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So, I ran into an issue today. Generally, when I'm emailing someone to remind them that they've done something incorrectly, I limit the scope to them, their manager1, and my manager. I try to be courteous and not broadcast that they screwed up. I'm not in a position to take any action against them and if it's bad enough their manager can decide what to do with it (99 times out of 100 it should just be dismissed as "Oh well", and usually is).

So over the weekend I received an email on Saturday and hadn't responded (in our company it's perfectly acceptable to not check your email on your off hours, if it's really important our cell phones are available in the company directory) by Sunday. The individual with the email resent it Sunday morning, and then again this (Monday) morning and this time attached several people above both of us in the food chain. He also indicated that I had been ignoring him.

You can probably guess by now, his original issue is between the keyboard and the chair, and has nothing to do with the software he was working with. I'd like to gently remind him of this, but if I do my usual closed scope, it will look to the cadre of Imperial Bosses that got cc'd on the damn thing that I'm not doing anything on my end. How can I defuse this situation before it escalates (further) ?


1 - When working with other teams, it's company policy that the team manager be CC'd to keep them abreast of what's going on.

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"cadre of Imperial Bosses" This strongly suggests a language barrier (you may not recognize how insulting this is in English) or perhaps a bit of an attitude on your part. – Cerad Mar 9 at 12:37
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@Cerad I'm native English, and certainly have never heard this term. I came up with a (what I thought) was a rather humorous and off the cuff way of referencing people in the management chain who are more than three levels above me in management. The kind of people who wear a suit and tie daily (ergo the widely held pejorative term for these types being "Suits") and can on a whim change the direction of a couple hundred people's day to day activities . – Sidney Mar 9 at 15:33
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@Sidney While I've never been a member of the Imperial Bosses, I have had good relationships with mine and I don't think any of them would find it insulting either. Anyway, the only thing I might make sure I do is to point out to my boss that all those emails were back to back on the weekend in case your boss doesn't think to look at the timestamps on the chain. – Dean MacGregor Mar 9 at 15:42

10 Answers 10

up vote 124 down vote accepted

Let your manager handle this. Now that it has gone up the chain your manager will want to handle the narrative. If your manager tells you to reply and cc all then fine - but let that call come from your manager. You should not bypass your manager just because someone else did. As stated in one of the comments this has rapidly transitioned from a technical problem to a political problem.

Review your original email to see if you could make the explanation more clear.

Imperial bosses don't want to be in the middle of this and get more email. What if one of them not familiar with the software actually reads it and does not conclude the problem is between the seat and keyboard? Why would you want to get yourself into this mess?

This person is flat out of line. To go to a cadre of imperial bosses over a weekend and state you have ignored them is just plain unprofessional. Don't perpetuate the protocol problem by also going directly to a cadre of imperial bosses. You don't need to show their behavior is inappropriate - they are doing a fine job of that them self. You owe them no apology. Yes they got frustrated and escalated but their frustration is not your problem. If weekend support is a problem then that should go to your boss. If they want help with understanding how to use/fix the software then fine - that is your job.

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If he's included upper management in his email to you, it's perfectly reasonable to simply reply-all in your response. Presumably, management would want to know the resolution of an issue that's been brought to their attention.

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Hit "Reply All" but start off with a "Moving Mr Jones and Ms Smith to bcc to avoid cluttering their inbox with the support request," and then proceed with your response. Your higher-ups will see that you are handling the problem and will appreciate not being annoyed with material that doesn't concern them.

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I would apologize for not being able to check your email this weekend. I would simply put it that you were not aware that he/she was having the issue, that you were not ignoring them simply unable to check your email this weekend. This is not admitting responsibility for the issue or that you should be checking your email it is just addressing and deescalating the senders belief that they are being ignored.

Then explain professionally and courteously what the problem is and how they can solve it.

The courtesy will reflect well on you, and the discourtesy that they user showed you will reflect poorly on them. No need for you to do anything else. Since the OP CC'd everyone I would probably reply to all, but if you are unsure about that you can always ask your manager who needs to be included in your response.

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You should treat this as you normally would as nothing out of the ordinary happened here. The imperial bosses will know that you are not expected to be checking your email over the weekend and will in turn dismiss as "oh well".

In your response you should defuse the situation by apologizing for their misguided expectations* and give them your preferred way of contacting you on the weekend:

Hi Colleague,

Sorry for the long response time - I am not generally reachable via email over the weekend. If you have an urgent matter in the future, please feel free to reach me at the phone number provided in the company directory (XXX-XXX-XXXX).

To your concern,

...

HPierce

Presumably, answering this email falls within your standard responsibilities and you would not involve your manager in it normally. The "escalation" here shouldn't change that. I would not expect your manager to have an opinion for minor things like this. The issue was directed to you, and you should be the one handling it. If your manager has strong feelings about how this situation is handled - they are responsible for coming to you, not you seeking out them. People being CC'd on an email is not an issue your manager needs to worry about. It's not even an issue at all.

*You should only apologize for the misunderstanding; You should not apologize for not checking your email over the weekend. Your company does not expect it, by apologizing you risk establishing the expectation that you should be.

