What to Do When an Employee Emails the CEO – and Copies 200,000 Close Friends

[Our perspective by Michael Voss and Jennifer Rock]

A Wells Fargo employee made headlines recently by emailing the company’s CEO to request an across-the-board raise for all of the bank’s employees. To ensure his message wasn’t ignored, he added approximately 200,000 colleagues to the CC line. While it’s not clear whether the employee received a direct response, the company did offer a public statement noting its market competitive wages, career development opportunities and respect for team members.

We are not sharing this to be critical of Wells Fargo or its handling of this particular situation. To be sure, these are delicate matters that offer very little time to formulate an effective internal and external response. However, the story did bring to mind the many times in our careers when we were asked to help respond to an unsolicited internal email to a senior executive. While pay and/or benefits were far and away the most common topic, the issues ranged from dissatisfaction with hours, local managers, training programs and even the company’s overall direction or strategy.

Good preparation can help you effectively handle employee comments and complaints – and help you reduce the blast emails to your workforce. Several steps to consider:

Establish protocols for handling employee-to-CEO communication. How should employees talk with your CEO? Will your CEO respond to every employee complaint and suggestion? Will the Communications team or the CEO’s staff help to draft responses? Should the frequently asked questions or best comments be publicized in an all-employee communications forum? Establish a process with your CEO and set expectations with employees.

Respond like a human being – not only to the individual, but also to the broader employee population and media if applicable. Your C-level execs and department heads will most certainly want to cite whatever company policies and philosophies apply to the topic at hand – just as Wells Fargo did – and that certainly can be part of the message. But when an employee musters the courage to email the CEO with a complaint, the issue is almost always personal and emotional. In these situations, issuing a terse statement about company policy is rarely an effective tonic. Infusing your response with thoughtful, educational – but never condescending – language can go a long way in diffusing both internal unrest and external criticism. One tip for striking the right tone: quickly and discreetly test your messaging with a few members of your target audience to gauge their reaction.

Create places for employees to talk openly. We are big fans of no-holds-barred employee communication. But there are tools and channels that work best for open dialogue – and email isn’t it. Give employees better alternatives to voice opinions and start conversations inside the company, like online forums and live Q&A sessions.

Tightly manage your email lists. It’s a constant battle for many companies: struggling to reduce email volume to ensure important announcements don’t get lost in employee in-boxes. One no-brainer solution is to restrict the “send-to” rights on your mass-distribution lists, providing sender permissions only to those who actually need it – people such as your Chief Communications Officer, the head of Security or the CEO’s administrative assistant. Keep in mind this is not about restricting dialogue, it’s to ensure these mailing lists can only be used as intended – a means for reaching segments of your internal audience with targeted, relevant messages.

Restrict the TO line. When your employees no longer have permission to send to mass email lists, consider the ways a determined employee may try to circumvent the new security protocol – like cutting-and-pasting thousands of individual addresses into the “to” line. Ask your IT team to restrict the number of addresses/names to which a company email can be sent from an individual account. A 50-address cap, for example, would be reasonable starting point for most employees in most companies.

Address hot topics – before they become full-fledged fires. If you’ve created trusted, open places for company dialogue, be diligent about listening to employees. Look for common issues and hot topics that gather momentum – and address them before they reach critical mass. For example, offer background information that led to a company decision. Counsel the CEO to offer a point of view in the next regularly scheduled all-employee communication. Enlist a subject matter expert to moderate an online conversation and educate employees along the way.


Categories: Our Perspective

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