How To Talk To Employees

company culture 0 comments suggest edit

Today on Twitter, I noticed this tweet from Dare Obasanjo (aka @carnage4life on Twitter) critical of a blog post by Rand Fishkin, co-founder and CEO of SEOMoz.

Why you shouldnt take lessons from inexperienced managers. Replaces to-the-point email with lengthy BS no one’ll read -

Dare is one of those folks who is very thoughtful in what he blogs and tweets. Most of what he posts is worthwhile, so naturally I clicked through and read the post. In the post, Rand poses a hypothetical scenario (emphasis mine):

For example, let’s say 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*. The problem is circulated at the executive team meeting and a decision is made to change the work-from-home policy to provide greater analytics and visibility. An email is sent to the team that looks like this:

Rand supplies the “typical” corporate response:

To: \ From: \ Subject: New Work-From-Home Policy

Hi Everyone,

Starting next week, we’re making a change in policy around time working out of the office. Employees wishing to work from home must send an explanatory writeup to their manager. It will be at managers’ discretion whether these requests will be accepted.

If you have feedback, please email

Thanks very much,


And here’s his “improved” response. To be fair, he makes it clear that he doesn’t think it’s perfect and he’d spend more time on it if he were actually sending such mail.

To: \ From: \ Subject: Productivity & Working Out of Office

Hi Everyone,

*Over the last month, several managers have been concerned about our ability to get collaboration-dependent projects completed. We need a way to better track in-office vs. out-of-office work to help prevent frustration and lost productivity. *If you’re planning to work from home or from the road, please email your manager letting them know. If the time doesn’t work, they might ask you to come in.**

I know many of you are putting in a ton of effort and a lot of hours, and that this extra layer of communication may be a pain. I’m sorry for that. But, as we’ve learned with all sorts of things growing this company, we can’t improve what we don’t measure, so please help us out and, hopefully, we can make things better for everyone (more work-from-wherever time for those who need it, more in-office collaboration so communication delays don’t hold you back, etc).

If you’ve got any feedback, ideas or feel that we’re being knuckleheads and missing the real problem, please talk to your manager and/or me!

Thanks gang,


The Golden Rule

Before I comment, I should point out that while I have managed some poor souls in the distant past, I’ve never been a CEO or an HR director. I don’t have years of experience in those fields.

But I do have years of experience being an employee. This makes me especially qualified to critique these emails. Let’s face it. They absolutely reek of manager speak.

I’ve had great managers in the past, but there’s one common trait I’ve noticed from many managers. They’re typically self-centered and frame everything from their scope of influence.

The email could be made so much better by practicing a very simple thing. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes.In other words, practice the Golden Rule. How would you react to such an email if the tables were turned and you were the employee and you got this email from management?

I’d imagine you’d prefer to be spoken to as a peer and an adult, not as child who needs to be controlled. These emails feel like classic examples of “Theory Y” as Dan Ostlund highlighted in his FogCreek blog post, Why do we pay sales commissions where he addresses the dual theories on how management views workers:

The tension between these views of workers was described in the 1960s by Douglas MacGregor in his book The Human Side of Enterprise. He suggested that managers had two views of motivation, and that a manager’s theory of motivation determined company culture. The first view he called Theory X which assumes that people are lazy, want to avoid work and need to be controlled, coerced, punished, and lavishly rewarded in order to perform. Sounds like some sort of S&M dungeon to me. Theory X demands a lot of managerial control and tends to demotivate, generate hostility, and generally make people into sour pusses.

The second he called Theory Y which assumes that people are self-motivated, derive satisfaction from their work, are creative, and thrive when given autonomy.

As you can tell, I strongly subscribe to Theory Y. Perhaps if I was a CEO, I’d change my mind and subscribe to Theory X in a sadistic desire to exert my will over others. Perhaps using a bullwhip.

But I’m not. I’m an employee and I like being treated like an adult. I’m very fortunate to work at a place that is so camped out in Theory Y it’s crazy.

If you do have employees who act like children and only respond to command and control, maybe it’s time to get rid of them.

Attack the Root Problem

So back to these emails. Putting myself in the employee’s shoes, here’s how I might react to them.

If I were working from home productively, I’d be annoyed by the fact that more process is being added to my work day due to the lack of productivity of others.

But maybe I’m one of the people whose productivity has declined. Well I’d probably still be annoyed because the letter misses the point and doesn’t address the real problem.

