My answer to How to handle a subordinate's inability to provide adequate customer service due to their personal/family issues? was downvoted aggressively. Some comments that appear under the original post indicate that this turns out to be a classroom exercise and probably isn't 'real'.

Moderators tend to like 'to the point answers' - Did you answer the question that was asked? When I meet people face to face and they pose questions like this, I generally challenge the assumptions behind the question. In many cases there is a 'cultural slant' - one can see differences between, for instance, people in Asia and the Middle East, and people in North America - sometimes due to the question itself, other times due to the language. Regardless of where they're from, a lot of people seek work for a big company in a full time role that has recruiting staff and HR people. In such circumstances they are either unaware of or refuse to consider alternative scenarios - a changed approach may get them what they want.

What I've learned from the real world is one is often asking the wrong question. Therefore my responses are designed to get the OP to rethink the framework. Maybe it's appropriate to precede the answer with a disclaimer, maybe there should be a link to a topic somewhere else that explores the alternative.

Where, or what, is the dividing line between 'alternative approach' and 'simply immaterial'?

  • Do those down-voters participate in meta?
    – CMW
    Nov 28, 2013 at 16:55
  • @CMW - They show up all over the place discussing other questions in meta. Nov 28, 2013 at 18:37
  • I don't know who it was that voted down, that's why I was wondering.
    – CMW
    Nov 28, 2013 at 19:19
  • 1
    I didn't know it was possible for anyone to see who voted on an answer?? Nov 29, 2013 at 0:32
  • 8
    Nobody knows who voted down. I don't even know if jmort has access to that info as the site moderator. Also, Meredith, the site is community-owned and 'moderators' aren't the ones doing the majority of voting, but rather us (the community). Unlike forums, SE is about community management and collaboration.
    – jmac
    Nov 29, 2013 at 1:20
  • @jmac All moderators see in regards to voting is suspicious voting patterns, and only after certain thresholds. So, for example, if I go and downvote 50% of your posts, the mods will know (but they won't know which posts I've downvoted).
    – yannis
    Nov 30, 2013 at 20:21

5 Answers 5


You provided a wall of text of your opinion with no references or citations to back you up. You made quite a few claims of fact about culture and expectations, those really need a citation back up your opinion and analysis of the problem is not what we are looking for.

And then in the end I reread this answer 5 times and I still do not know what point you were trying to make. It seems to be more of a lecture on the taboo of using the word secretary than an attempt to answer the question of how to deal with an employee who is letting personal problems interfer with their job.

And finally some of us(or at least I) do not like answers to questions that are clearly out of scope of the SE. The answer makes it harder to edit the question to bring it on topic. An edit to this question would be possible but any edit is likely to invalidate the existing answers. So if the question should be closed, do not answer right away. If you do you are likely to get a few downvotes as penalty. I personally have not voted yet... I am not sure If i will or not.

The thing to remember is that we are not actually here to solve the specific problem of the user but to provide a reference that future users can use to solve their own problem. Your answer got me no closer to dealing with our CSR that also is having problems providing customer service because of personal issues.

  • I was adding a comment here and realized I should edit the answer in the original post, which I have done. You might see the answer you were looking for now. The entire point of my response is that one employee's temporary distraction should not paralyze the organization or the department. The organization needs restructuring if that kind of situation can cause any harm. Nov 28, 2013 at 19:03
  • 'No references or citations' - While these are nice (and with some work I can find them), not all answers are going to have gobs of links pointing to third party validations. Anyone reading the post knows whether the cultural assumptions apply to them. Laying these out explains how (and possibly why) things are different in various parts of the world, and what might drive cultural shifts. Someone can be on the leading or trailing edge of those shifts, and not realize their situation unless someone brings it up 'out of the blue'. Nov 28, 2013 at 19:15
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    @MeredithPoor: meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/a/1894/437
    – Jim G.
    Nov 29, 2013 at 2:21
  • 2
    You asked why you got down votes I explained. We have a back it up principle. If you do not like it then you should probably find somewhere else to post. We expect quality answers, and a quality answer of the size you like to post is going to have good solid references to all claims of fact. If you continue to ignore this then you will continue to get downvotes. Nov 29, 2013 at 4:18
  • @Chad: FWIW - I agree with paragraphs 1, 2, & 3; but disagree with paragraph 4. If you remove it, ping me, and I'll gladly upvote this answer.
    – Jim G.
    Nov 29, 2013 at 16:37
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    @JimG. I have no intention of removing it because it is the truth about SE. It is not about solving the specific problem but building a resource to be helpful to others in the future. Any answer that is only applicable to the specific user is not worth having on the site. Nov 30, 2013 at 3:37

