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(Cinders McLeod/Cinders McLeod)
(Cinders McLeod/Cinders McLeod)

When your memo sends the wrong message Add to ...

Most manager-dispatched mass e-mails don't ruffle many feathers, especially when they involve the more tedious aspects of office life: expense policies, meetings and benefit plans.

But when Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly sent a blanket memo to city councillors this month, it stirred up media attention and discontent among some recipients.

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The internal note discussed a sensitive subject: complaints from the public that some councillors engaged in excessive drinking.

The problem involved only some councillors, but Mr. Kelly warned the whole group to watch their behaviour.

"We are now all painted with the same brush," Councillor Sue Uteck told the CBC in an interview last week.

Addressing sensitive issues in the office can be a stressful task for managers. A memo can seem like a safe way of dealing with employee behaviour that might cause awkwardness if brought up in person, especially without knowing all the facts. But an all-staff communiqué can also spawn office gossip and leave innocent employees feeling wrongly accused.

Al Brockway, owner of The Decision Enabler, a Toronto-based executive training company, says sensitive topics should never be addressed in all-staff memos.

"I can't imagine where you would just blanket charge everyone with the same crime, essentially," he says. "Memos are one-sided - they can be misinterpreted."

He recalls a time a few years ago when a client's office had disciplinary issues with two individuals. Managers sent a note to all 15 people in the group instead of just addressing the two problem employees. Some misconstrued the note and believed the stern warning was directed at them.



Some people wondered, 'Everyone in the office knows who it was. Why didn't they just go and deal with them?' Bill Howatt


To calm the anxiety the note had caused, managers had to speak to the employees one-on-one, which is what Mr. Brockway says they should have done in the first place.

"General attacks on a group because of [a]couple of individuals is never a morale booster - it's always a buster," he says.

In some cases, sending a blanket memo about serious behaviour could even spark legal issues, Mr. Brockway says. If the topic is particularly sensitive, a manager might want to have a lawyer read a draft first before dispatching it. Even e-mails that address less-sensitive subjects could benefit from a review by someone in the human resources department.

"Unless you have the facts straight, you are impugning someone's reputation," Mr. Brockway says.

All-staff memos on serious subjects can also affect office culture through the gossip it sparks, says Connie McCandless, president of Candomore Management Consulting in Toronto.

"[It creates]this dynamic about people talking about this negative thing and wondering who it is or knowing who it is and passing on that person's name," she says.

While blanket memos can save time and offer a way to avoid the potential awkwardness of an in-person confrontation, Ms. McCandless says managers should ask themselves two simple questions before they decide on their strategy: "Are people going to get the point and change their behaviour?" and "What are the consequences of the kind of communication that you're choosing?"

But Bill Howatt, a Kentville, N.S.-based career consultant behind Howatt HR Consulting, says there's nothing inherently wrong with using memos to address sensitive topics - it's not so much the medium, but the level of trust and established policies between the employer and employees that can cause problems.

He was once hired to run an intervention by a firm that had sent out a memo requesting that employees who stayed late in the office be respectful of others and tone down their volume and language. The memo had been sparked by complaints two women had made about some men in the office whose profanity had bothered them.

"Some people wondered, 'Everyone in the office knows who it was. Why didn't they just go and deal with them?' " Mr. Howatt recounts.

But the need for the memo was clear, he says: No policy had ever been established about speaking respectfully in the office. "These folks, in their mind, were three guys socializing. They didn't think they were being disrespectful."

The memo, Mr. Howatt says, was useful for informing all employees that a policy change had been made.

"If you go to a culture where management sends out a memo and there's a lot of push back, that could be a sign there's issues with fear and trust," he says. "If you don't trust your leadership, [the memo]will have a different [feel]to you and it'll seem more accusatory."

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