Note that in the original scenario, I put some emphasis on a phrase:

more and more people are getting less accomplished and a primary suspect is a lack of coming into the office*.

Both of the proposed responses immediately commit a logical fallacy. Now please, repeat after me: correlation does not imply causation!

The problem is not that people are working from home. The problem is the decline in productivity!

Working from home is only a potential suspect as the cause in this decline. But management runs with this and puts more constraints in place that only serve to annoy employees. That’s putting a band-aid on a problem they admit they don’t yet understand!

The solution is to attack the root problem. Find out what the real cause is and enlist the help of your employees to solve the issue. If I were sending out the email, I’d probably start by sending it to just the managers first (this assumes my company even has managers in the first place):

To: Overhead <> \ From: \ Subject: Productivity & Working Out of Office

Hi Everyone,

Over the last month, several managers have been concerned about our ability to get collaboration-dependent projects completed. We need to better understand the root cause of why our productivity has declined.

I recommend talking to your reports, clearly state the problem, and gather their ideas on how we can improve overall collaboration and productivity. I’m especially interested in what we can do as management to remove any roadblocks that prevent them from being as productive as they’d like.

If you’ve got any feedback, ideas or feel that we’re being knuckleheads and missing the real problem, please talk to me!

Also, whoever used the executive bathroom last, please light a candle next time.

Thanks gang,


You just might find out that the reason Fred’s productivity declined is because he has a sick child at home and needs to be able to help out at home during the day. But because your company’s culture is so focused on synchronous collaboration, he can’t really make up the work at night. Asking Fred to come into work more often doesn’t solve anything. But improving your collaboration tools and helping foster a culture that can thrive with asynchronous communication just might!

Strike at the root problem my friends and treat each other with respect. That’s how you talk to employees (and ideally, everyone).

Found a typo or error? Suggest an edit! If accepted, your contribution is listed automatically here.



24 responses

  1. Avatar for Darren
    Darren August 3rd, 2012

    Nice Post.
    I like the amended email you suggested. My only comment would be to remove the last two lines. I understand bringing some levity to the situation but this is an email from a CEO (or some higher-level executive) to his team of managers regarding a serious matter.
    Similar to your points about treating the employees like children, sometimes managers (and even some employees), if they are good and care, want the orders from above without any fluff and will want to participate in bringing forth a resolution.
    Adding some extra fluff in this type of email could be looked at as a hedge on the part of the sender and lacking some confidence both from the perspective of "is this really an issue?" and “will my managers cringe by my sending this?”.

  2. Avatar for Dan Sorensen
    Dan Sorensen August 3rd, 2012

    Nice analysis and solution. You've obviously read many manager emails. ;-) Your email left me with a "Sounds good - lets work on it" feeling rather than the "Oh great, more paperwork" dread.

  3. Avatar for haacked
    haacked August 3rd, 2012

    @Darren that levity was intended for the blog post. I wouldn't actually include that in a real email because I would have torn down the executive bathroom if one such thing existed and turn it into a fountain.

  4. Avatar for Steve Sheldon
    Steve Sheldon August 3rd, 2012
    If you do have employees who act like children and only respond to command and control, maybe it’s time to get rid of them.

    One of the fundamental problems with Theory X, is if you treat your staff as if they were children, they will behave like children. So it reinforces the certainty that you need a bullwhip.

  5. Avatar for Abe Miessler
    Abe Miessler August 3rd, 2012

    Great post! I would argue that there are few places made up entirely of Theory X or Theory Y people. In my experience there are always at least a few Theory X people people where ever you work...

  6. Avatar for haacked
    haacked August 3rd, 2012

    @Abe: there might well be. But how awful would it be to cater your entire management philosophy around those people to the detriment of the Theory Y folks? As Steve points out, perhaps they're theory X because you treat them as such.
    At some point, you will hire a bad apple. The question is, how will you respond to that. Ideally, the person can be won over to Theory Y. If not, it's time for them to take their X somewhere else.

  7. Avatar for Nick Larsen
    Nick Larsen August 3rd, 2012

    I was just reading your blog post and I got to the last paragraph and all of sudden I was like "holy shit, this whole post was about something I didn't learn about until the last paragraph". In general I really enjoy the flow your blog posts, but in this case, it feels like the introduction to a much larger argument and I didn't see the "to be continued" link anywhere. That being said, it was a great introduction.
    I personally have tons of thoughts on asynchronous communication, unfortunately, I don't feel like posting them here at all because you stated no validating reasons why you are in favor of it for discussion (not that I'm against it, just that you are clearly for it). So this whole post to me is kinda like... how the fuck do I comment... except for asking you to continue writing more about so we actually have something to talk about.

