United Air Kerfuffle

A United Airlines representative participated in an entertaining Twitter exchange about seat prices. The customer has a point: it’s silly to have empty seats on a plane. But United also has a point: the seats are more expensive, and this customer didn’t pay the extra fee.

The Lexus analogy is a curious one. The better analogy may be stadiums or theaters. In some cases, we will see people move closer to a field or a stage, but I understand (although I’ve never been) that this isn’t allowed at the U.S. Open.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of United Airlines’ policy? What other examples are similar? Can you think of a better analogy?

  • What’s your view of the Twitter exchange? Is the customer right, antagonistic, rude, or something else? How about the United rep?

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Employees Pressure Walmart to Consider Role in Gun Violence

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Walmart is in a tough spot after recent shootings. Some employees are pressing the company to do more to fight gun violence, but no policy changes are planned. After previous attacks, Walmart stopped selling assault-style weapons and raised the minimum age to purchase guns and ammunition, but it’s unclear whether the leaders will do more. Employees are asking Walmart to stop selling firearms and to disallow customers from carrying guns into the stores.

The company seems divided about employees’ activism. Chief Executive Doug McMillon wrote, ”We are proud to be woven into the American fabric as a place for all people. We are more resolved than ever to foster an inclusive environment where all people are valued and welcomed.” At the same time, the company blocked two employees’ access to Slack, encouraging employees to use “more constructive ways for associates to offer feedback such as emails or conversations with leaders.”

A study recently published in the International Journal of Business Communication found that employees are more likely to “express dissent to managers and coworkers” when they are more socialized in the company and when they believe their company is “more ethical and reputable.”

A Wall Street Journal article explains the risk for Walmart to take more action against gun sales:

“[A]ny change to its gun policies risks alienating Walmart’s core customers, who often live in more conservative-leaning rural and suburban communities. The company faced some consumer backlash after raising the minimum age to purchase guns to 21.”

Image source.

Discussion:

  • How can the company balance employees’ and customers’ perspectives? What else, if anything, should company leaders say and do?

  • Did the company do the right thing by blocking Slack access? In what ways are email and conversations more or less “constructive”?

  • What leadership character dimensions are illustrated by this situation?

Rossello's Resignation

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After initial resistance, the governor of Puerto Rico announced his resignation. More than a week of protests about inappropriate chats and financial mismanagement forced Ricardo Rosselló to step down, effective August 2.

Rossello’s video was posted on Facebook. In his statement, Rossello first described successes of his administration, for example, “We raised the salary of teachers in the middle of a bankruptcy.” Then he said, “I was willing to face any challenge, fully understanding that I would prevail against any accusation or process.”

But Rossello admitted he could not continue, having “heard the demand of the people,” and recognizing that his failure to resign “would endanger the successes we have achieved.” He also tried to quell protests: “I hope this decision serves as a call to citizen reconciliation.”

Rossello image source.

Protests image source.

Discussion:

  • Did Governor Rossello make the right decision by resigning? Why or why not?

  • Analyze his speech (if you understand Spanish or find a translation). Consider his audience, communication objectives, word tone, organization, and tone.

  • What similar business situations come to mind? Think about a CEO who was under pressure to resign and what happened. What conclusions can you draw between the business and political situations?





Email Niceties

We write certain phrases in emails by convention, but perhaps “I hope you’re well” is overdone.

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A New York Times opinion writer pokes fun at the overuse of the phrase by showing a few examples. The emails are short and include ridiculous requests, for example, about a missing attachment or whether someone has rubber bands. Still, the writers apparently can’t resist asking about the receiver’s health.

In their responses, recipients answer the question, which of course, is not really expected. It’s like saying “How are you?” when passing someone in a hallway.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s the value of this phrase and others in email and in person? How do you feel writing emails without something like it?

  • What’s your view of the phrase: expected, overused, or something else?

  • What other phrases in emails do you think might be overused?

Nike Flag Shoe Controversy

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Nike pulled shoes with flag decorations and is taking some heat for the decision. The shoes featured 13 white stars, reflecting an early version of the American flag created by Betsy Ross in 1776. But, according to a Bloomberg article, “The design recently has taken another meaning for some Americans as far-right groups have claimed it as a symbol of their cause. It has also been criticized as evocative of an era when slavery was still predominant in the U.S.“

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who endorses Nike products, and others asked the company to remove the shoes because they are considered offensive. The company complied but is facing backlash from some groups, and the Air Max 1 USA sneakers are selling for up to $2,500 a pair. The company also issued a statement:

“We regularly make business decisions to withdraw initiatives, products and services. Nike made the decision to halt distribution of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday.”

