On Cleaning Up Bad Answers on Popular Questions a comment by Yamikurone says:

There seems to be a flood of "Not an answer" flags on answers on this post. Many of the answers so flagged were, in fact, trying to answer the question. If they're low quality, downvote instead please.

The fundamental issue on the post in question is that the asker is clearly asking, "How do I make my team more punctual?" while many of the answers say, "This is why you shouldn't make the team more punctual."

Are these sorts of answers appropriate?

Here is one (slightly abridged) example with +18 score:

It's possible to convince them to take it, but you'll need good arguments and there almost certainly will be lingering resentment about it. You may or may not lose good people over this.

From your description the main reason appears to be jealousy from other departments. Have you considered giving the other departments the same perk?

In short: Don't do it unless you think it's worth losing some of them over it.

The answer says it is possible, but doesn't explain how. It suggests making other teams less punctual rather than fixing the problem that the asker wants solved. It says not to do it because you may lose people when the asker clearly stated "I have the full support and backing of the senior management team and am empowered to employ whatever devices I feel appropriate to get this taken care of."

Is this an appropriate answer to the question?


'Just Quit' is generally not an appropriate answer
When 'Don't do X' is an appropriate answer

6 Answers 6


First off: I don't think that particular answer is a good one for the "Don't foo the bar" category and should be down-voted, though not necessarily closed.

Don't foo the bar!

An answer that just says that, is generally not an answer to me, since it does in fact not answer the question.

When is not-an-answer an answer?

When it explains why some premise of the question is wrong.

In the example above there are several answer that don't answer the question any more than the cited one, but they explain in more detail why the premise (that not being on time is the actual problem) is wrong or should at least be revisted and then proceed to give alternate problem interpretations with proposed solutions.

In my book, this is also in line with what the help center explains here:

Answer the question

[…] The answer can be “don’t do that”, but it should also include “try this instead”. Any answer that gets the asker going in the right direction is helpful, […]

  • 3
    Here is a better example of an answer that is attracting "not an answer" flags: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/450/… The basic gist is "This approach is a mistake. Here is my experience as to why this is a mistake. Here is a suggestion on how to solve your underlying problem". I feel that's an answer, along the lines of the help center quote Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 0:44
  • 2
    Another that is attracting flags: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/450/… The gist of that one is "here's my take on why you're getting resistance. Here are some ideas for overcoming the resistance." How on earth is that not an answer? Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 0:46
  • @Yamikuronue - That second one was experiencing the wall of text effect. The first 2 paragraphs explain why the resistance which made it read like a you are wrong to try answer, I added a tldr type line to the top which I think will help avoid that problem. I had originally downvoted and probably flagged it as well. Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 3:50
  • I would leave the first answer you quoted if there was only 3-5 answers. With 20+ answers that one should not make the cut. It does not add anything other than advertise the ops favorite self help book. It should really be flagged low quality but the lemming upvotes it has recieved prevent that Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 3:53
  • "I don't think that particular answer is a good one for the "Don't foo the bar" category and should be down-voted, though not necessarily closed." Answers usually don't get closed. Only questions get closed. Did you intent to write 'removed' instead?
    – Mast
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 14:48

Explaining the asker why fooing bars in general is a bad idea instead of explaining how to foo bar's might provide value. It might even provide more value than a straight answer, because it prevents someone from making a mistake. But it doesn't answer the question:

  1. The asker might be forced by a higher power to do this, even though they know it's a bad idea. So they must find a way to do it with a minimum amount of damage.
  2. There are special circumstances which apply which make fooing a bar a viable solution in this special case.
  3. Even when you know these circumstances don't apply to the special situation of the asker, a future visitor might be in a different situation where bar-fooing is more applicable.
  4. You might be wrong (yes, i know, that's really unlikely. I just added this point for completeness)

That's why I would recommend to structure an answer to such a question like this:

  1. Explain why you think that fooing the bar is a bad idea under these circumstances
  2. Continue with "When you are still determined to foo the bar after all the reasons I gave you to not do it, then this is what you could do:".
  3. Explain how to foo a bar causing minimal damage.

