Was the Message Mismanaged in Announcing Yahoo’s Telework Ban?

By Bill Leonard Mar 20, 2013

Good communication is key in a situation like the one Yahoo faced recently when company CEO Marissa Mayer decided to ban telecommuting. And although it could be a good thing in the long run for Yahoo to pull its teleworking employees back in and allow them to reconnect and collaborate with colleagues, this wasn’t the message that was conveyed when news of the policy change broke.

“When you, as an employer, make a decision like this to change or end a policy, then you have to take care that everyone understands the reasons behind the change and [is] prepared to deal with it,” said Johnny Laurent, senior vice president and general manager of Sage Employer Solutions in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Employees may not agree with or like the change, but they will certainly accept and deal with it better if you explain the reasons for the decision. You don’t want to appear to be arbitrary—that can generate a lot of resentment.”

Managing a Viral Outbreak
The news about Yahoo’s policy change broke via a leaked company e-mail, which quickly spread virally through news and social media websites. Though the leaked e-mail and swift reactions to the policy change didn’t seem to faze Mayer and other company executives, one source close to Yahoo, who asked to remain anonymous, said many in the company were caught off-guard by the rapid and overwhelmingly negative response. Company officials wouldn’t comment, saying the decision to change the telecommuting policy was an internal matter and not for public consumption.

“I love Yahoo and think it’s a great company, but there is a history of news leaking from the company through e-mails, so you think they might have been more aware and cautious that this might happen,” said Libby Sartain, an HR consultant based in Bastrop, Texas, and former chief human resource officer for Yahoo. “Businesses must be prepared for the way news breaks on social media and how it can turn viral almost immediately. And I’m not so sure Yahoo was ready to deal with how this thing broke open so fast.”

The way the news broke and then the company’s response could indicate that Mayer and Jacqueline Rees, Yahoo’s executive vice president of people and development, are inexperienced at corporate-level management, according to the anonymous source familiar with the issue.

Getting the Message Right
Other experts interviewed for this article say the real message of why telecommuting was curtailed at Yahoo was not conveyed correctly.

An anonymous source close to Yahoo said that Mayer’s telecommuting ban wasn’t absolute and that by the very nature of the company, a complete ban on telework wasn’t feasible. The actual targets of the telecommuting ban, according to the source, were product-development staff and software engineers, who tend to work and produce better in a collaborative atmosphere.

“Frankly, I think the message was bungled and not delivered very well at all,” said Damon Lovett, senior consultant for KnowledgeSource Consulting in Dallas. “They missed an opportunity to explain the decision and get people behind their effort and not the knee-jerk negative reaction they ended up with.”

And in Laurent’s opinion, “They essentially took a bad situation and made it worse.”

All the sources agreed it’s best to announce upfront any policy changes and decisions that can have a drastic effect on employees’ work/life balance. Though Sartain has no knowledge of how Mayer and her management team arrived at their decision to ban telecommuting, she said it’s important to plan ahead and make sure that management is on board with any policy changes.

“Those of us outside the company really can’t second-guess the process, because we just don’t know what that process was,” Sartain said. “If I was in those meetings, and I believed that the policy was worth keeping, then I would have fought hard to keep it. But once that decision is made, then I represent the company, and it’s a decision that I will support and do my best to make sure that it’s implemented correctly.”

Avoiding Blanket Bans
When a company decides to change or rescind a policy or perk, it should avoid punishing employees who have done a good job and haven’t abused a privilege, such as telecommuting, Sartain advised.

“When I was at Yahoo I worked with several people who telecommuted, and they did a great job,” she recalled. “They were very productive and managed their workloads better than most people in the office. If I was an employer, then I wouldn’t want to run the risk of alienating very productive and loyal employees because others might be taking advantage or abusing the system.”

Lovett said employers should ask managers to review telecommuters’ work performance, make recommendations on how to improve their productivity and determine if the remote workers need to return to the office.

“Even if you said something like, ‘This situation is temporary, and we need everyone to come into the office so we can decide the best way to proceed,’ that is usually received much better than saying, ‘No more telecommuting for anyone—period,’ ” Lovett said.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.


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