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In the Age of Leaked Memos, Transparency a Must for Firms
When it comes to bad news, experts say companies should prepare for it to be leaked online

By Aliah D. Wright  3/5/2013

 

The now-infamous memo eliminating telework at Yahoo was never intended for public consumption.

At the top of the missive—signed by the company’s head of HR—the call for privacy was well-defined: “Yahoo! Proprietary and Confidential Information—Do Not Forward.”

Despite Yahoo’s directive, the internal memo was leaked in a blog post on Feb. 22, 2013. That generated a lot of attention online—most of it bad. But it’s not the first time a company’s information has been leaked online in 2013, and it won’t be the last.

On Feb. 28, 2013, Groupon CEO Andrew Mason tweeted: “I was fired today.” As British entertainment retailer HMV was announcing, on Jan. 31, that it was laying off nearly 200 employees, someone on the company’s social media squad took to Twitter and posted the following:

“We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!! #hmvXFactorFiring.” Within a half-hour that tweet and several others went viral, including this one: “Just overheard our Marketing Director (he’s staying, folks) ask, “How do I shut down Twitter? #hmvXFactorFiring.”

HMV learned the hard way that Twitter cannot be “shut down.” And within three hours the beleaguered firm had to take its website down.

It’s a facet of the world in which business now operates. From layoffs to policy changes, divisive decisions intended for staff eyes only may actually be shared with the world via social media.

What’s management to do?

Be Transparent and Proactive

“I think, at this point, we’re in an age where transparency is beyond mandatory,” said Joey V. Price, PHR, CEO of JumpStart: HR. To be transparent is to be clear and frank about expected or suspected changes that have the potential to be controversial and could infuriate the staff. “Employer privacy is very limited,” said Price. “You can’t realistically control what someone posts on their blogs” or to social sites. Whether through Wikileaks or TMZ, corporate bad news has a way of seeping into the limelight online—especially if it seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, societal trends or best practices.

“In the era of social media and social sharing there’s almost no such thing as a truly internal e-mail announcement,” said Curtis Midkiff, director of social strategy and engagement at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “There are ways to share confidential information with your employees, but e-mail may not be the most appropriate because it’s not a truly private form of communication. You can put as many disclaimers as you want, but when you push send … you always have to be prepared for it to fall in the wrong hands. You should almost preplan that the e-mail may be seen by unintended audiences.”

One way to do that is to break the news on social sites yourself. For example, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh often tweets memos to employees from his @Zappos Twitter account. He did so a few years ago when the company announced layoffs.

Another good rule of thumb? Try to limit surprises or gotchas by including workers in decisions early on, if possible.

“There are different obligations, depending on whether your company is a privately held or public company,” pointed out HR consultant Laurie Ruettimann, SPHR.

“You have an obligation to notify shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission” and other stakeholders long before you notify employees, she said. Even in this age of transparency, there are rules in place—“That’s just the way the company may have to govern itself,” she added.

Yet companies can try to soften the blow of bad news by keeping employees in the loop and telling them change is coming.

“What companies can do is educate their employees on the process, so that when a memo comes out, they don’t freak out” and leak it online, Ruettimann said.

“Companies have a moral obligation to behave in a responsible and ethical way,” she noted. “Bad news never feels good, and you can be as transparent as possible, but bad news is bad news. I believe leaders have to make difficult decisions and unpopular decisions because they’re thinking ahead and thinking strategically, and in that situation it’s very difficult to manage the singular emotions of one employee.”

Huge Gaffe or Shrewd Move?

Not everyone thinks Yahoo’s decision to announce its ban on telework was made without considering the reaction it would generate.

“I think it was purposely leaked,” said marketing and advertising expert William Tincup, SPHR, the CEO of Tincup & Co. He called Yahoo’s decision to ban telework “a fantastic PR ploy. No one was talking about Yahoo until [the company’s president and CEO, Marissa Mayer] showed up.” Mayer, who was a vice president at Google, sparked a lot of talk when, at five months pregnant, she took the job, in the summer of 2012.

“I think if someone types up a memo as a policy, they know the media’s going to get it,” added Tincup, who is co-host of the Internet radio show “Drive-Thru HR.” Yahoo’s decision not to discuss the ban was like pulling a “Keyser Soze,” he said, equating the company’s initial tactic to the enigmatic character in the Kevin Spacey film “The Usual Suspects.”

“Of course they’re not going to talk about it—but they want people to talk about Yahoo,” he said.

He said companies should always carefully consider announcing to employees via e-mail sweeping changes to a policy.

“My best advice?” he asked. Unless it’s intentional, “never, ever write something down. If you write it down, people will find it.”

However, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity—not in the Twitter era,” he added. “I don’t think it’s the end, either. I think this is one step along the way to making … Yahoo a better version of Google.”

Aliah D. Wright is an editor/manager for SHRM Online.

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