How readers reacted to our 2008 columns

How readers reacted to our 2008 columns

Our February column on immigration was the most fervently commented-upon of 2008, bar none. Readers wrote to us in droves, the vast majority taking us to task for our suggestion that it would be a humanitarian, managerial and economic nightmare to deport 12 million people. We were called communists, imperialists, fascists and (our favourite) “pie-in-the-sky open-border elitists". Several readers even offered to travel to our home to personally explain to us why we were so stupid.

“What is it about the word ‘illegal’ that you do not understand?" one typical reader demanded to know.

So, you can imagine what a nice change of pace it was in September when a column on stickiness generated twice as much mail as immigration—with every last piece of it positive. Who knew that a discussion of customer retention, we thought, would strike such a chord?!

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dfa3c288-ce5b-11dd-9541-000b5dabf636.flvWell, not quite. As it turned out, our column had actually inspired a professor to create a homework assignment. And not just any professor, but the head of an online MBA programme in China, who instructed his thousands of cyber pupils to write to us about the wisdom of our advice.

Regardless, we say, “Xie xie" (thank you in Mandarin) to all who did.

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Yes, it’s time again to report on which Winning columns received the most passionate bouquets and pounding brickbats over the course of the year. And while every column that we wrote in 2008 received some response, a few particularly stand out for the volume of mail they generated and the intensity of the views expressed.

Take our September column on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the US government agency responsible for tax collection: We asserted that, despite the best efforts of many dedicated employees, union rules made it impossible for the agency to financially differentiate high-performing employees from low-performing ones, thereby stymieing productivity and innovation.

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The outcry was immediate, first from a chorus of loyal IRS employees, and then from the commissioner himself, Douglas Shulman, who argued that the agency’s employees were motivated by more than money, and the revenue service’s excellent performance proved as much.

A defiant band of dissenters, however, told us we had the story right. “The good employees are losing the battle," one lamented.

Columns on people management almost always stir a response, but none was so impassioned this year as the reaction to a March column about the unfortunate necessity of moving out high-performers-gone-bad before their poor attitude and example can start to spread. A slider’s performance, we wrote, is a “poisonous influence".

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To read our mail, which included epithets such as “insensitive" and “inhumane," not to mention less savoury selections, you might have thought we’d called for the drowning of puppies.

“It’s always the employee and never the manager’s fault, right?" one reader asked. “What about the possibility that your ‘slider’ is burnt out, or that he has a personality conflict with someone in the company, or a health issue? You can’t just fire everyone."

Still,we had some defenders. “I work at a company where there are many slackers, and I know that my performance has drifted downward as a result," one email said. “When you’re coming in at six, and others come in eight, nine, even 10 and leave before you do too, eventually you can’t help but ‘do as the Romans do.’"

The final (very, very) hot button of the year was our recent column discussing the proposed bailout of the US auto industry. We suggested that instead the government should allow the Big Three to go bankrupt, and then, as the debtor-in-possession lender financing the reorganization, merge General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Llc. A government bailout is “life support", we said, “not a cure". And a bankruptcy need not be the end; it can be a fresh start.

Hundreds of responses poured in, and by a ratio of 7:3, readers seemed to agree our plan had merit. “Why should our tax dollars go towards bailing out companies who have made ridiculous commitments they cannot sustain?" a reader commented.

An outspoken minority, however, warned that our view was short-sighted. “If those companies go under, YOU will support all the welfare, unemployment, healthcare and pensions anyway," one reader wrote. “Have it your way."

We will! Indeed, that’s part of the great fun of writing a column. But with all sincerity, the best part of having it our way every week is that you do too. Xie xie for another year of giving it right back to us.


Write to Jack & Suzy

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 Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.