I really appreciate you bringing this to meta constructively, and I'm hoping this information will help you find some techniques to help make your writing a little more direct while still preserving your own uniqueness in your writing style, as uniqueness is important. The challenge I see is it's not always clear what actions you're suggesting the asker take to solve his/her problem. That's not to say your posts don't contain that information, but I find I have to reread several times to figure out what you're saying.

Basically, to sum it up, try being more direct in your answers, and immediately make it clear what you think the asker must do to solve his or her problem. Describe how to approach the problem. Only then should you follow with experiences that support that actionable topic sentence and other information that you feel is important.

For most of us reading for the first time, it appears that you picked a keyword out of the asker's question, the word "secretary", for instance, and then proceeded to write an essay on how the word "secretary" is a leftover archetype of the 1950's. You do mention the asker should change his work culture, but it's not clear how he should begin doing this, as you only mention this briefly at the end as if it's an afterthought. Instead, center your post around what actions to take to effectively make that change happen.

What's more, your posts could benefit from using headings to help organize your thoughts. Also, use an active voice in lieu of a passive voice.


We have a user on our site, and on Project Management SE, who writes long answers, and what I've learned from this user's posts is that it's much easier to get the point across when using an active voice versus a passive voice. Telling the asker immediately what actions he or she must take brings clarity to the posts and sets the tone for where your writing takes the reader. Here is one of CodeGnome's answers on our site.

You may also find that using headings that clearly state what each paragraph is about will help others parse your content much easier. For instance, CodeGnome uses headlines such as, "Don't guess, ask" or in this other example answer from another site, "Fix your process, then pick a tool", to clearly indicate what actions the asker should take and what each paragraph is about.

The TL;DR isn't necessary, in my opinion, but having a clear, actionable topic sentence may prove helpful.

For more writing tips, please see Daily Writing Tips - Active Voice, which describes how using an active voice will not only make your writing more concise but also make it easier for people to read, which helps make your intentions clearer and eliminate confusion.


First, thanks for coming here. In my first days on StackExchange it took me a while to get used to "how things work." The Q/A format is considerably different than 99% of other internet sites, which tend to be forums and considerably more "just drop your thoughts into a thread and that's fine."

I'll be completely honest, most of your answers seem filled with bitter "back in my day" and "nom nom nom everything is about the software industry" personal anecdotes rather than answering a question. I've also not voted on that particular answer for what it's worth.

A few people here have made reference to some "back it up" ideas. Here's how I basically vote on answers on this site.

  1. Does it answer the question? A lot of answers here are interesting but ultimately don't answer the question being asked.
  2. Does it attempt to explain why it's correct? Many answers here also basically are drive by "here's my 2 cents!" without explaining why. This is what I interpret "back it up" as - does an answer include justification as to why the reader should believe it?
  3. Is it helpful? This is normally when I determine to upvote (the other two generally are criteria which invite downvotes if not successful). Helpful answers which answer the question and have some justification for why they are right get upvotes from me.

With respect to your answer here, the core question being asked was not "should we reclassify our secretaries?" which is what you answered. The problem the OP has doesn't relate to your answer at all - perhaps in a minor sense. But literally everything other than

The right approach in this situation has less to do with discipline or replacing an employee as it does with creating a working environment that handles contingencies and respects people's skills and responsibilities.

doesn't really relate to the question (see my first bullet point).


I like your answer (except for that first sentence) and think it contains good food for thought. It is not directly answering the question, but I'm all for giving different views or answering questions the OP "didn't even think to ask".

I don't think there is such a thing as a clear dividing line. It's very much personal impression, what is considered helpful in which case and so just going ahead and talking about some very different point of view can come across like it's off topic, or the question wasn't read properly.

I suggest not passing over the question placed, when suggesting alternative approches. We should either give short 'to the point answers' or refer to other existing answers we agree with and point out that there may also be another view on this topic, before going ahead with an alternative.


