Saturday, January 31, 2015

On Passive Aggressive Emails

A colleague  sent an email to our immediate supervisor (not the Dean, but the person with the powers of a Dean) on which I was CCd. Or, I should say: she forwarded an email exchange we had had for the past few days.

Rule #1: Don't CC people's bosses unless you are crystal clear on your intent and 100% sure that you are not misinformed.

Earlier example: At the beginning of the year, a colleague sent me this email, CCing a series of higher-ranking people:

"Dear Monkey,

I am searching for you and you do not appear to be on campus. I want to remind you that you may only have two courses, but you are required to be on campus during normal working hours."


What a shitty thing to send anyone, let alone while CCing a management person. I was with one of my bosses at a conference in Boston during this particular moment, so we were together when we received the email, and she lost points in both of our books. As a new member of our team, this was not a good move for her. And as I out-rank her, the advice was not great.

Rule #2: Do not use forwarded or CC'd emails as a way to "dig in" to someone for not doing what you want.

Current example:

"Hi Deanish,

I have been working with Dr Monkey for days now trying to achieve [belittled goal]. She has refused repeatedly to cooperate with me. Either her task load is too difficult for her, or she has access to information that I do not. Can you do something to encourage Dr Monkey to do her job?"


Passive Aggressive emailer is about to lose her job. She does not know this. She will not know this until the end of term, when her adjunct contract is up. In the meantime, she is being assigned a "mentor" to help her finish this term without screwing the students. The mentor doesn't arrive until next week.

None of this is my business, except it prevents me from doing a handful of administrative things for this poor excuse of a teacher.

Rule #3: Forwarding other people's emails is a terrible thing to do. Stop doing it unless there is a true reason, ie, forwarding emails that contain sexual or racial offensive material to HR. What she forwarded is her idea of me stonewalling her. But in it, I am short, curt, to the point, and refusing to cooperate because of instructions from the top.

Now, could this all be easier if my bosses decided how to handle regretful hires? Of course. Is that my fault or my job to rectify? No.

Can we all agree that Forwarding emails is usually a shitty thing to do, and using email for passive aggressive digs makes the person an asshole? Learn to internet.


  1. It is an awful thing to do but people are always trying to take down those above them in the hopes of getting higher positions in an organization.

  2. Yikes! Definitely bad behavior in all of the cases above, and in most cases I can think of. The only occasions I can think of on which I've forwarded emails (without cc), the emails were from students or parents who I thought might be contacting my chair (or a dean who would then contact my chair) next, and I wanted the chair to have some background (and, since, in the rare cases I've done that, the various chairs have been supportive, I think I've probably chosen my occasions reasonably well). Since I don't supervise any colleagues (and haven't had any serious disputes with my supervisors, who tend to resolve things face to face -- always the best idea -- in any case, it's hard for me to think of possible exceptions involving that situation). But generally, I think it's a good rule to treat others' emails to oneself with as much confidentiality as possible, while writing one's own emails with the possibility that others will not do the same in mind (which it sounds like you're doing already).

    It also sounds like the tension level remains pretty high around your workplace, Monkey, and like you're caught in the middle. Hope you're okay. At least it sounds like you've got a clear idea of where the boundaries of your responsibilities lie, and are effectively holding them in both directions.

    1. One additional thought (and I realize this really is, as you point out, up to your bosses): while Passive Aggressive Emailer is definitely behaving badly, she's also in a pretty strange situation, employment-wise, which stems partly from the nature of academic labor, but also strikes me as bad management on your bosses' parts. If she's an incompetent teacher, she really needs to be out of the classroom, now (even if it means paying her for the semester, and having someone else -- maybe one of said bosses? or the soon-to-arrive mentor? -- teach the class. After all, if she were hit by a bus, they'd figure something out). On the other hand, it's disingenuous to tell someone who is, in fact, going to be fired (not re-hired) at the end of her contract that she's being assigned a "mentor" (which is usually the sort of supportive move one extends to an employee one wants/intends to keep). What's more, I'm pretty sure that all of the professional associations call for informing contract employees whose contracts will not be renewed of that fact as soon as possible, so that said employees can look for other work (even if she's a bad teacher, she's a human being with bills to pay, and deserves the dignity of being told one of her sources of income, however paltry, is about to disappear).

      It sounds like she, like you, is dealing with the consequences of a shitty situation created by others (but the stakes are actually higher for her). The phrasing of her email could be a lot more diplomatic, but it also sounds like she is being sent deliberately mixed messages (gaslighted, from her point of view?), with you as at least one of the messengers. I have to admit that, while her tactics strike me as unwise, I feel some sympathy for her. I'm feeling much less sympathy for the author of the first email (though that one strikes me as pointing to potentially more serious systemic problems, since it suggests the possibility of misunderstanding/resentment over teaching loads and releases for administrative duties, and perhaps also some conflict between older and/or teaching-oriented and newer and/or administrative-oriented campus cultures).

    2. The whole management here is terrible, and part of it is that they have assigned not one but FIVE people to make decisions. Technically there is a hierarchy, but there are three paths to the top dog and it is unclear who has the final word without those three paths. So good ideas might be had by Person A, but Person B thinks they can do it for cheaper, and Person C uses the remaining administrative structure to intervene so the glory goes to him. It is bat shit crazy.

      But my administrative problems aside, I have had people use forward and reply all and CC in a way that just causes passive aggressive problems. Even when we forward an email containing offensive language or a potential complaining student, we aren't trying to be passive aggressive against that person. It's the forward and CCing that I get from various people -- colleagues in many situations, family, review editors -- and it seems like it is never a good idea.

    3. That sounds like more than a bit of a clusterf*ck. Sending good thoughts your way for survival.

      I do think there's a use for the forward and cc (or, more often, the add-a-cc), but it should always be used to draw someone -- usually someone at the same or a lower level, or where "level" is irrelevant -- into a conversation in which (s)he has an interest, or to which (s)he can bring expertise. Attempts to draw someone into making another person do something, if they're going to be made at all (and they strike me as a dubious proposition in most cases) should almost always be made privately and face to face, so one gets immediate feedback on whether the request is welcome (or at least tolerated), whether it's likely to succeed, worth any tradeoffs, etc., etc. In short, sharing or seeking info in relatively neutral situations via cc'd/forwarded email probably makes sense; trying to conduct internal politics that way is a unwise (and also annoying).

  3. Wow. That's pretty crappy. And stupid. Really, really stupid.