People who work for Ed dread his memos. Known as “Ed Epistles,” they are delivered via e-mail or hand-scribbled notes taped to the seat of your chair. They can be brief and abrupt: “Follow up on catalogue numbers immediately. Lois needs inventory yesterday!” Or long and laborious demanding to know who’s doing what and why aren’t they working faster?
Ed is hardly alone in his prolific and inappropriate memo writing. It seems bosses everywhere are scratching out notes that not only give their staff something to commiserate about, but make the boss known more for his or her memos than anything else.
“We called them ‘Tom-o-Grams,'” a former employee of an Ohio company told me. “Tom, our boss, would get drunk on weekends and dictate nasty memos into his tape recorder and leave them for his secretary to transcribe and distribute on Monday.”
He would bombard people with mean-spirited messages on everything from deadlines to slovenly behavior. “Anything he had a negative opinion on was fodder,” said the former staff member. “You’d dread looking at your in-box. You’d hear people groan with relief, ‘Good, no Tom-o-Gram today.’ You just felt angry the rest of the week.”
To make matters worse, when the company softball team asked Tom if he’d sponsor them, he said no. “So we named our team the Tom-o-Grams and on the back of our jerseys was a large memo that said, “‘I will not sponsor, Tom.'”
Gone With the Wind movie producer David O. Selznick was known as much for his memos as his work as a filmmaker. “His impassioned and eloquent memorandums to directors, writers, stars and studio executives have been as famous as his films, noted for their rage and impatience as much as for their wit,” says the jacket cover of the book Memo from David O. Selznick.
Many of his memos, usually dictated at night and sometimes until dawn to secretaries who worked in shifts, dealt with routine, day-to-day matters, says Rudy Behlmer, editor of the book.
From the 1930’s through the 1960’s when he was writing these memos, he gained a reputation as interfering, overbearing and egocentric. By today’s standards, he’d be called a micromanager.
Why do some bosses do this? In Selznick’s case, he says he got into the habit of telling people what he thought about details because at a young age he was supervising others and “was self-conscious about my youth and in giving orders…dictating permitted me to hide behind the front of what I liked to think were impressive memos.”
If you send memos and e-mails to check on project status or share your opinion, make sure they’re communicating the right thing. Because they do more than communicate words. Tone, length and clarity tell how you think, what kind of manager you are and type of person you really are.
Also, think about whether a memo is the best way to voice your thoughts. Memos can ostracize or gain support. And you never know, they could end up in a book someday. Besides, do you want to be known for your memos or your good work?