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What is a Shit Sandwich? And Why it Doesn't Work

Remember our most recent Biggest Challenge at Work? It was “change communications,” fresh from the desk of a Head of Internal Communications. To put ourselves in his shoes, we asked, “what kinds of changes are usually tough to communicate?” We then answered by saying: "the bad kind."

The god-awful, wake-me-up-when-this-is-over, I-really-should-update-my-resume kinds of changes. The ones that nobody wants to deal with. These are also the hardest to communicate. Imagine that.

What can a Head of Internal Comms do about that? He doesn’t make the changes. His higher-ups do. Which is why the next biggest complaint of communications folks is “poor leadership.” We'll talk about that in a couple of posts. In the meantime, they’re stuck with writing the memo.

Breaking the bad news could be a harrowing task, especially if you’ve never done it before. Thankfully, Internal Comms rarely needs to reinvent the wheel. They have a blueprint to follow. It’s called the shit sandwich.

Even if you’ve never heard of a shit sandwich, you’re most likely familiar with its taste and composition. The shit sandwich is a time-honored way to tell people you’ve failed their expectations. And, since any news can be disappointing—is disappointing to someone—many companies rely on it for any and all communications.

A classic example of a shit sandwich is a rejection letter. The kind that first assures you that you were an exceptionally qualified candidate. Then goes on to “Unfortunately”— there were just too many of you. Finally, it promises to keep you in mind for the company’s future needs.

Here you have all three elements of the shit sandwich:

  1. Flattering or cheerful opening
  2. The actual news
  3. Flattering or optimistic conclusion

The most fascinating thing about the shit sandwich is that it doesn’t work. So, if yours is a company that shit-sandwiches all of its memos, we might have just solved your biggest internal communications challenge.

The shit sandwich doesn’t work for two reasons:

  1. It insults your employees’ intelligence
  2. It suggests the news is worse than it seems. Else, why the extra effort to sell the reader? Or the clumsy maneuvering to spare his feelings?

In other words, if your goal is to soften the blow, a shit sandwich does the exact opposite. It makes people feel worse.

If we are honest with ourselves, the reason we wrap the truth in a protective layer of hogwash has nothing to do with anyone’s feelings but our own. We do it to distance ourselves from those whom we’ve unintentionally let down. It’s how we protect and excuse ourselves from feeling their pain.

When the pain is shared, there is no sandwich. We simply express our regrets and reach out to help. For example, if a hurricane hit the office, you wouldn’t start your memo by saying, “Nature is magnificent in all of its forms.” You’d go straight to the damage, how you plan to undo it, and where to get help in the meantime.

Now let’s take a different scenario. Health insurance premiums go up. Many companies would be tempted to call it a “new health benefit plan” and bury the bad news inside “additional benefits” and “better options.”

Why the change of tactic? In the first example, the manager’s conscience is clear. He didn’t appoint the hurricane and was powerless to avert it. In the second example, perhaps the company could’ve eaten the cost, but chose to pass it on to employees. Next, it scrambles to justify itself. How can we minimize our people’s loss? And off it goes, manufacturing a little bit of good news here and there to subtract from the bad.

In reality, mind games like the shit sandwich are a subtle admission of guilt. Our gut detects it, even as our mind rationalizes it. That’s why a shit sandwich always makes you queasy. You, the reader. And you, the writer.

If the shit sandwich is so bad, why is it so popular? I guess, as with many other bad things out there, it’s something of a habit. We feel bad—ish. We want to get it over and done with. And we can’t think of anything better to write. So we pull out the last year’s open enrollment memo and we cut and paste.

But we could invest in a new habit. Especially if we are working on communication and we are concerned about employee morale. We don’t always have to buy morale with perks and privileges. We can also earn it with straight talk.

Let’s go back to the rejection letter for a moment.

In 1941, 22-year old J.D. Salinger submitted his short story, “The Fisherman,” to the New Yorker magazine. This was the response he received:

Dear Mr. Salinger:

I’m sorry this one doesn’t do. Thanks a lot.

Sincerely yours,
John Mosher

Nothing could be more terse and straightforward. And yet, would you rather get one of these or the standard shit sandwich variety?

Apparently, Salinger’s morale didn’t suffer. That year he submitted six more short stories to the New Yorker. The last one, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” made it in, and Salinger’s writing career took off.

John Mosher’s rejection letter stands out because it doesn’t contain an ounce of shit. Let’s say he put “thank you” first, as many people would today. Followed by a rejection, the words of gratitude would reek of empty formality, condescending and confusing.

The worst place for ambiguity is the workplace. We understand this on the technical side of things. But we often let moral ambiguities creep into our communication with employees. In so doing, we accomplish one of two things:

  1. A rift between management and employees, and
  2. Passing moral ambiguity as normal and even necessary in the workplace.

Needless to say, neither outcome is particularly employee-engaging. But the second one may be more damaging, long-term, than the first.

You want your employees to have a finely tuned bullshit detector. They need it to manage people and projects, handle customers, suppliers, and coworkers, interview job candidates, negotiate deals… the list is endless. You also want to empower them to voice and resolve their suspicions. None of this is likely in a morally ambiguous work environment.

So, what’s the right way to give bad news to employees?

In the last couple of posts we’ve been talking about Zappos’ move to self-management. Zappos is world famous for being employee friendly. At the same time, if there ever was a hard to swallow mega-change to the normal order of business, self-management would be it. But Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is determined to see it through.

His latest push came in March of 2015 in the form of a company-wide memo. Tony clearly gave it a lot of thought. Many business sites, like Fast Company and Quartz, published the 4,572 word memo in its entirety. It’s a good example of being thorough, honest and direct about something your people are not going to like.

Nothing in this memo reads like a shit sandwich. Maybe a thin crust shit pizza, if you really had to pick it apart. He starts by saying:

“This is a long email. Please take 30 minutes to read through the email in its entirety.”

The body of the email is a brain dump of Tony’s management philosophy, his analysis of the company’s recent past, and the transition steps towards his goal. He ends with:

“I can’t wait to see how we reinvent ourselves, and I can’t wait to see what unfolds next.”

That’s all the pep talk you’ll see in the entire email. And that’s remarkable for someone who's facing a tough crowd inside and outside of his company. There are mixed reports on how Zappos self-management project is coming along. If he ever pulls it off, it would be very much thanks to his ability to say what he means and mean what he says.

Start with the bad news, if it’s on people’s minds anyway. During an earnings call, many CEOs will go straight to the problems, because investors need to understand the risks they are facing. If you don’t immediately respond to your audience’s needs, you forfeit their trust. And with their trust goes their money.

Talking to employees is not that different. Just because people don’t quit their jobs immediately upon being served a shit sandwich doesn't mean the company can’t lose their support. A company’s market value is all the investors’ money pooled together. But its real value—and the reason investors invest—comes from the individual contributions every employee makes every day. Can you count on them if you don’t have their trust?

You can sell your employees an uplifting message. But you won’t get there by ignoring their reality and disconnecting from their feelings. You can’t lead when nobody is following. Understand and connect to your people first.


If you like straight talk, you might like my book, because it’s the only kind I use.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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