Sneaker image.
Colin Kaepernick and sneakers image.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of the sneaker image: offensive, patriotic, or something else?

  • How do you assess Colin Kaepernick’s role in the controversy?

  • Did Nike do the right thing in pulling the sneakers? Why or why not?

  • Assess Nike’s statement in response to the controversy. What else, if anything, should company leaders have said?

How to Navigate Multiple Offers

It’s one of those “good problems”: getting more than one job offer. But navigating the relationships and making a decision can be tough.

A Wall Street Journal article tells the story of a man faking his own death to avoid telling a company that he didn’t want to take the job after accepting an offer. According to an executive at the staffing company Robert Half, “ghosting” a prospective employer is most common among people out of school between two and six years. More and more, employers receive last-minute text messages or no-shows on the first day of work.

A management consultant believes the trouble is that college students lack the communication skills to handle these situations more professionally: “This is the generation that breaks up by text message, so in a professional context, to have to let someone down or give bad news was terrifying.”

Twice this past semester, students asked me for advice in reneging offers. Overall, I’m not a fan of the tactic. To me, it’s an issue of integrity: when students make a commitment to one employer, they shouldn’t change their minds when a better offer comes along. I also worry about their reputation in the industry—and whether their expectations will be too high for the new job, and they’ll end up disappointed. At Cornell, students also give up their access to career services in the future when this happens.

But students do what is best for them. What matters after the decision is how it’s communicated. I always suggest a phone call rather than an email, which takes courage. A direct, honest approach is best, with an apology and some understanding of how the decision affects the employer, who’s left with an unfilled position and additional recruiting time.

Ideally, students get offers at the same time with the same decision deadlines, but of course, that’s not always the case, and comparing offers becomes challenging. The WSJ article recommends these practices for evaluating and accepting job offers:

DO

Make clear early what you’re looking for in a new job.

Ask employers their timeline for making a decision.

Express appreciation and enthusiasm when receiving an offer.

Take time to assess each offer carefully, weighing both financial and quality-of-life factors.

DON’T

Communicate important decisions by text or email.

Try to pit one employer against another in a bidding war.

Respond to a job offer by announcing that you already have a competing one.

Base your decision solely on pay.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • Have you been in a situation of having multiple offers? How did you handle it?

  • Have you reneged on an offer? How did you communicate the decision, and how did the employer react?

  • What other advice would you give students who have multiple offers?

Rutgers Chancellor "Berates" Police Officers

The Chronicle reported that Rutgers Chancellor Nancy E. Cantor “apologized for berating campus police officers.” On her way to the airport, Cantor’s driver hit a parked police car. She was detained and said, “If I miss my airplane, you folks are in trouble!” When an officer asked, “I’m sorry, who are you?” she yelled, “I’m the chancellor!”

The episode, which happened in March, was recorded on the officer’s body camera. Part of the debate is about whether Cantor needed to be detained because she entered the vehicle after the driver hit the other car.

Regardless, the video became public, Cantor apologized, and the Rutgers-Newark police chief responded:

“I appreciate Chancellor Cantor taking the time to review the video. I along with the RUPD are appreciative of her kind words and support. The sentiment is extremely appreciated, and we look forward to continuing a positive working relationship with the Rutgers-Newark chancellor’s office.”

Discussion:

  • Watch the video exchange. What’s your view of the chancellor’s behavior with the police officers?

  • Should the officers have done anything differently in this situation? Why or why not?

  • Assess the police chief’s response. How well does he demonstrate forgiveness?




Mets Manager Admits Mistake

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Mets manager Mickey Callaway admitted that an “administrative” error of switching pitchers “probably cost” the team the game. According to reports, the admission was unusual. As one news outlet explained, “His postgame press conferences can get combative, and his unwillingness to admit to any wrongdoing hasn’t played well with the New York media.”

Fans and players seem to be responding positively to the Callaway’s apology. One example is the response from first baseman Pete Alonso:

“Having a manager that’s not straight up and honest, that’s tough to play for a guy like that. But I’m fortunate enough to play for a guy like Mick. I love playing for Mick and all of the other guys love playing for Mick because he’s been honest and straight-up.” 

For years now, corporate stakeholders have expected more humility from leaders. Seeing an example in sports is refreshing.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of Callaway’s admission?

  • Not everyone likes this approach. I haven’t seen the clip, but a friend tells me local sports commentators said they want to see more “leadership.” Is admitting failure not part of demonstrating leadership?