  8. Avatar for Dennis
    Dennis August 3rd, 2012

    You've been working too much for corporations where plain and straight to the point speak, and lets be honest, honesty itself has been extinguished. Its at the point where everything is so sugar coated and everyone is spineless that you need to parse every communication for real meaning.
    You write for example in your email:

    Over the last month, several managers have been concerned about our ability to get collaboration-dependent projects completed. We need to better understand the root cause of why our productivity has declined.

    Why is this sent to everyone instead of being addressed on individual basis? If managers see productivity loss they know who produces less and instead of talking to individuals and asking them why are they producing less and addressing issue directly, pointless email is sent so everyone can waste time trying to figure out why Fred is not delivering?
    And yes, some people cannot work effectively from home and they need to be away from home since they don't have self discipline to work from home. That also need to be address individually and in straight forward manner. If you see someone is not working at home you talk to them directly to find out why that is. If you don't get good answer you bring them back into office. If they still don't deliver you again talk to them and tell them openly that they are not living to their part of obligation when they accepted the employment and that if that continues they will be let go... And if they don't improve you have to let them go.
    Nobody benefits from obfuscated conversations and coded messages. Be open, be honest, but be kind. Nobody can improve if they don't know that they are doing something wrong... Its not fair to anyone including your company and shareholders...

  9. Avatar for haacked
    haacked August 4th, 2012

    That was the point of my post. I'd tell the managers to talk to the individuals. I wouldn't send a mass email. Did that point not get across?

  10. Avatar for Tim Murphy
    Tim Murphy August 4th, 2012

    Great post. Will you be my boss :-)

  11. Avatar for Ruffin
    Ruffin August 5th, 2012

    "we can’t improve what we don’t measure..."
    This was the real clue to me that we're pretty firmly in a misguided version of Theory X. Kitty Locker put a spin on the Golden Rule she called "You Attitude", and that attention to including only what's important to your reader, not what's important to you, is what's lacking (as Haack also points out).
    "We feel we can't improve without added surveillance of you, the proles. Therefore, you will be checking in."
    Getting the feeling we're getting close to the proles saying, "I have eight different bosses right now... That means, when I make a mistake, I've got eight people coming by to tell me about it."
    That's not how you improve, Fishkin. And that's why this "improved" email finds its readers tuning out.
    The real problem here, especially with what the imagined manager's motivations reveal in that example email, isn't just productivity. It's probably closer to what Zula finds to be true in Stephenson's REAMDE -- "As hire As; Bs hire Cs." Sounds like you've got some Bs and Cs.

  12. Avatar for Chris Rogers
    Chris Rogers August 5th, 2012

    Hey Phil,
    I agree with what you've said - and quietly wish I'd had more managers like you over the years.
    I do feel the need to point one thing out though : I think you've taken on too much of the hypothetical situation which Rand is painting and less on the point he was attempting to make. Rather than focusing on the specific point of whether or not workers should be working from home etc - I think he was more interested in discussing "how" you deliver news which isn't great.
    The "decreased productivity" was just a vehicle for that discussion.
    BTW, the best manager I ever had was someone who quite often would chat over a coffee - and was geniunely interested in life and family, not only on my output for the day. And I can honestly say that I found no lack of motivation to be productive for him.

  13. Avatar for Gorazd Švajger
    Gorazd Švajger August 6th, 2012

    Chris Rogers nailed it. This is a nice reply you have here, but to the wrong point.
    I agree with Rand that explaining the cause of a bad company policy change is much better than just saying "things will be like this from now on". Everyone usually wants to know why, don't they?
    But as to your point, yes, if N people screw up, you shouldn't punish everyone, although that frequently happens, and that includes the company I work for.
    Also, Overhead? That made me laugh out loud. Which is bad, because I fear a "no blog reading" company policy e-mail is being written as a consequence.

