Remember when immigration was a hot topic? We do. "Immigration: A Reality Check," published back in February, was our most fervently commented-upon column—bar none—of 2008. Readers wrote us in droves, the vast majority taking us to task for suggesting it would be a humanitarian, managerial, and economic nightmare to deport 12 million people. We were called communists, imperialists, fascists, and (our favorite) "pie-in-the-sky open-border elitists." Several readers offered to explain, in person, why we were so stupid.
"What is it about the word 'illegal' that you do not understand?" one typical e-mail demanded.
So imagine what a nice change of pace it was in September when another column, "The Importance of Being Sticky," generated twice as much mail as immigration—with every piece of it positive. We would never have guessed that a column on customer retention could strike such a resounding chord!
Let's just say it got a helping hand. Our column had struck a professor as a good homework assignment. And not just any professor but the head of an online MBA program in China, who had thousands of his cyberpupils write to us about the wisdom of our advice.
We say, "Xie xie"—thank you, in Mandarin—to all who did.
Tallying Things Up
Yes, it's time again to report on which "Welch Way" columns received the most passionate bouquets and punishing brickbats over the past year. And while every column we wrote received some response, besides immigration and customer retention, three others stand out for the volume of mail and the intensity of the views they elicited.
Take our September column "What's Hobbling the IRS," which asserted that, despite the efforts of many employees, union rules made it impossible for the agency to differentiate, through pay, between high and low performers, thereby stymieing productivity and innovation.
The outcry was immediate, first from a chorus of loyal IRS employees and then from Commissioner Douglas Shulman, who argued that IRS employees were driven by more than money, and the agency's excellent performance proved as much. A defiant band of insiders, however, told us we had the story right. "The good [IRS] employees are losing the battle," one lamented.
Slide On Down
Columns on managing people always stir a response, but none was so impassioned as the reaction to "When a Star Slacks Off," about moving out top-performers-gone-bad before their attitudes spread. A slider's performance, we wrote in March, is a "poisonous influence."
From our mail—one reader called us "inhumane"—you'd have thought we called for the drowning of puppies. "It's always the employee and never the manager's fault, right?" another asked. And: "What about the possibility that your 'slider' is burnt out, or that he has a conflict with someone…or a health issue? You can't just fire everyone."
Still, we had defenders. "I work at a company where there are many slackers, and my performance has drifted downward as a result," one e-mail said. "When you're coming in at 6, and others come in at 8, 9, even 10 and leave before you do, too, eventually you can't help but 'do as the Romans do.'"
The final (very) hot button was our recent column, "How to Save Detroit," in which we suggested the government allow the Big Three to go bankrupt and then, as the provider of debtor-in-possession financing, merge GM (GM) and Chrysler. A bailout is "life support," we said, "not a cure." And bankruptcy could offer a fresh start.
Hundreds of responses poured in, and 70% of them saw the merit in our plan. "Why should our tax dollars go towards bailing out companies that have made ridiculous commitments they cannot sustain?" read a typical one.
An outspoken minority, however, warned that our view was shortsighted. "If those companies go under, YOU will support all the welfare, unemployment, health care, and pensions," one reader wrote. "Have it your way."
We will! Indeed, that's part of the great fun of writing our column. But with all sincerity, the best part of having it our way each week is that you do, too. Xie xie for another year of giving it right back to us.