  • What other leadership character dimensions are illustrated by this example?







Polite Answers Are Perceived as Higher Quality

A study published in Management Information Systems found that the more polite an answer is, the more likely it is to be viewed as a good answer. Researchers studied conversations in Stack Exchange, a community site for posting questions and answers, on which question posters rate responses.

The only exception to this finding is when the person posting the response is considered to be an expert. Then politeness doesn’t seem to matter.

To avoid this “politeness bias,” which could falsely elevate responses, the researchers propose giving more weight to ratings by users other than the poster. And rather than marking a response as “best answer,” responses could be marked “accepted.”

In the example, below, Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) workers discuss bank transfers.

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We can see that the impolite answer is harsh, telling the poster to check instructions before asking a question, as if to say, “You’re wasting my time.” However, that answer provides almost identical information with one exception: “go to the Earnings page.” I’m not sure how helpful this is, but otherwise, the responses—at least in terms of clear instruction—are very similar.

This study reminds me of another that found well-written online reviews to increase sales—even if the review was negative. Although this is more about writing style and grammar than tone, both have implications for getting ideas accepted online.

Discussion:

  • How would you assess the two responses above? Could you see the questioner selecting the polite answer over the impolite answer for “best answer”?

  • How, if at all, are you influenced by writing style, grammar, and tone in online discussions and reviews?

Uber CEO Explains Disappointing IPO

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sent email to employees about the company’s disappointing IPO. Shares sold for $45 but dropped the next day to a low of $37.08. In his email, Khosrowshahi encourages employees to take a long-term view and compares the company to Amazon and Facebook, which he says also experienced trouble after their openings.

Team Uber:

I’m looking forward to being in front of you at the All Hands tomorrow, but I wanted to send you a quick note in the meantime.

First off, I want to thank you all for your passion for and commitment to Uber. We simply would not be here without you.

Like all periods of transition, there are ups and downs. Obviously our stock did not trade as well as we had hoped post-IPO. Today is another tough day in the market, and I expect the same as it relates to our stock.

But it is essential for us to keep our eye on the long-term value of Uber for our customers, partners, drivers and investors.

Every stock is valued based on the projected future cash flows/profits that the company is expected to generate over its lifetime. There are many versions of our future that are highly profitable and valuable, and there are of course some that are less so. During times of negative market sentiment, the pessimistic voices get louder, and the optimistic voices pull back.

We will make certain that we communicate our incredible value as a company that is changing the way the world moves, but also the value that we are building for our owners. But there is one simple way for us to succeed – focus on the work at hand and execute against our plans effectively.

Remember that the Facebook and Amazon post-IPO trading was incredibly difficult for those companies. And look at how they have delivered since.

Our road will be the same. Sentiment does not change overnight, and I expect some tough public market times over the coming months. But we have all the capital we need to demonstrate a path to improved margins and profits. As the market sees evidence, sentiment will improve, and as sentiment improves, the stock will follow. We will not be able to control timing, but we will be able to control the outcome.

We will be judged long-term on our performance, and I welcome that. It’s all in our hands.

I look forward to being there at the All Hands to answer Qs and tell you more.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • Why would Khosrowshahi write an email in advance of an employee meeting?

  • What persuasive strategies does he use to explain the IPO performance?

  • Which arguments do you find least and most convincing?

Philippines Town Bans Gossip

Could this work at companies? Or schools? Binalonan, a small town in the Philippines, passed an ordinance that bans idle gossip. Locals say the summer heat drives people beneath acacia trees to chismis, or gossip. Offenders are charged the equivalent of about $10 and will have to pick up trash if they repeat the crime.

Local officials believe much of the gossip is caused by conflicts, and they are trying to encourage people to resolve differences directly instead. I’m not sure it’s the same in organizations, where people tend to gossip when they have idle time and are missing more meaningful communication from company leaders.

Of course, gossip has a few positive benefits, including increasing our knowledge and understand of others and improving social relationships.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • Seriously, could a gossip ban work in companies? What could be the benefits and downsides? How could it be enforced?

  • When have you seen gossip used negatively and positively?

  • What are, perhaps, better ways to communicate?

  • What leadership character dimensions may be failing if we rely too much on gossip?

OurBus Handles a Mistake with Humor

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OurBus sent an email with a link that wasn’t yet working and quickly corrected the mistake with some fun. The company offered a $7 discount for rides booked on St. Patrick’s Day and corrected the link with the subject line, “Our Bad. That code doesn't quite work yet...”