  14. Avatar for haacked
    haacked August 6th, 2012

    @Chris, @Gorazd: I understood the point of the post, and yes, I addressed something slightly different than his main point.
    The scenario he chose is an extremely poor example to demonstrate his point. He gives two examples of how to deliver this bad news. I'd give a third. Don't send an all company email. Have managers talk to employees directly and get them involved.
    But there is no one-size-fits-all approach here. In the scenario Rand concocted, the "bad news" is really a poor policy decision by management. Best way to deliver that news is to correct the decision, not send a sugar coated email.
    It would have been a stronger post if the scenario was such that the bad news was not a poor decision policy, but perhaps some external bad news. Or a good decision the company was behind still went bad as these things happen. How would a CEO respond in that case? That's a compelling topic and perhaps would make a better example for Rand to cover.

  15. Avatar for Nathan Hales
    Nathan Hales August 6th, 2012

    When I read fluff emails from managers, I feel that my intelligence has been insulted. I like to think that I was hired because I'm smart enough to get the job done, but when I get these types of emails I feel like I'm being spoken down to. Give it to me straight, and don't send an email, just talk to me.
    Good managers should know who the culprits are and a quick one-on-one, wtf-is-going-on, meeting seems more appropriate than a new company policy.
    Chris Rogers has an excellent point about managers that care. I whole heatedly agree. I have personally had a WTF meeting once from a manager that cared, and I walked away feeling chastised but motivated because I didn't feel like he was out to get me.

  16. Avatar for BetaTest
    BetaTest August 11th, 2012

    Interesting article. Many people subscribe to the Theory X management style. So what happens in a great Theory Y company when a leg of the company, perhaps a VP and lower manager, are solidly Theory X. The employees expect to be treated in the Theory Y manner, but the micromanagement, belittling and harsh environment of this one section allows a toxic waste of harried employees. Further stress factors to this points to a pseudo-allusion on the eyes of the rest of the company about this "leg" of the company. Employees that leave are deemed "non productive" or bad apples to the HR and other Executive staff. Mixing a Theory X and Theory Y can be quite toxic... hopefully, the company will deal with the issues and resolve them before the company implodes.

  17. Avatar for Dan
    Dan August 17th, 2012

    no matter if you are a CEO or a junior developer, you need to be able to communicate clearly and respectfully with your colleagues and customers. "no man is an island", although many developers would like to think so, so collaboration and respect go hand in hand.

  18. Avatar for Andrej
    Andrej August 24th, 2012

    i think that you as CEO or whoever shouldn't sent such emails(no matter how well is everything is defined) if you want to solve any problem.
    Because from my experience any message will be misunderstood, so the only and best way from my point of view is to discuss it with your team first and after that your reports can continue further communication (emails, discussions, etc...) in smaller groups.
    "TO ALL" emails must be used only for stating accepted decisions after initial discussions

  19. Avatar for TVD
    TVD September 9th, 2012

    This -> "At some point, you will hire a bad apple. The question is, how will you respond to that. Ideally, the person can be won over to Theory Y. If not, it's time for them to take their X somewhere else."
    Talk to the individual.
    If your policy is to change culture for each bad apple, then you won't have a culture for long. In fact, you'd have to question if you ever had a culture at all.

  20. Avatar for Julie
    Julie September 14th, 2012

    In my, yet short, career life, I've been through the exact same example : Initial turn off of remote access for everyone then allow some people to get it back to their manager discretion.
    I had a discussion with the CTO after that decision and found out he had no idea of how people felt betrayed after a mail like this one, especially while the company facing a major crisis where trust was at stake, and was naive enough to think that "manager discretion" would be fair and equal. How hidden could be understood ?
    This reaction is exactly what you point out : No one likes being told and punished as a child and manager vision is limited to their own scope.
    Respect is what everybody should get.

  21. Avatar for Chris
    Chris September 17th, 2012

    Very true and interesting read. if only boss would read this

  22. Avatar for James
    James October 22nd, 2012

    There is also a fallacy about obsessing over a poorly chosen example and missing the actual message. The original post was less about work-from-home productivity and more about communicating an unpopular change in policy. Given that the managers have already studied the issue and taken feedback from the employees, and limiting work from home was the best option, how do you write the memo? I think the second one was an improvement for the simple fact that it acknowledges that the decision will be unpopular and gives some reasoning to show it wasn't made on a whim.

  23. Avatar for James
    James October 22nd, 2012

    BTW, I think the lesson here about solving the root problem is also quite valuable. It just doesn't seem like the most pertinent criticism of the other post.

  24. Avatar for joey
    joey January 15th, 2013

    I think the second one was an improvement for the simple fact that it acknowledges