The real lesson from Yahoo’s telecommuting decision has nothing to do with telecommuting

Posted on March 4, 2013 7:29 pm by | Crisis Communication | Internal

Yahoo ends telecommutingWhen Yahoo’s internal memo informing employees that their telecommuting days were over was leaked, the company’s response to inquiries was typically corporate: They don’t comment on internal matters.

I won’t judge Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for her decision, as so many others have; nor will I defend it (also as so many others have). I simply am not privy to the information, data and insights Mayer used to arrive at this decision. I have opinions about telecommuting, to be sure, but every company has to make decisions based on its own circumstances. Mayer was hired to turn Yahoo around, a task the likes of Terry Semel and Carol Bartz could not pull off. Bold moves are required. In Yahoo’s case, the decision could turn out to be a brilliant move to rejuvenate the company’s culture or it could wind up being a disastrous miscalculation. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The communication of the decision is an altogether different matter.

It is rare for discussion of a news story to continue to rage longer after it broke. Attention spans are short and there are too many other breaking stories to incite debate. In a Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism study, after a week, stories generated only 5% of the tweets they did when the story broke, even as half the mainstream media continued reporting on them.

The Yahoo telecommuting memo, however, continues to inspire discussion. While the story has generated a lot of objective analysis (Robert Half International distributed an infographic on telecommuting, for example, effectively newsjacking the story), a lot of the chatter isn’t flattering to Yahoo. At the very least, it’s a distraction from a company that is in the throes of a serious retrenchment. The saddest part is the reaction to the story could easily have been predicted. The intensity of the commentary is based on a couple ultra-obvious elements.

First, there’s the apparent rejection of an increasingly standard business practice, particularly in the tech sector. Yahoo is bucking a major trend, one which has accelerated thanks to supporting technologies. Ample studies demonstrate that telecommuting can be effective. Some have characterized Yahoo’s decision as backwards. So loud was the outcry that Mayer was forced to respond that she was not dismissing telecommuting in general, only under Yahoo’s unique circumstances.

Equally controversial is the fact that telecommuting enables companies to recruit the right people. Some may live nowhere near a company building and are unwilling to relocate. Others may seem a kind of work-life balance, being a stay-at-home mom (for example) while simultaneously pursuing a career. In Yahoo’s case, hundreds of employees had been promised they could telecommute. Now they have been told to report in person or quit (or, presumably, be fired). It’s not hard to see the policy reversal as a broken promise. Several commentaries noted that Mayer had a nursery added to her office, a luxury not available to a lot of front-line staff who now will have to make costly and complicated daycare arrangements.

If I could have placed a bet on Yahoo’s internal decision erupting into an unending torrent of criticism, I could have made enough to retire to the tropics. Anybody practiced in corporate crisis could have made the same bet with equal confidence.

So why didn’t Yahoo prepare for the announcement, blunting much of the criticism and laying the groundwork for a much shorter story cycle? Again, I have no inside information, but the fact that Yahoo fell back on the “internal matters” answer offers a clue. Because it was a Human Resources issue—the memo was signed by a company HR director, not by Mayer—the company’s leadership never considered it an external subject. The same is true of HMV, the British retailer caught with its pants down when employees terminated as part of a sizable layoff began tweeting their experience over the company’s official Twitter account.

Historically, internal matters were internal; they were nobody else’s business. But the Internet and social media have rendered such distinctions obsolete. Any decision a company makes—internal or external—is subject to instant public exposure that can result in reputational damage. As Adam Curry once quipped, there are no more secrets, only information we don’t yet have. As a result of the leaked memo, how many top prospects won’t work for Yahoo based on a perception of the company as clueless, when a solid proactive communication effort could have prevented that perception from ever forming?

It’s not unheard of for companies to craft their internal memos knowing they’ll be leaked, including all the information outsiders need to understand the reasons for the decision. If that was the intent at Yahoo, it failed, leaving too many questions unanswered—questions it would have been easy to anticipate.

The lesson from Yahoo (and HMV and others) is that internal decisions need to be viewed through the same critical communication lens as any other. Opting not to comment on internal matters is an outdated and dangerous practice that can produce long-lasting problems for a company’s reputation. HR, Legal and other departments dealing with internal decisions need to include communicators in their discussions to help assess the potential fallout and to plan communications to minimize the damage while remaining compliant with employment laws and regulations.

In Yahoo’s case, that damage could offset the benefits Mayer had hoped to gain by boosting the culture with increased face-to-face interaction. If you give her the benefit of the doubt that the decision was right for Yahoo, that would be a shame.

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