In the first email, the date is clearly March 17, but the subject line, “It's your lucky day. Our flash sale starts NOW,” is certainly deceiving.

Discussion:

  • Assess the second message from OurBus. How well did the company handle the situation? What changes would you suggest? (Hint: alignment.)

  • Are people still saying “my bad”? Did they intend to play on “OurBus” with “Our bad”? If so, would it have been better to write, “OurBad”?

  • Which leadership character dimensions does this situation illustrate?

Walking Meetings: "Take a Hike"

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According to a Wall Street Journal article, employees have had enough of “walking meetings,” typically initiated by a manager who wants to get some exercise. Employees cite exhaustion, bug bites, overcrowding, uncomfortable height differences, crashing into things, and losing people along the way.

On the plus side, people say it boosts creativity and energy, as this infographic shows. Some say it reminds them of college, when their professor held class outside in nice weather. (Do people still do that?)

Comparisons to “The West Wing” abound, but it’s not quite the same without the cameras following you.

Walking meeting image source.

Infographic image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of walking meetings? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

  • Should managers be more sensitive to people who have physical challenges or just prefer to meet inside? How should managers handle these situations?

MSU Gets Another New Interim President

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Michigan State University hired a second interim president. First, President Lou Anna Simon resigned after 13 years following criticism that she didn’t do enough to stop Dr. Larry Nassar from abusing girls. John Engler replaced her as interim president in 2018, but he, too, faced criticism for insensitivity to Nassar’s victims.

Most recently, Engler commented after a $425 million fund was approved for 332 current claimants and another $75 million was approved for additional victims. Engler said, “The people who got the $425 million are probably OK." Engler said he was thinking more about the potential additional victims who haven’t been part of the process yet. He made things worse when he said more:

"You’ve got people, they are hanging on and this has been … there are a lot of people who are touched by this, survivors who haven’t been in the spotlight. In some ways they have been able to deal with this better than the ones who’ve been in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition. And it’s ending. It’s almost done.”

People took great offense to his implication that the earlier claimants have “enjoyed the spotlight.” So now, MSU has a new interim president, Satish Udpa.

MSU image source.

Udpa image source.

Discussion:

  • Try to see Engler’s point of view. What was he trying to convey with his comments?

  • We might say that Engler’s comments lacked compassion. What else is problematic about his comments?

  • What’s your view? Was forcing Engler’s resignation the right thing to do? Why or why not?

T-Mobile Replaces Automated Systems with People

In a new marketing campaign, T-Mobile promises more personal service: “Real customer service takes real people.” By introducing a “team of experts,” the company wants customers to reach actual people instead of spending too much time waiting for voice prompts and replies.

The message is clear on T-Mobile’s website and in the results. The company acquired 2.4 million new customers in the fourth quarter of 2018 compared to Verizon’s 600,000.

Humor is one strategy the company is using to steal rivals’ business. A 4.5-minute commercial shows actor Rainn Wilson trying to navigate a company’s voice response system. We can all relate: the system doesn’t understand us, we get transferred around—and then our phone battery dies. The video ends with this message:

“Calling customer service is the worst. The best customer service in wireless just got better. No bots. No bouncing. No BS.”

Discussion:

  • What are the risks of using humor for persuasive messages? How well do you think it works in this case? Why or why not?

  • What is your experience with voice response systems? When have you received exceptional service via the phone?

  • To what extent would the ability to reach a person right away influence your decision to do business with a company?

Facebook's Rules for Managing Political Speech

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A New York Times article describes a complex rulebook to help employees decide whether to address political speech on the site. The decision process is daunting, and guidelines include extensive examples of content—text and visuals—that may indicate hate or inspire violence.

The author questions whether Facebook employees are making rational, consistent decisions:

The guidelines for identifying hate speech, a problem that has bedeviled Facebook, run to 200 jargon-filled, head-spinning pages. Moderators must sort a post into one of three “tiers” of severity. They must bear in mind lists like the six “designated dehumanizing comparisons,” among them comparing Jews to rats.

Others say Facebook has too much power because the company controls speech in international political situations. For example, before an election in Pakistan, during a 24-hour media blackout, Facebook may have been the go-to source. Before this time, Facebook distributed 40 pages of “political parties, expected trends, and guidelines” to its employees. But guidelines sometimes contradict each other, and Facebook relies of Google Translate, which may not be accurate or precise enough.

Cover image source.