In my mind, the best answer by far was from bethlakshmi (heavily paraphrased):

As companies grow out of the start-up phase there can be growing pains and not everyone will fit. Make sure you've explained the situation properly, make sure you know what type of people fit the role, and establish a process to hire and fire to get people who can succeed in the new culture

If I were searching on google for how to handle this sort of issue, that is exactly the sort of answer I would want to find. Even progressive companies like Netflix realize that as companies grow, changes need to happen, and sometimes that means a previously great fit won't be a good fit for the new culture.

As a non-software guy, I often struggle with questions tagged with . I don't like the sense of entitlement that comes out in many of the questions as I don't think it has a good impact on us as a quality reference. Software questions get popular due to the hot question list and we end up getting Q&A that feel more like forums than they do a resource for future visitors. Do we really want answers that say things like:

"The Catholic Church had the same power during the Inquisition, look at how that turned out!"

That adds no value at all to the answer and does not reflect well on our community. That is an extreme example, but there are plenty of developers who seem to take these sorts of questions personally rather than answering them:

"As for the other workers in the company, if they didn't have the foresight to spend nights and weekends beating their heads against a Computer Science book trying to understand formal logic so they could enjoy the perks of being a developer, then frankly, that's their problem."

Sorry jmort, this just reads to me as How do I deal with the fact that I'm awesome and everyone around me sucks?

"And for devs like myself, who much prefer dodging rush hour and who get a horrendously nasty case of SAD in the winter, but can't think of any dev-friendly places closer to the equator I'd rather live, it's as big of a deal as pulling health benefits."

These comments do not contribute to our value as a resource. The policy decisions in a different company that you don't work at were made for a reason. Why not give the question the benefit of the doubt, and answer objectively based on the problem explained?

This question is old, and I think it's a great chance for us to clean up some of these to make them better reflect what we want to be. Remember what happened to "Not Programming Related". If we want to be a good resource, we need to be serious about voting up quality, not opinions we agree with.

  • 1
    I think "If you foo the bar it might have health implications for your employees with SAD" is valuable information for the site, though probably it should be phrased better than the above example. Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 0:40
  • @Yami, SAD is not a universal thing, nor would it apply to locations closer to the equator. Bringing it up is totally out of left field in most cases, and is tangential at best. Yes, people like flex time for a variety of reasons. The question isn't "Why is flex time so important?" it's "How can I get developers in their seats on time?". I don't see how discussing SAD in any way helps to answer that question.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 0:48
  • 1
    @Yamikuronue - I think it's only valuable if it forms part of an answer which basically says "This is how you foo the bar; however, I don't think you should foo the bar; this is why you shouldn't; and this is what you should do instead." Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 4:29
  • @Carson63000 I can agree with that. I'd even agree if they left off the first part and said "I don't think you should, because X, but you should Y instead, here's how" Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 11:34
  • Looking back at my answer, and many others, there is indeed a strong sense of entitlement there. So I wonder, using my post as an example, if I edited my post to be a little more objective, do you think that would resolve the issues? Up to this point, I haven't deleted any answers that said "don't do that" and that also provide a viable alternative. Many of the answers do provide alternatives, but I can't help but feel that you've made a solid point about the sense of entitlement as being something we might want to remove. This question really struck a nerve with a lot of devs.
    – jmort253
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 2:09
  • @jmort, I think that the voice certainly makes me a lot more likely to err on the "downvote" side of things, but more than that it's the content -- people aren't answering the question posed (yours does). Any answer which doesn't answer the question shouldn't have upvotes, regardless of how popular the opinions stated in them are. They can be snarky or not, show entitlement or not, but they should answer the question to even be considered in the first place.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 14:30
  • @jmac - Take a look at this answer now that I've edited it. I made the "I'm awesome and everyone else sux" a little more subtle and expanded on what the op can do to encourage the culture of punctuality.
    – jmort253
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 8:06
  • @jmort, I really like that edit. It answers the question and explains why and how to go about doing it, and where the potential pitfalls are.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 1:43

If the question is really - How can I accomplish this goal?. That is not a good goal to have is not an appropriate answer.

