I am a big fan of FT journalist Lucy Kellaway. Her column in the Financial Times is a joy to read (I subscribe to the FT, and also download her column as a free podcast in iTunes). Her primary interest is in uncovering – and then mercilessly mocking – examples of corporate mumbo jumbo. She now has such a following that people from all over the world send her the most remarkable examples of management memos, emails and correspondence.

I was particularly interested in a piece she wrote at Christmas last year, in which she highlighted how not to – and how to – give bad news to your staff. Really insightful stuff! You can read the piece at the FT site here, or an extract below.

Two memos divided by understanding

… Last week, I was forwarded [two] seasonal messages bearing bad tidings of firings and fall-outs. The first was the perfect example of how not to do this sort of thing. The second was a rarer document: an example of how to do it properly.


The first e-mail was written by Jay Hooley, CEO of State Street, the financial services company, and conveyed the news that 1,400 people would shortly be out of a job. It bore the innocuous title “Staff Announcement” and began: “Today we are announcing a multiyear programme that will enhance service excellence and innovation, help achieve greater operating efficiencies and position us for accelerated growth.”

Ignoring the dreary pomposity of the tone, there are two bad things about this. There is the hyperbole: if your service is excellent, it doesn’t need enhancing; if it’s not excellent, it’s dangerously deluded to pretend that it is. And then there is the upbeat tone, a cowardly attempt to hoodwink staff into thinking something good will surely follow.

What actually follows is a volley of “visions” “goals” and “objectives” that include “creating an industry-leading operating model” and “leveraging our scale”.

After a few hundred words of gung-ho waffle and general throat clearing, comes the following: “To gain better use of these advantages, we will implement targeted cost initiatives including staff reductions impacting approximately 1,400 of our workforce.”

Having thus eliminated 5 per cent of the company, the memo sweeps on to to a further discussion about nothing in particular. There is much talk of establishing “centres of excellence to better align core functions with client needs” and the need to “accelerate our development of leading-edge solutions for our clients”.

Eventually he stops spinning, doubtless satisfied at how he has made a bitter pill vanish in a cloud of candyfloss, and ends thus: “I am confident the components of this programme are necessary to ensure this success.”

I’m not sure about that, but I’m confident about something else. If I were one of State Street’s 29,000 workers – who are described on the company’s website as “talented and dedicated” – I would find my stocks of dedication were diminished by this disingenuous, dishonourable, jamboree of jargon. Indeed, I might contemplate taking my talent elsewhere.

On the very same day that the CEO of State Street was penning his wretched message, Nick Denton, ex-FT journalist and founder of Gawker, was addressing his staff at the media gossip company in a memo entitled “Change”.

“Yes, this may be a shock to some of you,” he begins, before announcing that two senior people are leaving the company. He praises their achievements, and goes on: “Sure, we’ve rowed over everything from politics to page layout. But that’s been part of the fun; and the arguments have generally led to better decisions.”

Then comes the meat: “Our sites are allergic to corporate boilerplate, so I’m going to be explicit. Chris and I diverge seriously over strategy. That spilled over into unhealthy conflict between editorial and sales.”

This is good. It is readable, clear, and it feels true. It happens – often in fact – that people disagree so violently they can’t work together. Come to think of it, Nick wasn’t known as the sweetest, easiest guy to work with when he was at the FT. But the way he describes this falling out is just right. It eliminates damaging gossip and it gives the departing people more dignity than if the announcement was full of nonsense about spending more time with the family.

State Street would have done much better to do a Denton. Its e-mail should have gone something like this: “This may be a shock to some of you. Our costs are too high, and in order to survive we must reduce them. We are going to have to cut 1,400 jobs. We will do everything we can to limit the pain . . . ” It should have been clear, practical, telling people what to expect.

Above all, it should not have banged on about platforms for accelerating growth. Not just because this is an ugly mouthful, but because if a company is really planning to grow faster, it is hard to understand why it needs to get rid of anyone.

Contact Lucy at: lucy.kellaway@ft.com

Source: The FT

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