Discussion:

  • When Facebook faced criticism about sharing information with technology partners, company leaders responded in a blog post. If they were to do something similar in this case, what should they say to rebuild confidence in the site?

  • Although the rules can be a “bit baffling,” as the author says, Facebook is trying to address other criticism about its response to hate and violence on the site. What, if anything, can the company do differently to accept accountability?

Report on Larry Nassar

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A new report on the former Olympics coach and doctor, Larry Nassar, blames officials at Michigan State University, the U.S. Olympics Committee (USOC), and USA Gymnastics for allowing his abuse of hundreds of girls over decades. The investigators concluded, “Numerous institutions and individuals enabled his abuse and failed to stop him.”

In some cases when officials learned of an abuse allegation against Nassar, they waited weeks or months to report to; in other cases, officials reported claims but didn’t do enough to follow up. In still other cases, officials did nothing at all.

Nassar was finally convicted and sentenced to what will be life in prison. With the report results, some hope the USOC will now be investigated.

The report aligns with an NPR podcast, Believed, tracing claims against Nassar and his medical defense, which was accepted by too many for too long.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • How do you think the abuse continued for so long? If you listen to the podcast Believed, you’ll hear Nassar’s defense during police interviews.

  • Analyze the report. What business communication principles are followed, and in what ways could the report be improved?

Cheesecake's Failed Promotion

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To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Cheesecake Factory offered free cheesecake delivery, but stores ran out and deliveries were slow.

Through the app DoorDash, customers ordered a free slice of the cake. The company said 40,000 slices were available, and people who didn’t get their promised piece got angry. Drivers were put in uncomfortable positions, sometimes waiting hours for orders to be ready for delivery. A flight between drivers broke out in Arlington, VA, and one got arrested.

The company responded by expressing gratitude for the tremendous interest and by complimenting themselves for delivering 60,000 slides—but no apology came. DoorDash tweeted, “A huge shoutout to all of the hardworking Dashers who made this exciting day possible! You’re the real MVPs.” A Cheesecake Factory spokesperson said, “Our Day of 40,000 Slices promotion had such a tremendous response from our guests that we extended it and delivered more than 60,000 complimentary slices. We were truly humbled by the popularity of the offer and by how quickly our fans responded as all of the 60,000 complimentary slices were ordered within an hour of the promotion's start time."

Discussion:

  • How could Cheesecake Factory have done a better job planning the promotion?

  • Should the company response be different? Do you think the leaders should apologize? Why or why not? If so, what would be an appropriate apology?



Google Translate Decreases Bias

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In the past, if you entered “o bir doktor” in Turkish into Google Translate, you would get the result: “He is a doctor.” In a blog post, the company explained that translations were based on common usage, so “it would skew masculine for words like strong or doctor, and feminine for other words, like nurse or beautiful.”

Now, Google Translate will offer both a masculine and a feminine possible translation. The company plans more changes: “We're already thinking about how to address non-binary gender in translations, though it’s not part of this initial launch.”

A Gmail product manager identified the gender-bias problem in the Smart Compose technology, which is used to predict what users will type. Computer-generated follow-up questions to “I am meeting an investor next week,” included “Do you want to meet him?”

Gender pronouns is one issue AI programmers want to solve to improve natural language generation (NLG), which finishes our sentences for us.

Discussion:

  • What’s your experience with NLG? For example, how helpful do you find Gmail’s suggestions for finishing your sentences in email?

  • What’s your view of Google’s attempt to decrease gender bias? Is this a worthy goal? Why or why not?

Trump Undocumented Workers Speak Out

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Employees of Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ, say they are undocumented in the U.S. and express disappointment at the president’s comments about immigrants. For five years, Victorina Morales has worked at the property, and her responsibilities sometimes include providing housekeeping services for the president’s private quarters.

Although the president may not have known about their status, Morales and a former employee say several within the housekeeping, maintenance, and landscaping crews don’t have papers to work legally in the U.S.

Morales said her status is known at the club, and she was hurt when she heard the president comparing recent immigrants to criminals:

“We are tired of the abuse, the insults, the way he talks about us when he knows that we are here helping him make money. We sweat it out to attend to his every need and have to put up with his humiliation.”

During the presidential campaign, President Trump said of his businesses, “We didn’t have one illegal immigrant on the job.”

Image source.

Discussion:

  • What risks does Morales take by speaking out? Why might she forge ahead and not be deterred by those risks?

  • How is this a potential issue of integrity for President Trump?

  • Should President Trump be held accountable for undocumented workers on his properties? Why or why not?