Six disastrous management memos

12 May 2015 -


Used wisely, memos allow bosses to make speedy management updates and keep staff in the loop. These examples show why it pays to think before you send

Jermaine Haughton

Ah, the memo: that convenient tool that enables managers to dash off a few quick thoughts on company policy or strategy and disperse them through a staff network in an instant. The trouble is, in an age of rapid communications, bosses can’t rely on their missives staying strictly within those circles, and must increasingly ensure that their jottings don’t come back to haunt them.

Take Liam Byrne. With Labour’s election defeat still raw, the party’s former treasury minister has now finally conceded that his “I’m afraid there is no money” note to Coalition successor David Laws helped the Conservatives to victory. Brandished by David Cameron pretty much everywhere he went during the election campaign, the note has been cited by many political commentators as a gaffe that fatally undermined public trust in Labour’s economic competence. Writing in the Observer, Byrne said: “Party members ask me: what on earth were you thinking?”

He added: “I’ve asked myself that question every day for five years and, believe me, every day I have burnt with the shame of it.”

But Byrne is far from alone – plenty of other managers have suffered their own bouts of foot-in-keyboard syndrome…

1. A bad day to bury bad news

Last summer, former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop made a hash of trying to play down the firm’s plans to slash its global headcount of 18,000 permanent staff, leading in with copious waffle such as, “Our device strategy must reflect Microsoft’s strategy and must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope.” Elop dilly-dallied right up to the 11th paragraph, when at last he said what rumour-plagued employees wanted to know: “We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory direct and professional employees over the next year. These decisions are difficult for the team.”

The long-winded memo was a hugely unsuccessful piece of expectations management, upsetting staff and notching up millions of viral shares online. It has since been held up as a textbook example of ineffectual management, and how not to reveal job losses to staff.

2. Accident prone

Following the administration of its parent company in 2003, Manchester-based Accident Group made the cringe-worthy mistake of sacking 2,500 staff via text message – as well as telling them that their salaries would not be paid. Issued by an anonymous, backroom HR chief, the message began: “I must apologise for the nature of this call. I would have preferred to have done this on a face-to-face basis. On the time scale available, this has not proved possible.” Staff were disgusted by the “cowardly” approach, which many of them felt had damaged their reputations. One worker, Gareth Manchini, added his thoughts to a comments thread on a BBC story about the incident. “I have worked so hard for this company,” he wrote, “and all they could manage to do was send me an impersonal text message to say I no longer had a job and ‘unfortunately my wage had not been paid’!” In 2013, it was revealed that around £8.4 million in compensation had been paid out to the thousands of staff who were affected, with some former workers still set to receive further payments.

3. Not a patch of remorse?

After choosing the unlikely forum of a filmed staff meeting to fire Abel Lenz, creative director of online news service Patch, Tim Armstrong – CEO of Patch owner AOL – sent employees a memo to apologise for his behaviour. Obtained by several news agencies, the statement said: “I am writing you to acknowledge the mistake I made last Friday during the Patch all-hands meeting when I publicly fired Abel Lenz. It was an emotional response at the start of a difficult discussion dealing with many people’s careers and livelihoods.” However, the note did little to restore staff morale, and critics lamented Armstrong’s failure to take ownership of the incident in a heartfelt way. Instead, by referring to his “emotional response,” he was roundly accused of making excuses for his behaviour.

4. Inflexible friend

In early 2013, Yahoo HR chief Jackie Reses sent employees a condescending memo that gave them the ultimatum of stopping flexible-working arrangements or losing their jobs. The message – which soon went viral – read: “Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo Offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.”

The memo sparked global discussion on the importance of home-working. Yahoo bosses also weathered criticism from employees who felt upset and frustrated by such a significant change in their work patterns. While Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said she would not discuss internal matters, she was in the end forced to defend the memo, stating that some of the best ideas come from in-person collaboration and that flexible working was “not what’s right for Yahoo right now”.

5. Unions and disunion

Accusations that US retail behemoth Walmart is anti-union hardly abated in January 2014 when internal documents emerged showing that the firm was training its managers to discourage staff from joining up, on the grounds that unions are a “waste of money”. Leaked by hacking group Anonymous and obtained by the Occupy movement, the memos showed that managers were told it was their “duty of loyalty” to report anything they thought resembled union activity “immediately”. It is, of course, illegal for companies to stop people from joining trade unions.

6. Talking trash

Some managers simply fire their uncut musings straight on to social networks, seemingly without any notion that they will be picked up by the public. In 2013, Gregory Gopman – founder of web development platform AngelHack – came under fire after posting offensive comments about San Francisco’s homeless. “I’ve travelled around the world,” Gopman wrote in his lengthy diatribe, “and I've got to say there is nothing more grotesque than walking down Market St … Why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts and trash I have no clue.” In a separate post, the tech chief added insult to injury: “The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet and generally stay out of your way.”

Gopman’s comments were met with fulsome disdain on Twitter, where both the boss and his company were attacked. Indeed, the weight of criticism threw AngelHack’s Twitter feed into temporary shutdown while Gopman trotted out an apology. By the end of 2013, though, he was forced to leave his own company.

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