About this time last year, we received an email from a reader who asked if we believed America’s competitive success was linked to its relative lack of corruption.
Having just spent two weeks in Latin America, where we heard countless stories of systemic governmental misbehaviour, we replied that we agreed. Yes, the US has its share of corruption, largely in public works projects, but, we wrote: “Virtually no one starting a company in the US today has to worry about covering the hidden costs of bribes, pay-offs and kickbacks.”
The notion seemed so self-evident to us that, as we sent the column into our editors, one of us commented, “This ought to be a quiet week.”
Talk about being blindsided! That column was one of our most controversial of the year, inflaming slews of readers who accused us of everything from ignorance to collusion.
“Stop it! It is a known fact that private enterprise owns the government, paid for with bribes in the form of campaign contributions,” one typical letter read.
“The whole American system is rigged, and you’re either idiotic or blind not to know that,” said another.
And that was just in January. As 2007 unfolded, we were to write four more columns that sparked particular sound and fury. Now, most of our columns receive a hefty response with general commentary on our point of view. That’s not what we’re talking about, here. We’re talking about columns that generated an avalanche of mail with...well, let’s call it “heightened emotions”.
Take our March column decrying the Employee Free Choice Act. That bill would have allowed organizers to start unions by getting 50% of employees, plus one person, to sign union cards—instead of the current procedure, which involves a federally supervised secret ballot. If our column on corruption set off a firestorm, this one unleashed a conflagration. This time, however, we weren’t surprised.
We knew that organized labour loved the legislation. Why wouldn’t they? By removing the secret ballot, it would make unionization much easier. We also knew many businesspeople feared it to their bones, feeling—as we did—that if the Act was made into law, it would be a real blow to American competitiveness. We considered it the “Unemployment Act”.
Ultimately, the Act did pass in the US House of Representatives, but stalled in the US Senate. Regardless, for weeks after our column was published, we received torrents of emails. Tallying them up now, it’s amazing to see they actually ran 2:1 in favour of our position—perhaps a reflection of our readership, more than anything else.
But without a doubt, the negative responses were the most colourful of the year, our favourite still being the letter that read: “Jack, We’ve got you scheduled to run sewing machine #13 when you get to hell. By the way, that’s a non-union shop.”
A similar level of passion greeted our column about Joe Torre, the manager of the New York Yankees baseball team, whose contract with the team became a cause célèbre in November.
For the record, our purpose with the column was to illustrate the importance of keeping contract talks quick and private. But by a margin of 3:1, readers told us that our Torre example was, pardon us, off base.
“If you want to write about how to back a beloved employee into a corner and out the window of a high-rise so you don’t look like the bad guy, then use Torre,” as one put it. “You missed the point. Joe deserved better.”
By contrast, our most popular column this year was the love letter that we wrote to Gen Y. This is a group of young people who—despite their negative press—we have consistently found to be engaged, worldly, entrepreneurial and hungry to win.
Apparently, our view struck a chord, as that column elicited a rush of letters from grateful 20-somethings, as well as their employers, professors... and even some of their parents.
“Thank you!” one mother wrote, “At last someone has the guts to see these kids as we see our daughter and her friends—the hope of the future.”
Finally, a July column on bosses who get it all wrong didn’t spark controversy as much as inspire a boatload of advice to us... about what we failed to mention in our list of the top five boss dysfunctions. One reader even sent us a list of 15 instances of bad behaviour we left out.
But we were perhaps the most taken aback by the email we received from a reader who hung the column in her cubicle. A few days later, a manager told her to take it down and stop “pushing the envelope”.
We would say, never stop that! Especially, keep pushing back at us. We look forward to opening a whole new envelope of hot topics in 2008.
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work , and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning Campaign readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, occupation and city.
Only select questions will be answered.
©2007/By NYT Syndicate