

I agree. My first thought after reading was "I bet this guy has an MBA degree."

he actually doesn't even have an undergraduate degree - - http://randfishkin.com/blog/about

Are folks really so sensitive they can't ignore a bs email from a bean counter?

Yeah I've seen lots of stuff like those emails (both bad). They're telling me (and my manager) how to do our job.

I just ignore them. I ignore warnings about failure to conform to company policy. I ignore the corporate weeds that think talking to me about this stuff is important.

I work at a fairly high level now in my career, so you might say I can get away with this stuff. But as a low-level peon years ago, it was even easier to get away with. As long as my manager and I were on the same page.

The only corporate relationship that matters to you is, your immediate contacts. That's your manager, your team, and anybody you oversee. Get those right, work hard and deliver, and the rest is irrelevant.

except when it isn't because the people who determine how you are paid aren't in your immediate contacts.

If you don't get paid what you're worth, time to change jobs.

The trap is to run around in their maze, looking for their cheese. You have no real control in that situation, and its time to switch jobs.

Your first job in any situation is to improve your skills, find satisfaction and get real work done. Failing any of those, everybody loses.

Or you could simply have the managers confront the offending employees one on one instead of blanketing your whole staff with a policy change...

A company culture where the slack of certain employees gets discussed in a boardroom and the solution is to email everyone a policy change sounds suspiciously like a culture that abdicates the responsibility to lead.

Both emails are pretty lousy; the upshot is the same "punish everyone with bureaucracy for the transgressions of a few". The second email allows the sender to assure himself that he isn't sending a memo about the new cover sheets for the TPS reports so if you could just get with the program that'd be greaaaaat--but it's the same order and smart employees will see right through it.

I like first email more (the one marked as bad example). It's simple, and to the point. After reading it you know exactly what is changed and why. It's a bit harsh, but we are not kids, we can handle it.

The other mail (the one marked as good example) is apologetic, lengthy, and doesn't get to the point cleanly. It might be good when talking to other managers, investors, customers or suits, but not when talking to your developer employees. If you write specifications like that, the job will never get done.

Totaly agree with the article though not sure how it would effect a situation I had once.

WHen I joined a company they said verbaly(my mistake) I'd get a pay review after probation. That did not happen and shortly afterwards my department was closed down and I was in effect promoted to a higher up department (more in keeping with my skillset as well). I then after a month queried this situation and said there would be a meeting. I was the most productive in that department with getting users problems done and in the meeting I was told that as the company anual pay review period was due next month they would accomodate things then.

Two days later a company wide email goes out that the annual pay review period was being pushed back 6 months due to accounting restructuring. Now given that the directors would of fully known about this before hand and in the meeting I had one was a director I can totaly see how a bad email can upset some people on many levels. Now I'm sure the director in question was somewhat unable to tell me in advance but it was hard not to feel shafted as he would of had prior knowledge and neither my direct boss nor the director had the common sence to contact me and say we messed up and talk about the original issue and they both pretended as if nothing happened. I ended up leaving the company on bad terms and that company's share price has been going downhill ever since and they are on the verge of being non existant. Which is somewhat ironic given the company specialises in mobile email services.

Now have I have a long email to parse AND a policy change sigh.

More seriously, I doesn't seem to me that the author demonstrated how one such policy change can kill "company culture". At best he showed the way he personally likes it done, at worst he's trolling us by presenting a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist and now everyone comments on how they agree/disagree/have a better solution. The fact that a policy change is needed or not isn't even discussed.

Ideally, a company should have no policy stating how things get done. A real manager manages. A coward looks to the company to manage his or her people.

"Policy Change" emails are terrible ways to address this sort of problem. People hate these sort of policy changes not because of the email, but because of the policy. It is trying to solve a productivity problem by imposing on everyone a new burdensome, non-productive task.

If you think employees are not performing to expectations, their managers should tell them that clearly and honestly in person. If necessary, those particular employees should be limited from working at home, or tasked with additional reporting. That way the "punishment" fits the crime.

As an aside, the second email is long and full of forced friendliness and awful corporate speak. I mean, every paragraph has the work "collaboration" in it, except the last one--which calls the managers knuckleheads. I think emails from the CEO should be short, honest, and clear.

Subject: Falling Productivity

Team, We are seeing falling productivity, and the pattern seems to be related to working from home. It should go without saying that we must maintain high productivity if we want to grow and succeed as a company. We need to get this fixed.

In the next few days your manager will schedule a meeting with you to discuss in detail the problem and how we might solve it.

Thanks, - CEO Guy

"framed properly without the bullshit" -- adding to my list of interesting oxymorons.

How is this an oxymoron?

An example:

I live in Springfield -> Framed improperly (which Springfield???), without bullshit I live in Springfield, IL -> Framed properly, without bullshit I live in Springfield, IL, which surely is good -> Framed properly, but with useless (and nonesense, sorry, couldn't think of a better example...) crap

E.G. this article. The author takes an authentic issue (managers concerned about work from home abuse) and frames it by adding bunch of distracting BS. I'm not saying framing is bad, but it's inherently manipulative.

I agree with the sentiment of email 2, but it's bloated and squishy like a banana slug. Major windbag writing style.

