This is a story about President-elect Joe Biden, and a letter that he wrote to his staff that just became public.
The letter is from 2014, when the president-elect was serving in his second term as vice president. It runs only 126 words, after the simple greeting, “To My Wonderful Staff:”
From there, it goes like this:
I would like to take a moment and make something clear to everyone. I do not expect nor do I want any of you to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work.
Family obligations include but are not limited to family birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, any religious ceremonies such as first communions and bar mitzvahs, graduations, and time of need such as an illness or a loss in the family.
This is very important to me. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if I find out that you are working with me while missing important family responsibilities, it will disappoint me greatly. This has been an unwritten rule since my days in the Senate.
Thank you for all the hard work.
This is a heck of a letter, and it’s unsurprising that it’s gone semi-viral after it was shared on social media recently.
I would have written this same column if it had been President Trump’s letter, by the way. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or something else politically, I hope you’ll deconstruct it and pull three key things from it:
First, it lets everyone know the boss’s priorities.
We’ll get to the empathy of the message below, but I think the easily overlooked part of this message is contained in two passages–where Biden says he wants to “make something clear to everyone,” and reiterates that the rules he’s laying out are “very important to me.”
Nothing disheartens a team like being unsure what the boss considers to be truly important. Here, Biden takes the time to record in writing that he wants his staff to put their personal lives ahead of work in certain circumstances — and that if they don’t, “it will disappoint me greatly.”
Not much room for confusion there.
Second, it’s incredibly empathetic.
This is the core of the message — Biden telling his team that he expects them to set priorities, and that work is not always the top priority.
We can probably put Biden on the couch and think about why he felt it was important to say this, considering the difficult moments in his life: the story of how he lost his first wife and his daughter in a car crash in 1972, and the fact that his son Beau had battled cancer.
(At the time of this letter, the younger Biden’s cancer was in remission, although he later died after its recurrence.)
But even not knowing his personal story, you can imagine that this is the kind of message that builds loyalty and respect. Frankly, it’s the kind of message you probably would want to communicate to your team. But do you actually take the time to do it?
Finally, I think we should note what the message doesn’t say.
It certainly doesn’t suggest that work should never be a big priority. Note the kinds of things that Biden didn’t include among “important family obligations.”
For example, he doesn’t list family vacations, or leaving work to go watch a son or daughter’s sporting event or performance.
Maybe those things would be allowed to take priority sometimes, maybe they wouldn’t, but the letter simply doesn’t go that far.
But making clear that there are limits to what might be expected doesn’t undermine the importance of the work that people were doing, or their dedication to their jobs.
Now maybe you read this and think: What’s the big deal? Of course I wouldn’t want my team members missing on something like a family wedding, or a funeral, or an important religious ceremony for work.
But if so, I’ll ask you three key questions:
Does your team know that?
Especially: Do the newest members of your team, who haven’t been around as long and maybe don’t feel quite as secure in their positions, know that?
Have you taken the time to remind them all, by putting it in writing?
Here’s your chance. It’s probably something you’d want them to be doing anyway. And, it’s a simple leadership gesture that could pay big dividends.