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I would say don't defuse it. He's the one who tried to escalate the issue to get you in trouble in order to cover up his mistake, and there is no reason for you to go out of your way to help him back down gracefully.

Reply to his last email (with all the higher ups in CC), telling him exactly what he did wrong and how to correct his mistake.

Point out that you are not required to check your email on weekends, but that if it was urgent he could have called you and you would have been happy to help.

Be sure to be professional, and everyone will see that it wasn't your fault.

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You should avoid any more emails, set a meeting in person instead.

It looks like things are getting lost in the translation from thoughts to email, so you want to take this offline. Firstly, make a reply all to the Imperial Bosses and the other party, with something along the lines of:

Dear [otherparty],

There seems to be a misunderstanding here, let's set a quick meeting in person to find the appropriate solution.

Kind regards, [Yourname]

Invite the other party, with their manager and your manager. During the meeting, drop the issue of the wrongful escalation, instead just propose the solution to the problem the other party was experiencing. This shows that you're a professional who cares about doing your job.

Most likely, the other party will bring up the fact that you didn't reply during the weekend. This shows that they have incorrect expectations, which your manager should normally correct. If your manager stays silent, ask him/her what they feel you should have done, given that you don't normally check your emails in the weekend unless you get called about an urgent issue.

Anything not directly concerning the solution of the problem is your manager's battle to fight, since it concerns the policy of your manager regarding what can be expected of those under his/her responsibility. If they tell the other party that they are right, that you should have acted, then you should have a private discussion with your manager afterwards to make sure your own expectations match theirs.

Leave all personal feelings out of this, make sure you take care of the part that's your responsibility (the actual solution) and let the managers fight the battle of "should [yourname] have solved [other party]'s issue outside of office hours or not".

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Not sure why this answer isn't upvoted, since it is the only one that actually addresses the OPs stated intent "[...]to gently remind him of this, but if I do my usual closed scope, it will look to the cadre of Imperial Bosses that got cc'd on the damn thing that I'm not doing anything on my end." Establishing a timestamp on the response to all concerned, but not turning it into a flame war, is exactly what taking it offline would do. – Jeff Meden Mar 8 at 19:39

Assuming that the problem wasn't time urgent (probably not given that it was an email over the weekend) you will be okay. But I would send this coworker an email to meet with you in person, give them your phone number. Now reply all and say "I have worked with this individual to avoid such drastic miscommunication in the future. It won't happen again." Then drop it. Your coworker is digging a hole and you should distance yourself from that hole. Any manager is going to recognize that.

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I think there are two separate issues here that have been somewhat combined in the question:

  1. Procedure for getting emergency help over the weekend.
  2. The nature of the underlying problem.

If your organization has a clear procedure for getting emergency help over the weekend, remind your colleague of it. If not, explain that you do not process e-mail over the weekend, so the colleague should phone if in need of emergency help. You may want to copy your own and your colleague's immediate managers on this part. Note that you are dealing directly with your colleague on the original question.

There seems to be a flavor of you feeling that the priority should be lower if the root cause is a mistake on the part of the person asking for help. I disagree. It is far easier for me to see and fix other people's mistakes than my own. The colleague may have given up their weekend to try to meet a deadline, got stuck, and desperately needed your help to get unstuck.

Deal with the actual problem just as you normally would.

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It strikes me that you may have started the escalation yourself by Cc'ing both managers at the start of the thread. In many (most?) modern email-equipped workplaces, that would be considered use of excessive force. It's possible that the other person is responding to that. If so, that's going to be harder to undo -- look for an opportunity to have a 1:1 communication with the person, find out if this is the case, explain that it's been your normal procedure, be prepared to apologize, and be prepared to tell them you're going to change that procedure in the future. If this fails, you may have to simply accept the results as-is.

Depending on local culture or manager preference, you might not ever want to contact the other person's manager directly -- you'd instead escalate to your own manager, let them take it to the other person's manager, then down. While this ICBM-like approach might seem like overkill, it's still in fashion in some organizations.


Edit: Okay, @Lilienthal added a footnote stating that Cc'ing managers is company policy at your workplace. I don't know how Lilienthal would know that, so something about this question is very off. Regardless, if true, that was important information, and would have changed my answer completely -- your original text made it sound like you Cc managers out of habit. It would be a bad habit, and it is a bad company policy, as I mention in my comment below.

If that is company policy, then you are in a situation where this sort of issue is going to come up a lot -- people are under a lot more pressure when they think the boss is always watching over their shoulder, and they will tend to react badly any time there's a hint of them being at fault. They're going to be overly concerned about their next review, and not as focused on just getting the job done.

If this is all true, then it sounds like you're in a company where "manager knows best" and silos are sacred turf, rather than a more progressive environment. In that case, observing the chain of command and punting to your manager is going to be the default action in cases like this one. You're going to have to let them handle it, and you're going to have to hope they have enough concern for your welfare to do that well.

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That's odd. In my company, we always put our managers in CC whenever we are dealing with another team, even if just to ask "Hey X, can you do Y for me? thanks". – Demonblack Mar 8 at 14:04
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OP said s/he typically CC's his/her and the other party's manager. In this case it's the other party that has involved several higher-ups due to being "ignored". – David Mar 8 at 16:35

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