If the question were How can I accomplish this goal by doing Y? Then do not do Y may be an appropriate answer.

In the example question the OP wants to accomplish a goal, that goal is to get people to arrive in time for team meetings on a regular basis. Telling them that it is a bad goal is not helpful. So no it should not be acceptable and should be flagged as not an answer and down-voted and the answers removed.

If the goal is blatantly abusive or illegal we can say that and close the question saying that we can not help break the law. But we should not be providing answers that say you should not do that.

  • 1
    Fully agreed with all but the last paragraph. I'm (relatively) sure that in the US it is illegal to deny breaks (particularly bathroom breaks) to employees entirely, but that may not be the case in other countries. If a manager from Nobreakistan asks how he can deal with an employee that takes too-frequent bathroom breaks, I don't think it should be closed because the question would be an issue in the US. US members are free to downvote and/or ignore it, but closing it because it offends our sensitivities is a slippery slope for our content.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 5:53
  • @Jmac - I was thinking more blatantly criminally illegal rather than something that may violate some statute. Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 9:09
  • And where is the line between 'blatantly criminally illegal' and 'violating some statute'. For instance, much of Southeast Asia has the death penalty for trafficking in even smaller amounts of drugs. I would call that 'violating some statute' in the US considering the current climate regarding drugs. And even less so in the UK. That doesn't mean that we should have people from Indonesia or Malaysia or Singapore coming in and closing any question that mentions drug tests or the like as it is blatantly illegal to them. Perspective goes both ways, and all that jazz.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 15:19
  • (Mind, drug possession has nothing to do with TWP and would be closed as off-topic on that basis. Just using this as an example where the line between 'blatantly illegal' and 'violating some statute' is blurred. I think the same issue applies to a question about beating children with a switch asked on parenting.se. That may horrify Americans, but it's a part of discipline in Singapore schools are not even a violation of some statute. Downvote? Sure. But close? I think that is a fine line to try to tread and I'm going to avoid it personally. Your close vote is your own, naturally)
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 15:21
  • @jmac - I do not know how a blatantly illegal question could be on topic here, and I do not want to encourage anyone by suggesting some. But I think most of us know it when we see it. Is the question one that might be reasonable to ask? I also think that history of the person asking it comes into play. A new user or one with a history ofposting bad questions gets less slack than someone like Beth or Monica Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 15:50
  • Your first two paragraphs are great, but your third paragraph completely misses the fact that there are always underlying goals. Socrates-style, the advice might be: acknowledge the question and then ask, "Why do you want to do that?" over and over until the answer isn't a doingness anymore.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 0:53
  • @wildcard - They "Underlying" or hidden goals are not something this site should be concerned about in 99% of the cases. Certianly if a question has a "stink" of trying to accomplish one thing but saying its something else or is really just being asked to make a point it is ok to point that out in comments, and close the question. Answers are not a place to address that. Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 16:13

How would you answer the question "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?"

"Yes" and "no" are the only literal answers. If either of those were selected, it would be acknowledging the hidden assumption that you beat your wife. In this case, the best answer is not to answer the question directly, but to challenge its assumptions. "I don't beat my wife, and I would never do such a thing" might be a good answer, or "I'm not married", even though neither directly answers the question. If directly answering would be a trap, best not to fall into it.

In general, every question is really two questions: the literal question asked, and an implied question of "this is my wording of a question, the circumstances surrounding it, and my assumptions; what should I do?". Sometimes the literal question is a great question; sometimes not so much. If the literal question is fine, it should be answered, and maybe the implied one too, if it's different enough from the literal one. If the literal question betrays a bad assumption on the part of the question asker, the implied question is the one that needs an answer, although the literal question might still be worth answering too.