Executive Summary

You clearly have a ton of insight in to your field and your profession, and those are both great attributes. You put effort in to your answers, and that is great too. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean it's a great fit for the Stack Exchange Format.

Where, or what, is the dividing line between 'alternative approach' and 'simply immaterial'?

Whether or not your question will be helpful to people with a similar problem who come across your answer to the question via a search engine. If your answer is too localized to that specific asker or to a specific industry or a specific point in time, people who come across it from a search engine with slightly different details will be unable to use it.

The Stack Exchange Concept

Our questions/answers are more like encyclopedia articles than they are conversations. What we want to be left with is a question with a clear answer that explains a solution so that people who wander in from a search engine have something to help them with their problem with slightly different specifics.

What I've learned from the real world is one is often asking the wrong question.

If you are face-to-face, and working in a setting where there is a back-and-forth, then this is absolutely the correct approach. Ask questions. Figure out what the real details of this specific situation are, correct any misconceptions, and create an approach that works for that specific situation.

If you look at my edit history, you will see that this is exactly what I try to do with my aggressive edits. I try to back up the question one step to ask about the broader picture, allowing the person asking to re-evaluate their stance by looking at their own situation from a more objective place. In the end the question still helps the person, but it also helps future users who don't have the same specifics, but are suffering from the same problem (and may be asking the same wrong question).

If you are looking to give customized answers for each person, I recommend a forum of some sort, but the SE approach is very different from forums which is why what works in other mediums does not work well here. When you focus on the specific details instead of the general problem, the answer becomes a one-off of little lasting value to the community.

Other SE Quirks

Some comments that appear under the original post indicate that this turns out to be a classroom exercise and probably isn't 'real'.

As Chad pointed out, as a community we tend to dislike answers to questions that should be closed because it sends the message that even if it isn't appropriate according to site guidelines, posting the question will still get answers. Even if the answer is good, we want our users to show restraint in answering bad questions to make sure we can maintain good quality content for future users.

Moderators tend to like 'to the point answers' - Did you answer the question that was asked?

As explained in my comment, the moderators have very little to do with voting (we have 2 active moderators, so at most they can represent 2 downvotes). The community in general does not frown on longer answers. Here are my top 5 answers, their score, and their word counts:

  1. Boss does not answer questions, +67, 1,068 words
  2. How do I resign when I know my employer will lose a big client when I leave?, +62, 421 words
  3. How do you explain to your boss they're wrong without making them feel threatened?, +41, 945 words
  4. What projects can I write in my resume if all my company projects are confidential?, +39, 376 words
  5. How can I respond to an employee who objects to working on certain projects on ethical grounds?, +35, 208 words

For reference, your answer is 714 words, which is slightly above the 604 average of these questions

The length is not the issue. However, as you point out, there is an expectation that you answer the question that is being asked. Since this is a resource where future hits will mostly come from search engines, answers that do not answer the question asked are going to be less useful to someone than answers that do. If you aren't tying what you say to how it affects the answer, then it isn't even easy to apply regardless of how useful the information in the answer is.

  • I am in complete agreement on the idea that these answers appear from search engine queries - I've been a user of Stack Overflow for years. Furthermore, I've been frustrated sometimes with 'bad answers' or 'no answers' on Stack Overflow, I recall having to search three or four times before I got something helpful. Sometimes search results come through the answers, not the questions. In such circumstances people 'trip over' your site looking for something else. Variety is a favorable attribute in this circumstance. Nov 29, 2013 at 2:14
  • This phrase: 'From the senior manager's perspective, two egos' is top ranked on Google. I had to try about four phrases that one might try searching on to find one that shows up on the first page. While this is a bit of a stretch, it shows that someone could be phrasing a search in these terms and land on this page. Nov 29, 2013 at 2:32
  • We are a beta site with a small number of questions and few outside links so far. Our results will not pop up to the top when there are so many blogs and sites devoted to discussing workplace issues at the moment. However, in three years, if we create quality content that people link to, we will start moving up in that respect. For instance, my highest voted question has over 50k views in the 9 months since it was posted. Something is drawing people to it (it is in the top 5 views for questions). That will happen more with time.
    – jmac
    Nov 29, 2013 at 3:57

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