Twitter recently added a feature that detects mean language and forces you to pause before sending.
Could a similar feature be useful for work email?
As of today, on the ethics side, we “detect” mean emails only after employees complain of receiving them. On the compliance side, in the world of data loss “prevention”, our tools only alert us to possible data losses after an email has been sent. Why not review the content of the email before it is actually sent, and give the author a chance to reconsider? Of course, there are privacy issues at play, but we can probably build a system where no human sees the email before it is actually sent.
Before the pandemic, if we were unsure about the language or the tone of an email, we could ask a nearby colleague in the office to review it before we hit “send”. With more people working remotely, perhaps a virtual Jiminy Cricket could save us from a few blunders, or worse?
There are rare organizations where there are no bosses to tell you what to do.
In those companies, you have to look for a person or a team in need of help with a project that interests you. Or, you have to start your own project and attract others to join your team*.
I don’t work for such an organization, and chances are you don’t either. However, I recently borrowed this concept of crowdsourcing my projects. I create an email describing a project and its goal, and I send it to my contacts in related functions (like Communications or HR) and/or to my contacts in the business units. My ask is simple: would you, or someone on your team, like to join this project?
So far, I’ve had more volunteers than I need on all of my projects. Those who join are truly interested in the outcome. They weren’t voluntold. They share a specific problem and they believe that my project can help resolve it.
One or two groups stand out by never responding to the call for volunteers. But I keep sharing updates, giving them a chance to speak up or join at any time.
We can always use our authority to staff our projects. But using our leadership is much more satisfying, for everyone involved.
Every now and then, a manager who can approve purchase orders up to $10,000 will ask a vendor to split a $15,000 PO in two so that the manager does not have to send it up for approval.
In most cases, the manager is not trying to hide the purchase. She simply wants to expedite a foregone approval.
Of course, when she does so, she sends the message that it’s OK to break some rules. That message is received by the vendor, by the bookkeeper, by the accountant, by the manager’s assistant, among others.
But that message doesn’t come with instructions. It’s not clear when it’s OK to break the rules, or under what circumstances. So when the accountant faces an inconvenient situation later on, what is she to do? How does she know if this is one of those circumstances that warrants breaking a rule or a control?
When we think a rule ought to be broken, just this once, it’s best to ask for permission and to be transparent. In the process of making our case, we might realize the error of our ways. If, however, our request is granted, we can then explain our decision to all those involved. And we can also explain the process we followed to get an exception to the rule.
Which brings me to my last point: if your job calls you to write rules, make sure to include a waiver process. No rule is perfect. At some point, it will have to be broken.
A small group will decry a societal problem, whether it be child labor, racial discrimination, or sustainability. Their arguments will resonate with a larger group, but little will happen at first because the problem benefits the powerful. With time, as more supporters join the ranks, public policy evolves, and laws are adopted to force even the powerful to change their ways. Meanwhile, those who agreed to change before they were forced to do it by law find themselves at an advantage.
Societal problems abound even today. Small groups are decrying them. Their demands might threaten your business. The question is: will you use your power to oppose them (and eventually relent when laws are enacted), or will you position yourself as a true leader?
Heraclitus said that no man ever steps in the same river twice. Not only does the river constantly change, so does the man.
Similarly, every time we read a book, we see something new. The book may not have changed, but we have.
As such, we should not hesitate to exhort our employees, over and over again, to do the right thing. Between the last time we’ve asked and now, they have changed, and so have we. This time, it will click for some of them.
The more people on a piece of land, the higher its value. Newcomers pay a higher price than early settlers.
Similarly, grabbing the attention of busy people is costly because their attention is already stretched. When ethics and compliance professionals try to get employees’ attention, they are competing with many other voices who got there first, who bought beachfront property for cheap, and who are not willing to sell.
But this analogy eventually breaks down. Perhaps you can’t make more land or more attention, but you can create better ideas.
One’s sense of fairness is influenced by the unfairness one has experienced.
As a single child, I thought my parents treated me fairly, since I had no siblings that were treated better.
As an able teen in the ’80s, I thought that sidewalks and buildings were well designed, since I had no need for a ramp to access them.
As a white, male, Canadian lawyer with a green card, I thought the US immigration process was well-oiled, since my citizenship application was approved in just a few short months.
Over the years, I, and others like me, learned to trust the process because the process seemed fair. We trusted the process and we praised the process. And our faith in the process earned us the privilege to keep the process. People like me, with little experience of unfairness, are now responsible for creating and preserving fair processes.
If I were disabled, or of a different gender or color, I know that I would see the world differently. My sense of fairness would be different, and my trust in the process weaker. I would long for a seat at the table, to be seen and to be heard by those who hold the power, as well-intentioned as they might be.
Let us get together. Let’s have difficult conversations. Let’s create processes that are truly fair.