In the question you link, there is an assumption that having a culture of punctuality on a software development team is indispensable -- even more important than having your developers get their work done well. Many developers reacted with horror to this assumption. This is not bad, and does contribute to this site as a resource. A manager with a similar set of presumptions could easily run across this question and find out that developers are likely to be rather sensitive about this issue (and why they respond like that). That is a more useful outcome than if the same manager ran across a prescription for how to lay down the law, implemented it, and ended up chasing away his best developer and reducing the rest of the team's morale.

Towards the end of your question, you ask (as I read it) if questions like "My senior managers are supportive of my implementing [bad idea]. How do I do it?" should be required to answer the literal question (How do I do it?). In my opinion, no, they should not be required to. The important thing to say is that [bad idea] is a bad idea.

  • 2
    This is discussing what an appropriate answer is, not what an appropriate question is. "Have you stopped beating your wife?" is a totally red herring in this discussion, and does not accurately reflect the type of question this is referring to at all (nor the type of question that would be considered on-topic on SE in general). In the question I link, the manager was told to make the developers punctual. It wasn't, "What should I do?" or "What should software companies set as policy on punctuality?" Ignoring the question asked should not be something we approve of here.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 1:42
  • 3
    @jmac: I don't understand your first objection. You clearly asked about appropriate answers, which I discussed, not appropriate questions. I never said "Have you stopped beating your wife?" was a question that could appear on an SE site; its purpose is to be an example of a question where a good answer can't literally address the question, where a good answer has to challenge the assumption(s) in the question. From reading the question, it doesn't appear the manager was told to make them punctual, it looks like something he decided to do himself. Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 4:31
  • 2
    Finally, I agree with you that "Ignoring the question asked should not be something we approve of here." However, that isn't what I'm advocating here, nor do I think that that's what was done in the question you link. If we were to make all answers contain a literal answer to the literal question, whether or not that makes sense, all we'd get is answers that have a token literal answer tacked on solely to fulfill that rule. Tacking on "Well, you could just fire everybody, not that that would solve your problems" would save all those answers, but not add anything. Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 4:46
  • 3
    In real life, there are limitations on what we can do. This is why we are strict on "Just Quit" answers. Just because it may solve the problem doesn't mean it's a realistic solution. For whatever reason, this person wants developers to be punctual. You can state that it shouldn't be required if you'd like, but for all you know his bosses could have said, "Have them come in on time or you're fired." In that case, all the alternatives in the world won't help. People will find this question via google presumably because they are looking for an answer. If there is no answer, our value drops.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 4:54
  • 2
    Tacking on an answer saying 'just fire everyone' would violate our back it up rule. If the only way to get developers to be punctual is to fire them all, then explain why, give reasoning, and explain what alternatives may have better success. I am not proposing that we start allowing poor answers that follow some rule, I want to ensure that the information we have will be useful to people with that question in the future so we build a better resource.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 4:57
  • 1
    @jmac: If he had been told by his bosses to make them punctual or be fired, it would have been a very different question. If someone finds this question by googling, but is in the uncomfortable position of having his job on the line and not having a choice in the matter, he will realize relatively quickly that this is a different question than his. That's not really a failure of this site; there are plenty of questions that resemble other questions without answering the other question that wasn't actually asked. Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 5:24
  • 4
    Non-literal answers are valuable if accompanied by a literal answer to contrast why the non-literal approach is better. If you do not know how to get developers to be punctual, then I strongly feel you should not answer the question. You assume these are 'good people'. You assume there isn't a 'culture of trust'. You assume that he doesn't have his team's respect. All for the sake of telling him what you would want him to do if he were your manager. That does not make it a good answer no matter how much you personally believe it because it doesn't explain how to solve the problem.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 5:41
  • 4
    "The question asker misidentified the problem" -- bollocks. Allow me to be blunt. The author in this case supplied us with a follow-up. 2/5 members were let go. The remaining ones are coming in on time. The asker has been promoted and given a new similar assignment. It seems like he successfully identified the problem, fixed it, and was rewarded for it. Bringing up the red herring of tacking on answers is beside the point. If you cannot provide guidance to the author, comment to clarify, or pass on providing an answer. Belittling the asker because you disagree is not kosher in my book.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 7:41
  • 3
    Maybe you think he gained nothing (despite being promoted) or that this hurt the company (which is 100% speculation on your part). Does that help achieve the goal of being a better resource? If not, I urge you to rethink your premises. Answers are not to share your own agenda with the asker, they are to provide quality answers to the question asked. If you cannot do that, I will flag the answer.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 23:56
  • 1
    It is not speculation that his actions cost the company something significant, but it is speculation that he was promoted for his handling of working hours. His actions cost the company 40% of his team, along with all their accumulated knowledge of the business and the codebase, required recruiting 2 more people, and then required getting the new people up to speed -- which likely required taking a significant amount of time from the remaining programmers. Was this price worth paying? We know that when he was asked why, he couldn't give a convincing reason, so likely it wasn't. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 6:01
  • 5
    In general, I will flag any answer that won't answer the question. If you answered a question insisting on sharing why you think the asker is wrong without making an attempt to answer the question they asked, I will flag it as not an answer in line with the above post. You seem to think it's okay to not answer the question. I don't. The community will end up deciding in the end, but speculating on the inner business workings of a company is far more effort (for far less benefit) than just answering the question, or voting and moving on if you can't.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 6:37
  • 2
    While we welcome anyone to participate in our meta, it generally helps if you have a good grasp of our community. That question has not been approved by the community, it is a symptom of the hot question list which is why we are trying to clean it up. The goal is not to discuss that one question, but the general principle it exhibits -- people not answering the question asked. As you can see from the answers above, the community feels questions should be answered.
    – jmac
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 8:02
  • 1
    Take a look at the stats you give in your 'cleaning up' answer. It appears that of the top 7 answers (which I consider good answers), 6 of them gained votes while the question was being targeted for cleanup. That is the sign of a good answer to the question that the community approves of, not a flood of noobs randomly clicking buttons. I think the question was good too, and I think the fact that it's listed as +72 in your stats but at +79 now bears that out. It looks like a good question with good answers at the top, with a little bit of chaff at the bottom. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 8:58
  • 4
    We always answer the literal question, answering the non-literal is optional / additional. This is because even if the original asker was asking the wrong question, future searchers might not be, and it would lead to an aggravating situation where every question they found that matched their terms was answering the non-literal question. Therefore always answer the literal with your knowledge, if you then wish to answer the non-literal that can be done so too to provide additional value and help to all searchers
    – user5305
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 10:21
  • 5
    To summarise, we are not saying 'never answer the non-literal' we encourage you to do so, but please also answer the literal, as that is, after all the question, that is being asked. Hope this clears things up!
    – user5305
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 10:22

