Jacob Kaplan-Moss

The Mass Email Mistake

I want you to imagine the following scenario: Yesterday, one of your team members, Susan, left a mildly inappropriate comment on a pull request. I’m deliberately being non-specific here. I don’t want your thinking to get caught up in litigating the appropriateness of any specific example I could come up; let’s just assume that the comment was inappropriate, though not outrageously so.

You know this behavior to be out of character for Susan: she’s generally kind and professional, and in the two years you’ve managed her you’ve not seen this kind of behavior before.

How should you handle this situation?

  1. Ignore it. It’s uncharacteristic of Susan – maybe she was having a bad day? – and not worth addressing unless it happens again.

  2. Address it directly by giving Susan feedback about the behavior and asking her not to repeat it.

  3. Send an email, or an announcement at your next team meeting, reminding everyone of your organization’s pull request review standards. If those standards don’t mention professional behavior, update the policy and tell people about it. This way, Susan will get the message, but you can avoid an embarrassing conversation where you tell her about behavior she already knows was wrong.

This isn’t a trick question: I believe one of the above the right answer. Which is it?

The answer is #2: Susan’s behavior wasn’t quite what you’d want, so you need to address it with her. Yes, the conversation might be uncomfortable, but uncomfortable conversations are part of the manager’s job. The classic example is addressing an employee’s body odor: it’s terrifically awkward, but part of your job is to be honest and direct about what’s affecting someone at work. If you avoid giving feedback because it’s uncomfortable, you’re not doing your job very well.

Hopefully, it’s obvious that #1 isn’t a good idea. Someone else was on the receiving end of that comment and may have been hurt. Ignoring poor behavior, no matter how minor, sends a terrible message.

But far too many managers opt for #3, the mass email. It seems like a reasonable option. You avoid putting Susan on the spot – she probably knows it was wrong, so calling her on it seems like overkill. And you’d like everyone on the team to avoid this kind of behavior too, so why not tell everyone? If you didn’t have a policy addressing already, shouldn’t you write one to address the behavior?

However, most of the time, the mass-email-policy-update ineffective at best, and counter-productive at worst. It somehow manages to be simultaneously an over-reaction and and an under-reaction.

It’s an overreaction because a mass announcement and a new policy are just too much for a single person’s behavior that one time. It can feel weirdly passive-aggressive to Susan: even if you’ve tried to be general, Susan may think you’re calling her out publicly. Further, policy, in general, is significantly less effective in addressing behavior than talking about it directly. Policy has a time and place, but introducing it reactively is almost always a mistake.

At the same time, it’s an under-reaction because it’s far too easy for Susan to just ignore it! She may read the email, think “yeah of course we should be professional in pull requests, duh” and have completely forgotten that she didn’t live up to those standards that one time. In trying to avoid discomfort, you may have avoided addressing the issue at all.

Using mass announcements to address behavior isn’t effective management. It’s certainly easy – which is probably why so many reach for the tool – but it very rarely is the right tool for the job. Don’t take the easy way out; have the direct conversation. It’s the job.