About this time last year, we received an e-mail from a reader who asked if we believed America's competitive success was linked to its relative lack of corruption. Having just spent two weeks in Latin America, where we heard countless stories of systemic governmental misbehavior, we replied that we agreed. Yes, America has its share of corruption, largely in public works projects, we wrote. However: "Virtually no one starting a company in the U.S. today has to worry about covering the hidden costs of bribes, payoffs, and kickbacks." The notion seemed so self-evident to us that, as we sent the column to our editors at BusinessWeek, one of us commented: "This ought to be a quiet week."
Talk about blindsided! "The high cost of corruption" was one of our most controversial columns of the year, inflaming slews of readers, who accused us of everything from ignorance to collusion. "Stop it! It is a known fact that private enterprise owns the government, paid for with bribes in the form of campaign contributions," one typical letter read. "The whole American system is rigged, and you're either idiotic or blind not to know that," said another.
That was January. As 2007 unfolded, we were to write four more columns that sparked particular sound and fury. Now, most of our columns receive a hefty response, with general comments on our point of view. That's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about columns that generated an avalanche of mail laced with, let's say, heightened emotions.
Take our March column decrying the Employee Free Choice Act. If our column on corruption set off a firestorm, this one unleashed a conflagration. We weren't surprised. We knew that organized labor loved the legislation; why wouldn't it? Removing the secret ballot would make unionization much easier. We also knew many businesspeople feared it to their bones, feeling, as we did that, if the bill became law, it would be a real blow to American competitiveness. Thus the column's headline: "The Unemployment Act."
Ultimately, the legislation did pass in the House but stalled in the Senate. Regardless, for weeks after our column was published, we received torrents of e-mail. Tallying them up now, it's amazing to see they actually ran 2 to 1 in favor of our position—perhaps a reflection of BusinessWeek's readership more than anything else. But without a doubt, the negative responses were the most colorful of the year, our favorite still being the letter that read: "Jack, we've got you scheduled to run sewing machine #13 when you get to hell. By the way, that's a nonunion shop."
A similar level of passion greeted our column about Joe Torre, the former New York Yankees manager whose contract with the team became a cause célèbre in November. For the record, our purpose was to illustrate the importance of keeping contract talks quick and private, as captured in its headline: "Negotiate in a cool, dark place." But by a margin of 3 to 1, readers told us that our Torre example was, pardon us, off base. "If you want to write about how to back a beloved employee into a corner and out the window of a high-rise so you don't look like the bad guy, then use Torre," as one put it. "You missed the point. Joe deserved better."
By contrast, our most popular column this year was a love letter we wrote to Gen Y, a group of young people who, despite their negative press, we have consistently found to be engaged, worldly, entrepreneurial, and hungry to win. Our view struck a chord, and "Generation Y's bad rap" elicited a rush of letters from grateful twentysomethings—and their employers, professors, and even some of their parents. "Thank you!" one mother wrote us. "At last someone has the guts to see these kids as we see our daughter and her friends—the hope of the future."
Finally, a July column "Bosses who get it all wrong," didn't spark controversy as much as inspire a boatload of advice to us—about what we failed to mention in our list of the top five corner-office dysfunctions. (One reader even sent us a list of 15 bad behaviors we left out.) But we were perhaps the most taken aback by the e-mail we received from a reader who hung the column in her cubicle. A few days later, a manager told her to take it down and stop "pushing the envelope."
We'd say, never stop! Especially, keep pushing back at us. We look forward to opening a whole new envelope of hot topics in 2008.