5 Memos That Went Terribly Wrong

5 Memos That Went Terribly Wrong
Updated on 21 May 2015

In the world of digital communications, pretty much everyone can relate to an email experience going terribly wrong at work. Ever hit “reply all” and sprayed a private message to a group of co-workers and lived to regret it?

Writing internal business communications shouldn’t be fraught with peril, but for these unfortunate executives, things went terribly wrong. From the ridiculous to the tragic, take a look at these five truly terrible business memos.

Western Union Internal Memo

Western Union, Grammarly

Go back in time to 1876 for the first example of a really ridiculous internal memo (in hindsight). Western Union had a monopoly on fast communication; the telephone had just been invented in March of that year. In a bad move of epic proportions, the business executives at Western Union circulated a memo insisting that the telephone would not be a threat to its business. In part, the memo read, This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”

How did that work out for Western Union? Ask yourself the last time you or anyone you know received a telegram. Enough said.

Greg McKay’s Mumbling Memo

You probably don’t know who Greg McKay is, but he’s infamous at the Arizona Department of Child Safety. After Governor Ducey appointed Greg McKay to head the department, McKay sent his employees a memo that managed to be meandering, vainglorious, self-righteous, and insulting all at the same time. Check out these awesome quotes:

  • “I will begin by announcing I am not worthy of this position. In fact, no one man or woman could fulfill this endeavor.”
  • “Any projects or pilots that lead our staff down a path of potential lawbreaking will stop now.”
  • “Please do not be afraid and know that all things done in good faith will be tolerated.”

Law Firm’s Diversity Memo

Diversity in the workplace is an admirable goal and the writers of this internal communication should be commended for working to achieve that goal. But things went downhill quickly. The memo encourages other employees to engage in activities with “diverse hires” to make them feel more welcome. The writer suggests some swell ideas: a 20-minute chat, a lunch invite, or even an invitation to a non-work event.

So far, so good—and then the hammer drops. Employees are required to record and verify their activities with the HR department to prove they remain compliant with the new “inclusivity policy.” How’s that for creating a warm and inclusive workplace?

Microsoft’s Layoff Memo

Microsoft boss Stephen Elop decided the best way to notify employees their jobs were on the line was with a mass memo. Nothing revolutionary there, even though many would argue a more personal approach. Elop, however, badly mangled the job. The memo, which went out to 12,500 Microsoft employees, opened with a jocular “Hello there,” before rambling on for 14 paragraphs about Microsoft’s role, goals, and future plans. The hapless employees had to read through 10 paragraphs before they hit the key bit—notice of the layoff finally appears in paragraph 11.

Aviva Termination Memo

After UK-based insurance company Aviva Investors fired an employee, the HR department prepared a memo for the unlucky worker with instructions for leaving the building. The memo included guidelines for turning over all company property and security passes and urged quick compliance. Unfortunately, the HR staffer sent that memo to the company’s entire 1,300-member global workforce. It took over 30 minutes for the company to realize its error and send another mass email explaining the mistake.

So, what did we learn about writing effective memos from the examples above? Don’t use your memo to predict the future; be concise; be kind; get to the point; and know your audience. Easy, right?

May 21 is National Memo Day! Have you ever been on the receiving end of a ridiculous email or memo gone wrong? Let us know in the comments.

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