The Culture of Internal Memos and Bad-Smelling Pleas for Help

A lesson we learn early in our careers is that what you write to your colleagues or verbally declare to them is rarely confidential.  Just because you stamp a “Confidential” note on the top of the memo does not make it confidential no matter how much you want to believe in the concept. And that email note to a few colleagues about a snarky customer or a bad first quarter or an employee gone bad? Consider it public.  You might as well, because there is always a chance of leakage.  The folks at women’s site learned this the hard way when two editors encouraged at least 15 colleagues to essentially commit “click fraud” by just doing the favor of clicking on banner ads on the site, because: ”we can help everyone out a bit if we get in the habit of clicking on any ads you see alongside your articles…” The memo was leaked to Romenesko and shortly thereafter advertiser Panera Bread pulled its advertising.

So we have two problems here. One is the act of fraud.  Giving the editors the benefit of the doubt, let’s say they didn’t know this was unethical. I’d like to think editors have common sense, but they are people too.  Perhaps there is a corporate culture problem, not necessarily one in which this behavior is rampant. But one in which this behavior was not discussed at all. Upon getting wind of the situation, Sheknows top managers suspended the two editors and threatened further action if this happens again with any employee.  Should our internal communications plans include instruction of the business and ethics rules and reminders of what NOT to do? Short of “don’t punch a colleague in the face” or “don’t snort coke in the restrooms,” sometimes you just need to spell it out, like “do not commit click fraud.”

The second problem is with internal memos.  In this case, the editors felt they were supporting their company and keeping an eye on the bottom line.  Don’t know for sure, but my guess is they didn’t know they were doing anything too wrong.  But they had to have known it was not on the up and up. And just sharing the fact that their ads weren’t producing enough click-throughs puts them in a vulnerable position in and of itself if word leaked out.  At least one of the recipients of that email didn’t like the way it smelled and forwarded it to an independent, third party watchdog.  Should the employee who did that have been more loyal to his or her company and addressed this with management? Perhaps – that’s part of the culture you want to create.  Should the managers writing the memo had known better?  Absolutely. Will this happen again at another company? Absolutely.

– Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz