A Class Exercise: How Do You Make Your Boss Happy?

I find myself in the fortunate position this semester of teaching Professional Writing Capstone, the culminating course for our professional writing program’s graduating seniors and MA students. In addition to doing projects for clients, we’re discussing how to make the transition from being a student to being a professional.


Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

And that’s how the topic in the title of this post came up. When a group of our advisory board members came to the class to share their advice on professionalism, one guest led off with “Make your boss happy.” Once the panel discussion was over and the guests had departed, I asked the class how they felt about this advice. More than one student said that it had rubbed her the wrong way, and I could see why: Especially nowadays, most students seek to work for organizations that embrace creativity, engagement, and the free exchange of ideas, not places that still abide by a strict, formal hierarchical structure.

And yet, unless our students plan to be entrepreneurs, they will be assuming a role in a hierarchical organization when they become employed, even if the organization has a relatively relaxed culture. They will have bosses, and their bosses will likely have bosses. So what does it mean in today’s more informal, employee-friendly workplace to “keep your boss happy”?

I asked the class to write answers to this question, as fast as they could, for about 5 minutes. Then we went around the room to hear at least one response from each student, with one student taking notes.

Here are the results:  How Do You Keep Your Boss Happy.

What do you think of this list? What answers do you think your students would come up with?

I’d recommend that you try this activity in your class. See how many of the items on our list your students come up with–and see what new ones they can add. Doing so will enable you to discuss important workplace lessons with your students–lessons that will strengthen their professional communication and help them smoothly cross that bridge from academia to the workplace.



Note to Students: Companies Can Have Ideologies as Well as Cultures

One of our graduate students and I have been busily researching corporate social responsibility (CSR) and related topics in preparation for a presentation we’re going to give at the ABC meeting in Dublin. Our reading has confirmed something that is becoming increasingly obvious: When companies become social actors and put their clout behind various social stands, their ideological dimension grows. This is a trend our students need to be aware of as they learn how to scope out the organizational contexts of their communications.

This past week, it was big news that Google fired an employee whose “anti-diversity manifesto” went public. Among the various conclusions one could draw from this news, one is that it is sometimes–maybe often?–unsafe for an employee to voice an opinion that departs from the social values of his/her company. For one thing, the opinion can go public, which can then embroil the company in a PR firestorm. But even becoming known as someone who isn’t pulling in the same direction as the company’s leadership can put one at risk professionally.

Millennials are particularly likely to support certain social causes and agitate for their employers to do likewise. According to a Deloitte study, 70% say that a company’s commitment to CSR “would influence their decision to work there,” and another study found that 73% “believe that businesses should not only take a stand about important issues, but also influence others to get involved in those issues.” They join a growing body of “social intrapreneurs,” who work for social change within and through their organizations. There’s a lot to be said in favor of social intrapreneurship–but expecting every company to welcome such values and behavior would be naive, and dangerous.

As Philip Kotler and Christian Sarkar point out, any given company’s involvement in social issues can fall anywhere on a continuum from regressive to progressive. Companies who participate in CSR are not the only social actors; many companies push back against various dimensions of CSR and promote more conservative, traditional business values. It’s imperative for a young employee, or job applicant, to be sensitive to a company’s social politics and realistic about how to communicate in that workplace. The engineer who was fired from Google accused the company of being an “ideological echo chamber.” One could argue that, to some extent, many companies can now be described this way.

We’ll be inviting those who attend our presentation to share their ideas for how to incorporate this topic into their classes. If you have some thoughts, please share them.

Protecting Yourself and Your Students from Copyright Infringement

I recently attended a seminar led by Mark Konecny, Scholarly Communications Strategist with the University of Cincinnati Libraries. His topic: How instructors and students can avoid copyright infringement and the hassles and cost that come with it.

The first important thing I learned: It is very easy now for companies to find anyone who is using their material (ads, data, words, tables, photos, videos) without their permission. The reason is that numerous web crawlers are available whose sole purpose is to trawl the web for images and other material that is being illegally used. Mark told of a bar in Machu Picchu that had had a picture of Mickey Mouse on its wall for decades. Recently, though, the bar owner was approached by a copyright attorney, ordered to take down the image, and slapped with a steep fine. If you are using others’ media without their permission, they will find you and take you down!

The next important thing I learned: Material that is being borrowed for education purposes and is “inward facing”—that is, not pointed out toward the public—requires much less permission-seeking that material that is “outward facing.”

Using Others’ Material in Inward-Facing Educational Media

The Educational Fair Use Guidelines (first created in 1976) and the T.E.A.C.H. Act (Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002) spell out the circumstances in which material borrowed for the classroom—whether face-to-face or virtual–can be used without permission. When considering copyright infringement cases related to teaching, judges will consider these four factors:

  • The purpose and character of your use. If the material is being used within/for the classroom, you should cite the origin of the material to avoid plagiarism, though that won’t be a sufficient safeguard against being charged for copyright infringement. To be safe on those grounds, you need to be able to demonstrate that you are making educational use of the material by integrating it into your teaching lesson, which is viewed as “transforming” the work from a piece of property into a means of teaching. (So, for example, you could include a clip from a movie or an ad in your bcomm class if you analyze it, draw a lesson from it, make a point with it, or otherwise incorporate it into a course topic or assignment.)
  • The nature of the copyrighted work. The key factors here are whether the work is factual or artistic/creative/fictional and whether it has been published or not. Factual works have looser restrictions because their contents are considered beneficial to the public. Published works also have looser restrictions than unpublished work because the author of unpublished work needs greater protection from theft of the material. But you should not be casual about using any copyrighted work.
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion taken. There are no hard and fast rules here, but the general idea is that you’re better off copying less than more. For example, you might include a few pages or visuals from a publication but not a whole chapter. That said, if you post a pdf of an article or chapter on your school’s course management system (e.g., Blackboard) and your school’s library has already paid for your access to this material, you should be on fairly safe ground. Certainly you will also be on safe ground if you include links to whole books in your library’s e-brary. On the other hand, if you print out hard copies for your students and charge them for the copying cost, that would probably be too commercial for a judge’s taste.
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market. In no way should your use of others’ material rob them of the just rewards for their work. Do not share with students any material that they would otherwise need to pay for. If you want to show a movie or part of a movie in your class, for example, it’s best to buy the DVD yourself and show it. Next best is inserting a link to the clip in your course assignment or PowerPoint slide. Not as good is streaming the movie, and not good is downloading the movie for free and showing this copy to your class. Same for music. As The T.E.A.C.H. Act says, all copies used must be lawfully made copies. And those copies need to have a specific, short life.

These same guidelines apply to your students if they are incorporating others’ material into their assignments and sharing them with others in the class. If, on the other hand, their work will be made public in any way, in the form of posters, videos, websites, brochures, or other outward-facing media, the guidelines get much more strict.

Using Others’ Material in Outward-Facing Media

When access to other’s materials is not limited to those being used in a course, the borrowing game becomes much more dangerous. Here, one must rigorously honor copyright notices and request permission to use any borrowed material that is not considered to be in the public domain.

For example, if you or your students use Google Images to find the perfect image for a presentation, poster, brochure, or website, you must go to the source of the image and try to get permission. The rights holder will probably specify the way he/she wants the source to be credited.

Same with graphs from eMarketer, blog posts from Forbes, copyrighted music, and other material you might want to use in an educational but outward-facing way.

Sometimes these sources will say no; sometimes they will say yes; sometimes they will say yes but with restrictions and/or payment.

Finding Permission-Free Photos, Videos, and Other Materials

Some publishers of media that you may want to use will allow you to use it with minimal or no permission.

Some examples:

  • YouTube says that you can put “the occasional YouTube video in your blog to comment on it or show your readers a video that you like, even if you have general-purpose ads somewhere on your blog.” (If you’re creating a YouTube video that uses copyrighted material, though, you must get the owner’s permission to avoid the risk of getting a take-down notice.) To find music that it’s ok to use without permission in your video, read about the YouTube Audio Library.


  • Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that, in their words, gives “everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. The combination of our tools and our users is . . . a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law.” Content creators on Wikipedia, Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube, and other platforms are given the option of licensing works with CC licenses, and many other creators simply go to CC and upload work that they are fine with sharing. The creators select what kind of licensing they want to have govern the re-use of the work and, as long the re-user meets the terms of the license for the photo or he/she wants to use, the re-use is fair. Some copyright holders, like Shutterstock, will charge you a (usually small) fee to download/use an image; others will allow free use, even commercial use, if the sources is attributed, while others forbid commercial use; and others will say “free for commercial use; no attribution required.”


  • Unsplash offers a wide range of photos that are “licensed under Creative Commons Zero which means you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer.” (Thanks to Heather Smith for telling me about this resource.)


  • Morguefile is “a community-based free photo site, and all photos found in the Morguefile archive are free for you to download and re-use in your work, be it commercial or not.” (Thanks again, Heather.)


  • Pixabay offers images and videos that have been “released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required.” (Yet again, thank you, Heather.)


The Bottom Line

With copyright-infringement crawlers now searching the web for infringements, you and your students must take the ownership of materials seriously. Universities are required by law to post copyright guidelines, like these from my school. If there is any chance that your intended use of the material may incur a take-down notice (and possibly a heavy fine), consult with knowledgeable personnel at your school. (See Paula’s post “Classroom Resources: Copyright Law” for additional online guides.)

What Was Your Best Teaching Insight of the Summer?

Before we go any further, I just want to make clear that I’m really asking! So please take a few moments to share your response to the question in this post’s title.

My best teaching insight this summer came when I was doing research on the generation that comprises most of our students—which is to say Gen Y, Millennials, twenty-somethings, typical college-age students, or whatever you want to call them.

I’m pretty sure I browsed every book that has been written on managing this cohort, as well as numerous articles and blog posts. But in only one of these sources did I see an extended emphasis on a trait that distinguishes this group from the Boomer generation (less so from Gen Xers): these folks grew up playing video games.

I know—not exactly a news flash. But have you really thought about how hours of gaming may have shaped their views of themselves, the workplace, and reality in general?

Management consultants John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade have. In fact, to gauge the extent to which gaming may have influenced young businesspeople’s attitudes and problem-solving strategies, they conducted a study involving a survey of over 2,000 businesspeople and interviews with over 200 people (young adults, parents, psychologists, and others, in addition to business people). The results were published in 2006 in The Kids Are Alright: How the Gamer Generation Is Changing the Workplace.

Here are some of the main gamer attitudes discussed by Beck and Wade, along with my thoughts about how we might adapt our teaching accordingly:

“Everyone can succeed.” If you’re able to play long and hard enough, you can beat almost any game. The rules are clear, the boundaries are definite, and the “hero” can eventually win (otherwise, the game won’t sell). There are even maps and strategy guides to consult. How unlike the workplace this is! Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a young man who complained that his bcomm teacher gave him a B+ when he’d made As in all his hard finance courses. We really need to explain to our students why effective business communication is a whole different “game” from their other courses, which tend to focus on concepts or puzzle-solving rather than on complex, ill-defined problem solving (the kind that involves people).

“You gotta play the odds.” If gamers experience serious setbacks and/or decide they don’t like a game, they just look for another game. Life is not like this, and neither is the workplace! Some serious setbacks actually have lasting consequences, and one cannot always just go find another job (especially if no one in the workplace you just left can be counted on to put in a good word for you). If we can help our students appreciate this, we will boost their professionalism, and they may understand better what is at stake when they communicate on the job.

“Kill bosses, trust strategy guides.” I laughed out loud when I read this one. My son, a Gen Yer, has been beating bosses his whole life in the gaming world . . . but I never actually put this together with the fact that one’s superiors on the job are called “bosses.” According to the literature, Gen Yers tend to treat bosses too much as substitute parents—but they also have a tendency to view bosses (and sometimes their teachers?) as obstacles to be passed on the way to greater success. We need to give our students explicit advice about what bosses are likely to expect and why, and about how to communicate successfully with them.

“Watch the map.” Many video games have on-screen maps that show you where you can go, where you now are, and who’s ahead or behind you. Games also often have meters (colored bars) that indicate how much power you have left, how much power your enemy has left, and so forth. The lesson for us: Our twenty-something students LOVE to know where they stand, and they want a clear path to success. While teaching bcom requires that we give our students decision-making room when they are solving a communication problem, we can try to make the goals and guidelines as clear as possible. Explaining how an assignment builds on the previous ones and providing grading rubrics will also appeal to these students.

“Can’t see it? Ignore it.” In games, there are no completely surprising enemies. And even if they come out at surprising times, they’re beatable. As Beck and Wade say, “That’s quite a contrast to human organizations, whether families, companies, or communities, where you may be weakened or frustrated by decisions from people you can’t confront” (p. xvi). Our students need to be encouraged to do all they can to see the big picture and to try to anticipate all the possible effects of any act of communication.

The book has many, many more insights. I encourage you to browse through it and see if relatively simple changes in your teaching will enhance your younger students’ learning and attitudes.

Now it’s your turn. What new insight are you taking advantage of in this new school year?

Classroom Talking Point: Intercultural Communication Gone Wrong

Coca-Cola Apologizes for Offensive Bottle Cap Message” reports the story of an Edmonton, Alberta, woman who opened her bottle of vitamin water and discovered a French word printed on the cap that, when read as an English word, means something terribly offensive. Coca-Cola had printed both French and English words on bottle caps as part of a promotional campaign. Coca-Cola has apologized and discontinued the promotion.

While the story itself is interesting, more interesting to me is the commentary after the article, particularly the many comments wondering why the language is offensive. News stories such as this provide discussion points for our business communication classes:

  • Why was this woman offended? What is it about the language that makes it offensive?
  • How would you respond to commenters who question why the language in the bottle cap is problematic? Are people who submitted comments overreacting? Underreacting? Appropriately reacting?
  • What if the word disparaged race, religion, or sexual orientation? Do you think people would have commented differently?
  • Did Coca-Cola react appropriately? Should Coca-Cola have done anything differently in addressing the issue?

While it is unfortunate that the incident happened at all, it does present us with a great opportunity to help our students become more sensitive and respectful business people.

On another note…Today is National Punctuation Day. Enjoy!

Is Images of Organization on Your Bookshelf (or e-Reader)?

I had occasion to reread Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization a couple of weeks ago and was struck again by how brilliant and useful this book is. Though the latest edition was published in 2006, it seems dated in only a few minor ways. It still offers, in my view, more insightful observations about organizational life than any other book out there.

Morgan’s thesis is that “all organization and management theory and practice is based on images, or metaphors, that lead us to understand organizations in powerful yet partial ways” (Morgan’s emphasis). He supports this thesis by explaining how organizations look when viewed through eight metaphorical lenses:

The organization as machine. An organization based on this way of seeing will be hierarchical and bureaucratic—strong on control but poor at adaptation.

The organization as organism. This type of organization understands itself as a living organism that must pay attention to its various environments as well as foster healthy development internally.

The organization as a brain. Here the emphasis is on enabling quick adaptability through “organizational intelligence,” which is achieved by establishing a minimal set of rules and then allowing employees at all levels to gather, share, and act on information.

The organization as a culture. This vantage point enables us to see organizations as meaning-making systems, with rituals, myths, heroes, values, and shared frames of reference that sustain an interpretive world, much like that of a tribe.

The organization as a political system. All organizations are “intrinsically political” because the people who work there will have diverse and conflicting interests. But conflict, coalition building, and the use of power will be more pronounced in some organizations than in others.

The organization as a psychic prison. “Organization always has unconscious significance,” Morgan asserts: People bring their egos, anxieties, repressions, and many other psychic elements to the workplace, and the organization as a whole can develop tunnel vision or neuroses. These can block positive change and even threaten organizational survival.

The organization as flux and transformation. Organizations that embrace change (and understand that change is inevitable) are more willing than others to redefine the business they’re in, question the traditional boundaries between themselves and other organizations, and let their identities continually evolve.

The organization as an instrument of domination. Organizations can and often do have a dark side, with the will to compete and expand taking precedence over regard for individuals, society, and the well-being of other countries.

As Morgan points out, his list of metaphors is not exhaustive; an organization could be like a sports team, for example, or a family. Also, several different metaphors could be operating forcefully within the same company. But Morgan’s approach enables us to see how complex organizations can be and to have useful ways of getting a grip on them.

So what’s the connection to bcomm?

I would recommend mining this book for insights into how an organization’s structure and ways of operating are likely to shape its communication practices, thereby making some communication decisions better than others. Use the book to get students to talk about the organizations they’re familiar with and to appreciate the importance of interpreting where they work. Then ask them how they’d handle a communication task, such as recommending a change in operations, within different types of organizations, or what communication channels they’d be likely to use depending on what type of company they were in.

We hope to send our students into the work world with communication skills that will help them become successful professionals. Being able to understand what kind of organization they’ve landed in may be the most foundational communication skill of all.


Actually, we do want your response to this post.

I recently led a workshop on writing email messages. After the session, one attendee (we’ll call her “Sue”) asked my thoughts on the use of NNTR (no need to reply) or NRN (no reply needed) at the end of an email. Sue attended another workshop recently where the presenter advised attendees to use NNTR and NRN to reduce the number of emails in their inbox. Sue also said her boss uses NRN and NNTR frequently in emails to office staff.

Sue finds the use of these initialisms rather rude and unsettling. To Sue, their use communicates that her boss does not think Sue or other employees have the sense to know when a response is necessary. In addition, Sue says she and her colleagues see the use of NNTR and NRN as the boss’s attempt to limit and control communication and evade employees’ questions. Sue noted several times when employees had questions regarding an email but were afraid to ask because they did not want to violate their boss’s directive to not respond.

In other words, the use of a simple initialism has created a culture of fear, intimidation, and uncertainty in her office.

Further, Sue says she and her colleagues see no harm in a polite “Thank you for the information” response to acknowledge a message. Wouldn’t a writer want to know that a message was received?

For my part, I agree with Sue. I also think the use of NNTR or NRN seems a bit lazy. Business professionals should write messages so clearly that the reader knows whether a response is needed.

What do you think about the use of NNTR or NRN? Are Sue and I out of touch and overly sensitive? Do I need to rethink my position on this? Should using NNTR and NRN be a standard practice? Are they ever appropriate? What should we advise our students?

We look forward to your thoughts.