To be a little more general than the question (which I guess may immediately get me attacked as being non-responsive to the exact question): When should we question the premise of a question?

If the premise has some minor technical flaw, one could of course just correct the flaw and move on to an answer. Like if someone asked, "Since unemployment rose to 8% in April, how should my company ..." If unemployment really hit 8% in March, you might say, "Actually it reached that level in March but ..." and then go on to answer the question. A response like, "Your question is unanswerable because unemployment did not 'rise to 8%' in April" is unhelpful and unnecessary. (Assuming there is not some reason why the date is critical.)

One can easily imagine a question based on a flawed premise that makes a direct answer worthless. Like, "Now that Congress has abolished H1B visas, am I still required to provide English lessons for foreign-born workers?" As Congress has not abolished H1B visas and employers never were required to provide English lessons, it's difficult to see how one could give a direct answer to the question that would have any meaning at all. The only meaningful or useful answer would be to point out the flawed premise.

And then you get questions like this one. "How do I do foo the bar?", when fooing is (in the opinion of the person answering) a bad idea. I think opinions on this are likely to be tainted by one's own opinion of whether it is a good idea.

Suppose someone asked, "My co-worker is rude to me and I hate him. How can I get him fired?" Would you really insist that the only valid, acceptable answers are those that discuss how to spread vicious rumors, make false accusations, sabotage his work, etc? Or would a good answer be one that explains why this is a bad idea, perhaps offers suggestions for getting along with co-workers?

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .