Marissa Mayer: An Avoidable Yahoo PR Disaster?

2 Mar

How the CEO and Mom Might Have Better Messaged the No-More-Telecommuting policy.

Image

The way this story blew up caught everyone by surprise.  After all, it was only an internal Yahoo policy change, requiring Yahoo’s telecommuting employees to come into the office every day instead.  Then again, it’s always the ones where your guard is down – and the messaging isn’t given enough attention – that go wrong. 

In fact this one had all the trappings of a disaster waiting to happen:

  • A very visible tech company, which has been directionless for years.
  • A superstar Google exec swooped in as new CEO to shake things up
  • And she’s a new mom!
  • And now she wants to stop other mom’s at Yahoo – who don’t get the perk of a nursery next to their executive suite – from working from home!

Okay, so maybe it’s not so hard to see how this could go wrong. 

At the same, though, could Yahoo have handled things differently?  How were they to know this would catch fire? This is a tricky one, especially because we don’t know all the facts.  But there are certain clues about why multiple employees got sufficiently upset to leak the story to a major tech reporter.  Let’s take a look at the memo sent by HR:

Over the past few months, we have introduced a number of great benefits and tools to make us more productive, efficient and fun. With the introduction of initiatives like FYI, Goals and PB&J, we want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum. From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing — I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

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.

Thanks to all of you, we’ve already made remarkable progress as a company — and the best is yet to come.

 This is the type of memo that makes employees’ blood boil. 

The first paragraph tells you something really sucky is coming.  Why else remind everyone of all the “great benefits and tools” they’ve recently received, unless you’re about to take something big away?  It’s almost reminiscent of how a parent talks to a child (“We’ve given you all these nice toys, but now we need to tell you something . . .”)

The second paragraph tries to explain why the change is needed.  But telling people they need to hang around “the hallway and cafeteria” to develop insights, isn’t really what people what to hear (even if it’s true, which we’ll get to in a bit).  And following that up by criticizing telecommuters by saying “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home” doesn’t help.  

The third paragraph (aka, the “reveal”) implies a couple of interesting things.   After saying that the telecommuting ban starts in June, the memo says that affected people have already been contacted about this.  That was definitely a smart thing to do.  And it likely mitigated the negative reaction from telecommuters. 

But the patronizing “use your best judgment” when deciding whether “to stay home for the cable guy” likely further inflamed everyone.  Again, this feels a little reminiscent of a parent talking to a child, and does not add much. 

So what could have been done differently?  Apart from being less patronizing, the better solution would be to inject some authenticity and honesty into the messaging.  Yahoo could have acknowledged some of the problems the company is facing – and the fact that asking employees to put in more face time was a proven method to address them. 

Rather than beating around the bush, Yahoo could have acknowledged its very-well known strategic problem – the company has had an “identity crisis” for years, with too many disparate parts, and no particular corporate direction.  This wouldn’t be telling employees anything they didn’t already know.  Mayer was brought in from Google (which has trounced Yahoo over the past decade) exactly because Yahoo needed to right its ship, and to do so with Google-like philosophies.

And according to academic studies described in Bloomberg, people working together in offices tend to be more creative and collaborative than those telecommuting.  The memo could have admitted in a carefully-worded way that Yahoo needed its employees to work together to innovate more, so that Yahoo can be more competitive again. 

Strains of this message were there, but got lost in all the PR-speak, the criticism of telecommuters sacrificing “speed and quality” and the patronizing “cable guy” comments. 

The knee-jerk fear of telling employees “we’ve got a problem” led to a message that completely backfired and produced a national debate about work-life balance, centered on Yahoo.  Unfortunately, this will likely make it significantly harder for Yahoo to attract the forward-thinking employees in the future it needs to thrive. 

For the current generation of worker-bees, honesty in messaging is much more valuable, and builds confidence rather than taking it away! 

 

 

Advertisements

One Response to “Marissa Mayer: An Avoidable Yahoo PR Disaster?”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. F***ing Forgiveness in the Age of Sharing | Kosher Bacon - April 30, 2013

    […] previously written about the need for more honesty in corporate communications, and the generational shift in the way people communicate. But I think this is actually part of a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: