You could read Klaus Kleinfeld’s letter to Paul Singer, founder of activist fund Elliott Management, as a cheery “let’s get together” invitation. Mr Kleinfeld, chief executive of Arconic, the specialist metals and components company, had been under pressure from Elliott: the fund had called on Arconic’s board to sack him.
In his letter, Mr Kleinfeld wrote that he was delighted to discover that Mr. Singer was a soccer fan who had had a great time at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. People who had been with him there still talked about it, he said. “How you celebrated your soccer enthusiasm and the ‘great time’ you must have had in your Berlin weeks – unforgettable without a doubt – left a deep impression on them,” Mr. Kleinfeld wrote.
He signed off: “And by the way: ‘Singing in the Rain’ is indeed a wonderful classic – even though I have never tried to sing it in a fountain.”
Mr. Singer did not see the letter as a friendly chat. Elliott said it was clearly “a threat to intimidate and extort”. The fund sent the letter to Arconic’s board. Mr Kleinfeld left the company “by mutual agreement”.
There are lessons in the Kleinfeld affair that all human resources staff should impress on employees, from top executives to sales staff: when writing letters or (far more often these days) emails to investors, suppliers, partners or customers imagine that they are going to be made public. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to see on someone’s blog or in a newspaper.
Think hard before you press “send”. If the issue is not urgent, sleep on it. Send it the next day, or ask a colleague or superior to look it over. Once sent, the message can’t be taken back.
And finally, remember that writing can be misread. Your tone, more obvious in face-to-face talking or on the phone, is often hard to discern in a letter or email. Jokes can misfire, meaning can be misunderstood and, particularly, irony and sarcasm are often lost.
That is less likely to be the case if you already have a personal connection with the recipient. If they know your personality, quirks and sense of humour, there is a greater chance that they will not misconstrue what you say.
There is a second lesson here for HR leaders to impress on people. They should meet their most important contacts, and try to do it regularly. The ease of electronic communications today, through email, WhatsApp and other apps and devices, can give the impression you have met people you have not, or have met them more often than you think you have.
Personal encounters are the best. If Mr. Kleinfeld had discussed football with Mr. Singer face-to-face he might still have his job.