When to Say Jump

On Managerial Boundaries and Weekend Texting

This week’s Times “Corner Office” interview, which is not usually a feature known for provocation or controversy, features Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini and it’s going a tiny bit viral because she has an unconventional test for potential hires:

Here’s something I do: If you’re in the process of interviewing with us, I’ll text you about something at 9 p.m. or 11 a.m. on a Sunday just to see how fast you’ll respond.
What’s the right response time?
Within three hours. It’s not that I’m going to bug you all weekend if you work for me, but I want you to be responsive. I think about work all the time. Other people don’t have to be working all the time, but I want people who are also always thinking.

Personally, if I were a job seeker and someone with whom I’d just interviewed texted me on a Sunday, I might think he or she was a little unhinged. There’s an appropriate follow up to a job interview, and it’s generally not, I’ll text you on the weekend.

But worse, it’s not even a good test for whether someone is generally responsive, or, as Nardini puts it, “always thinking.” How someone responds to a non-emergency during off-hours has no bearing on how they respond during agreed upon work time to an actual employer, or how they respond to urgent requests out of office. If your job candidate is an adult and has an IQ somewhere above sea level, he or she knows the difference between URGENT and I AM JUST TEXTING YOU THIS RELATIVELY UNIMPORTANT THING BECAUSE I DON’T VALUE YOUR TIME OR REASONABLE PROFESSIONAL BOUNDARIES.

As for whether your candidate is “always thinking”, I’m not sure how responding to a text is in any way indicative of anything other than whether the candidate responds to text quickly. There are many, many preteens who respond to texts within milliseconds of receiving them because their prefrontal cortexes appear to have developed a uniquely generational adaptation to infinite digital notifications. But I would never presume that this means they are “always thinking” about… anything, really.

If you want to know if your candidate is always thinking about your business, you can find this out in a fairly straightforward fashion: ask them what they think, wait a while, ask them again, and see how their thinking has evolved. Or, in other words: have an ongoing conversation with them like a normal human being.

Another question the interview raises is how and when it’s appropriate to contact your staff after hours. I don’t think there’s a black and white answer to this, but if you have any respect for your staff’s time and personal lives (and even people who don’t “believe” in work/life balance generally have something resembling the latter), the answer to that should not be “whenever I feel like it.” If you need that desperately to make sure your staff jumps when you say jump, the issue isn’t their competency, it’s your insecurity.

And if you’re hiring smart people, they won’t tolerate it. They know the difference between an issue that needs addressing in a timely fashion and a nihilistic test of their supposed responsiveness. You are paying them to understand what’s urgent and what’s not and to prioritize, and when you make them jump through hoops just to demonstrate that you can, you undermine that.

It’s inevitable in most companies that some things do actually need to be done during non-work hours. But there should be an escalation ladder in place to deal with these things, and agreed upon norms about what’s appropriate. Personally, my team uses Slack and snoozes notifications on weekends, so we dip in and out at our own convenience. Important, time-sensitive things warrant texts or calls, but we all know what actually constitutes an important, time-sensitive thing.

Notably, Nardini describes her management style as “punishing.” And barraging your staff with around the clock non-urgent requests is punishing — by itself, and to no end.

And it’s unnecessary. If you’re in a startup that’s actually moving at the speed it should be, it’s going to be punishing enough. You don’t need to introduce curve balls to see if your staff can hit them. The market, your customers, your burn, your time, unanticipated problems, delays: you’ll get enough curve balls as it is. Conserve your staff’s energy for the ones that matter.

This kind of thing is also a recipe for burnout and turnover. And not because people lack stamina, though some might, but if everyone’s firing on all cylinders with no downtime, even the most motivated and talented employees will hit a wall — in part because they’re never going to have the same incentives as the founder / CEO, even if they’re well compensated and equity is part of the package. And if you do not build in time for physical and creative regeneration, everyone’s work will suffer. No one works 80 hours a week productively and at some point, excessive time in the office points to time management problems, not strong work ethics.

Which brings us to the last thing about this interview that deserves some scrutiny. Nardini says that work ethic is the most important quality in any employee. I would consider a good work ethic a prerequisite. But I also believe in working smarter, not just harder — and certainly not harder for its own sake, which does nothing to build your company faster or better. And prioritization has to happen across the board at every level of the company. So when you, as a manager, demand that everyone jump because you say so, you are reprioritizing for them. If there isn’t a good reason for it (other than making you feel confident that your employees will do whatever you tell them to, whenever you want, which is more a test of compliance and malleability than it is for commitment, engagement or responsiveness), you are throwing a needless monkey wrench into your own machine.

Throw too many of them in there, and it’s going to stop working. People are not going to respect your own ability to prioritize, because it looks like you’re incapable of it. Nihilistic demands also tell your staff that you don’t respect them as full human beings who have needs and interests outside of your company. Nardini seems to think she’s recruiting an employee type who has neither, but that type doesn’t exist. Your staff will always have needs outside of employment and your best talent will always have scopes of interest that extend beyond your firm. Top performers learn quickly and often on their own. They have vision that extends beyond their immediate tasks and they probably have a career arc in mind that is much broader than what you are trying to achieve in the next 12 months. It’s your job as a manager to align your mutual interests, not to disregard theirs and demand that they crowbar themselves into yours.

Lastly, if you churn through people as if they’re just bots at your disposal, you will see it in the work. And it won’t be a failure on their part, it’ll be failure of leadership on yours. It is much harder to motivate people than to just tell them what to do and when to do it. It’s harder to build a team that’s structured around mutual incentives with plans for individual development than it is to just decide that everyone needs to be available 24/7 and devote none of their remaining mental energies to anything but the narrow constraints of their job. It’s easier to come up with arbitrary one-data-point “tests” for whether employees are sufficiently on their toes or devoted than to suss that out by investing in getting to know and understand them.

It is also lazy. And therein lies the irony. If you want your employees to have a good work ethic, you need to display one too, and that goes beyond being in the office all of the time, or sending messages at odd hours. It means setting an example through actual leadership and not simple corporate totalitarianism.

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