What we can learn from Facebook's terrible memo

The memo is a powerful thing - use it better than Facebook did, says HR leader Stuart Hearn.

by Stuart Hearn
Last Updated: 03 May 2018

When Mark Zuckerberg arrived in Washington DC for a five hour hearing on Russia’s interference with the 2016 US election and many other issues with the website, the CEO looked visibly shaken. This is no surprise considering how the past few months have shined a light on many of Facebook’s flaws.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown many people that the company doesn’t care about its users as much as it claims it does. Meanwhile, the company’s stock price has been through hell and back again.

Added to all this, came the revelation of a memo which showed the inner workings of the Silicon Valley giant. In it, top executive Andrew Bosworth stated Facebook should embrace growth at all costs, even if that means ‘maybe someone dies’. For managers, this memo is a perfect example of how not to manage or motivate employees.

Memos can do great things

The memo starts by stating that Bosworth is going to talk about the ‘ugly’ side of Facebook. On the one hand, this is commendable. It is important for a business to recognise its shortcomings and to be open to addressing them. 

A well-written memo can be a great motivator for businesses and a great opportunity to address what everyone is doing and what can be done in future. Too many businesses rely on annual appraisals for this, but annual appraisals don’t work and other alternatives — such as memos or continuous performance management — should be used instead.

A memo which says, ‘here’s what’s wrong with our company...’ followed by ‘...and here’s what we’re going to do to make it better!’ is something which employees can get behind. It shows that you are a manager who is committed to improving the business as a whole, including the way you work, rather than simply telling other employees how they should improve.

Ugly? It’s not ugly enough

Bosworth’s memo does not do this. Rather, it gives reasons as to why the company is terrible and suggests that employees simply live with it. Bosworth details many of Facebook’s biggest failings and defends this with ‘we connect people’.

Some have applauded this attitude by comparing Facebook to the printing press. After all, the printing press led to the widespread distributions of books, and some books have led to unspeakable acts of cruelty, yet they ‘connect people’. The problem with this analogy is that Facebook is not an invention; it’s a company which harvests data for profit and has complete control over who connects with who and what they share with each other.

Facebook is not a printing press; it’s more like a publishing company which has inadvertently helped to publish millions of pages of Russian propaganda and fake news using stolen data. A memo which really delved into the ‘ugly’ side would address those issues. More than that, it would talk about how it was going to solve those issues.

Move fast with no direction

The key thing missing from Bosworth’s memo is clarity. If the aim of the memo wasn’t to give actionable advice on how Facebook can do better, why list the company’s many flaws? In defending the memo, Bosworth states that he didn’t agree with it to begin with. He says that the only reason for the memo was to start a discussion.

With over 25,000 employees, you cannot expect that the nuances and the subtleties of a memo which claims to state the ‘ugly’ but is actually intended for discussion to make sense to everyone in the same way. Playing mind games with a company the size of Facebook will only serve to divide and confuse people.

All of this echoes what 22 anonymous employees had to say about Facebook in 2015. They argued that the company had a confused approach to management. Worse, growth really was all that mattered, the company’s ‘move fast and break things’ motto meant moving without any oversight, and people’s personal lives didn’t matter. For Zuckerberg to now try and claim that this memo is a one-off is not accurate. Moving fast with no direction is just how Facebook operates.

Stuart Hearn is former HR director at Sony and the CEO of performance management software Clear Review.

Image credit: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay


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