Emotional intelligence 101 (Guest Commentary)

Why a millennial’s letter to Yelp’s CEO got her fired — and what both sides can learn
By Justin Bariso
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/18/2016

If you haven’t heard, the post entitled “An Open Letter to My CEO” went viral a couple of weeks ago on Medium.

“Talia Jane,” a 25-year-old employee of Yelp/Eat24, wrote the letter to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman to tell her story — a story that includes “crying in the bathtub every week” because of hunger pains and taking a $6 handout from a CVS employee who overheard her conversation about not knowing how she would get to work.

And then, Jane got fired.

Stoppelman tweeted that he read the post on Medium, going so far as to acknowledge her point “that the cost of living in SF (San Francisco) is far too high” and he has “been focused on this issue... speaking out frequently about the need to lower cost of housing.”

Stoppelman also stated he was not personally involved in Jane being let go and claimed the firing “was not because she posted a Medium letter directed at me.”

We’ll file that one under “Things that make you go hmmm.”

If you read my column, you know I write a lot about the role emotional intelligence (EQ) plays in the world of business. EQ involves the ability to recognize and understand your emotions, and to use that information to guide decision-making. Building EQ can prove very useful by shaping communication in a way that gets people to listen with a more open mind.

I feel for Jane and I don’t mean to kick her while she’s down. Although I can observe the situation only from the outside, my experience tells me that both sides made mistakes here.

Nonetheless, as I read her post, I couldn’t help but identify numerous lessons as to how EQ could have improved this particular communiqué:

Don’t go live when in an emotional state

Writing with passion is great. Although potentially destructive, anger can help us stand up against wrongs or speak out when necessary. Some of the issues Jane addresses in her letter (low pay in an area with an especially high cost of living and insensitive advice from management) are important and require discussion.

If you’re going to write, it’s fine to do so when you’re angry. Just don’t hit “publish” (or “send”).

If people have the chance to cool off for a few hours, or even a day or two, they’re usually able to turn that raw, angry emotion into something more coherent. Jane only hurt her cause with statements like the following:

“I was told I’d have to work in support for an entire year before I would be able to move to a different department. A whole year answering calls and talking to customers just for the hope that someday I’d be able to make memes and Twitter jokes about food.”

For Stoppelman (and no doubt many, many readers), she sounds like a spoiled, entitled millennial brat. Hardly a boomer (or even gen-X) manager will sympathize with an employee who can’t stand the thought of taking a year to work her way up from an entry-level position. And let’s just not comment on the thought that her ultimate goal in contributing to the company is to “make Twitter jokes about food.” 

Is this an unfair assessment based on a single moment of emotion? Maybe. But many would argue statements like this are simply asking for it.

Takeaway: If you’re angry, wait until you cool down before approaching your communication partner.

Before you speak or send your message, think to yourself: How will the other side view my points?

Even better, ask someone you respect (and who won’t always agree with you) to take a look at it. Ask them about your tone and how they would describe the piece in a few words, or in a single sentence. Then, adjust as needed.

You set the tone

If we approach people in a calm and reasonable manner, our chances are much higher that they respond in the same way. Acknowledge their difficulties and challenges, and they’ll be much more willing to listen. (Credit to my wife for teaching me this lesson.)

But when Jane uses biting sarcasm with the CEO of the company, with statements like “I know (my thoughts) aren’t worth your time” or when she suggests Yelp stop “restocking flavoured coconut waters since no one drinks them (because they taste like the bitter remorse of accepting a job that can’t pay a living wage),” it’s reasonable to understand why Stoppelman might get upset.  

Instead, imagine how much better the letter would have been received if Jane assumed the best in her boss — if she acknowledged all the good things the CEO and company have already done for employees.

What if she pleaded her case not in an accusatory tone, but in one that aimed to be kind and fair, first?

Takeaway: It might be cliché but it’s true: You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. At the very least, make honey the appetizer.

You can’t turn back time

Jane’s post is only a drop in the bucket of examples proving the power of social media to affect your reputation. She’s gotten a lot of attention and many think that’s a good thing.

But what about her future employment prospects? Will her next potential employer be scared away, wondering what her next Medium post will look like if she disagrees with any of the company’s practices? 

Or, even worse, will she blame the company for her own poor decisions or unfortunate circumstances?

After Yelp fired her, Jane updated her Medium post with her PayPal and Venmo credentials, along with the note:

“As of 5:43 pm PST, I have been officially let go from the company. This was entirely unplanned (but I guess not completely unexpected?) but any help until I find new employment would be extremely appreciated.”

I won’t discredit Jane’s intentions here, as I don’t know her full situation. But begging for donations is a dangerous strategy that screams “looking for a handout.”

Takeaway: Remember, people will judge you (and sometimes freeze you in time) based on what you’ve put online.

Before you put it all out there, ask yourself: Do I want people to form impressions about me based on this? Will I feel the same way in one year or five years?

The other side

As mentioned, I’m sure Yelp made its share of mistakes in all of this. There will be plenty of negative fallout to go around, and the company’s reputation as an employer may suffer.

Only those on the inside know how Yelp truly deals with employees. But if the company took Jane’s complaints more seriously from the beginning, the open letter may have never been published.

The moral of the story: It’s all about empathy. Do your best to see things through the eyes of the other side and your communication will improve automatically. That’s easier said than done, but it’s a habit worth cultivating. 

And the next time you get angry with someone, remember: That anger can be used for good, as long as it’s kept under control.

Use these strategies to help increase your EQ and your message will have much more potential to produce the desired results.

Justin Bariso is founder of INSIGHT, a consultancy that helps organizations think differently and communicate with impact. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter @JustinJBariso. This article originally appeared at Inc.com.

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