Personal experience/anecdote:

"Mind the gap"

This theme used a horrible, mis-applied term and metaphor from a different culture, while asking employees to make up for management's shortcoming not long after going public and buying a bunch of speculative, non-performing crap.

Further, it had the smell of outside management consultants (and "business-speak").

The employee-induced subtext: GTFO, before the doors close.


P.S. I didn't think the second, "improved" example memo in the OP was better than the first. Very wordy, without really laying out the problem It feels as if it is talking all around the issue. When I read something like that, I start looking for the other shoe (that is sure to drop).

I think he missed the very point he was trying to make.

His second e-mail is unclear and big, it is wasting the time of his employees. By using a text structure you can be more clear. Here is a structure you can use for policy changes.

1. What is the measure? 2. What is the goal of the measure? 3. Why is the measure needed? 4. How should the measure be implemented? 5. What are the effects of the measure?

I read the two sample emails, and the first seems honest, if a bit short on details. The second seems to be BS trying to put a positive face on "we're limiting work-at-home privileges because too many people are using it as an excuse to goof off." I'd be far more skeptical about the second email than the first.

Interesting to read this article. I used to work for a large bank where we were actually forced to work from home 1-2 times a day since they were running out of office desks for us :).

You get what you ask for.

Ask for hours and you get hours.

Ask for greatness instead.

There is a reasoning behind emails like the first: managerial mystique. Make decisions, don't explain why. If you explain your reasoning, there's room for debate.

You don't want to explicitly say, "Because I say so", because that's drawing attention to the fact that you're being a dick. The stuffy and bureaucratic language is a part of that. It's about seeming official. The "bad" first email is classic 20th-century management done well.

Like this:

TO: All employees [1]

After careful consideration [2], we [3] have decided to review [4] the work-from-home privilege [5] that we offer. While we intend [6] to continue extending this plan [7], we expect that employees will monitor their individual performance [8] while doing so. For that reason, we've attached form TPS-363 [9], which all [10] employees are expected to submit to their managers should they continue to use the work-from-home privilege. [5]


[1] Aggressive formality. This isn't "Hey Team". It's serious business. Management is alert. The Man is on patrol.

[2] "Careful consideration" means, "We're saying upfront that we don't want to hear any complaints or dissent. We're representing ourselves as having deliberated already in an attempt to shut out any room for debate."

[3] Use "we" to communicate bad news. The "we" is a move to speak for the company so it sounds like you're ruling based on leadership rather than authority. "The company" (not just an anal-retentive manager) needs this.

[4] "Review". This makes it sound like there was a process and (again) a deliberation.

[5] Note the use of the word "privilege", subtly implying, "we can take this away".

[6] "We intend" = "We're being nice by letting WFH continue, but don't make us regret it."

[7] "Plan". Working from home is no longer something the company offers to improve productivity and morale, nor is it a perk. It's a "plan". And plans have rules.

[8] "Individual performance". Scary words that suggest more managerial oversight and possibly "reviews", "performance improvement plans", and terminations. Good employees never, ever have "performance" under discussion. Good employees (and managers who know they have good employees) discuss the impact they've had and would like to have in the future. They discuss goals and lessons and aspirations. When the discussion is of "performance", it's inherently a negative one. The stars don't need performance reviews to know they're doing well. Performance reviews are to scare the people in the middle and to document the reason for firing those at the bottom.

[9] The longer the form, the more there is a message of, "We'd actually rather not that you do this, but if you're willing to feel like you're applying for a hand-out by filling out this form, go ahead."

[10] Note the use of "all". That's most important. It makes the change seem uniform and fair, and applied across the whole company. This allows people to conclude, after a bit of annoying news, "Well, if my boss has to do it, and so does his boss, and so does his boss, it can't be that bad". Of course, the reality is that people in the managerial hierarchy (and grunts with supportive managers) can ignore TPS-363 and no one will bat an eye, but the change appears impersonal.

This is a "bad", morale-damaging email, but it's 20th-century bureaucracy done about as well as it can be. How so? Well, in a mid-20th century context, people are already used to annoying, paternalistic memos from "on high" and have developed an immunity to them. They know that companies gradually get worse, but that the process is generally quite slow. What it actually is is a dog-whistle. The actual targets (WFH employees perceived to be slacking off) of the memo are warned, but the rest of the employees forget it 15 minutes after it was sent. Do people actually quit their jobs after an irritating email? No. People grumble about them and then forget. They get back to work, and people who enjoy the work they're doing are going to annoy irritating upper management unless it directly affects them.

The difference between 20th-century bureaucratic management and 21st-century movement in the post-managerial direction (cf. Valve) is the change in the motivation-payoff curve. If a highly motivated employee is only 25% more effective than a typically motivated (i.e. wanting promotions and not to be fired) employee, then irking a highly motivated one to warn a slacker is worth doing. If that discrepancy is 5x to 10x instead of 1.25x, the calculus is completely different: you're actually better off taking a hands-off approach and letting employees self-organize (and quietly managing slackers out if they fail to find a place after a year). We're coming into a world where a company can only be competitive if its people are highly motivated, and traditional Theory-X bureaucracy just doesn't work.

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