178

I have a typical office job in a Western culture. My colleagues and I spend 99% of our work time with our laptops.

My manager forbids me to write emails. I'm used to writing emails if I want to have things in writing, e.g. for documenting purposes (so that I know what was communicated when), to bring some clarity and structure into some complex topics, and, of course, also as a CYA ("Cover your ass") strategy - this is an important function given that the work in my current team is frequently extremely chaotic, responsibilities aren't clear and I'm frequently told to do things which are doubtful to say the least. The manager hates that, he sees emails as escalations, he basically forbade me to write emails to him and other colleagues.

After talking to him at least 5 times in the last few months about an issue, I decided to write a CYA email despite this ban. It's a big important CYA! It was important information, which had relevance for both that manager and his manager, who I also CC'ed. But yes, it was clear for me that it could be understood as an escalation. Still, in the email I was super polite, super understanding and accommodating. Absolutely no accusations were expressed, just facts.

The manager was furious. Interestingly, however, he told me I had never raised the topic with him before. He repeated the assertion several times, so it wasn't like I didn't understand him. He honestly believes I had never raised the topic with him!

The last time I raised the topic was just last week. We communicate in a language which we both speak fluently, so it was unlikely to have been a misunderstanding.

Can you tell me what (communication) strategies can be used in this situation?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S May 11 '18 at 1:21
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    Does your manager just forbid you? Or is this a policy with the entire team they manage? Are there other teams in the company? Do those other teams have similar policies in place? – red_squiggly_line May 11 '18 at 16:01
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    It's not clear to me whether the content of this CYA email was delivered in any non-email way? Was the email the ONLY means of communication used for that? I mean, if you know email won't be read, then I think the boss might have a point if he says he wasn't informed by you. – Beanluc May 14 '18 at 20:40
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    I recommend communicating via a resignation letter ;) – dsollen May 15 '18 at 15:00

19 Answers 19

364

This sounds beyond dodgy. Are you sure your company is above board? The only reason not to have a paper trail is to not have a paper trail.

I would approach your department head.

If your Manager is making such ludicrous commands, then gaslighting you, he's probably beyond dealing with by yourself.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S May 11 '18 at 1:23
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    "Are you sure your company is above board?" - what does it mean? – BЈовић May 11 '18 at 5:57
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    @BЈовић It means acting legally; following regulations; not being dodgy. – bye May 11 '18 at 7:03
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    The company itself could be perfectly legitimate and the manager is the one doing something questionable. – mbrig May 11 '18 at 15:27
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    Agreed this needs to go up a level. When a manager denies reality to your face, he's not doing you any favors. You can't be sure whether he's trying to hurt you or not, but you can be pretty sure he doesn't care if you end up as collateral damage. – DoubleD May 11 '18 at 19:14
174

Start looking for another job, hard.

Your manager is setting you up to be blamed when things go bad (and they very clearly will).

There are no "communication strategies" that will work for someone who is deliberately trying to undermine you. It's like asking "how can I be nicer so my boyfriend stops beating me?" That's not a question that's simply hard to answer, it's fundamentally the wrong question.

Whether you want to go out with a bang or a whimper is up to you: if you think that you can compile enough damning evidence about what he's doing, then take it and go over his head. But by "enough damning evidence", I mean enough to get him fired, because if he just gets a "talking to", you clearly don't want to continue being there as his target.

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    I agree so much with this answer. Sometimes work situations are so untenable that it's just better for your long-term well-being to start looking for a new job. This sounds like one of those times. You don't have to love your job, but OP's situation sounds just awful. – Rocky May 11 '18 at 14:54
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    Agreed. I flat out refuse to work with anyone who is 'furious' with me. I just tell people like that where to go, end of story. A professional work environment should not be a kindergarten where managers get to act out some kind of parental fantasy at my expense. – Sentinel May 12 '18 at 15:26
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    If the rest of the company is better, a transfer might be a good version of this solution. – jpmc26 May 13 '18 at 9:48
  • It's time to quit. Be sure to tell your HR manager and your boss's boss exactly why. – Tony Ennis May 13 '18 at 14:21
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    My personal experience as well. Your manager is not being rational nor constructive. Unless you're earning huge bucks, it's not worth risking your sanity, mental health, self esteem, career in such a toxic environment. You are writing CYAs and making assumtions that somewhere up there your bosses are rational. However nobody knows how far up the rot goes. Look for another job, now. – Rolf May 15 '18 at 11:54
67

The main issue, as pointed out, that the person likely does not want to have a trail. If this is true then the only real CYA is to carry your A to someplace else to work.

That said, let's say with the slim possibility, that it is something else, like some of the legal ramifications for E-mail tracing and retention policy or security. I would find this both doubtful and still raising ethics flags, but we are giving a channel for benefit of the doubt here, so go with it. There are other avenues, such as instant message software, thinking products like Slack which would allow communications recorded for reference, but not available for some of the same record keeping requirements and audit trail by your company. You might float such an idea with your boss if such would be acceptable? If not, then you likely remove the shadow of a doubt on their intentions.

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    Instant messaging software can keep logs of conversations. It's even the default in many of them. I have seen people fired for cause (in non-courtroom proceedings) justified with an inch(es)-thick printout of a year's worth of chatroom conversations. Either way, if a communication method isn't recorded, then it won't help OP cover his A. – stannius May 10 '18 at 15:30
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    @stannius Sorry if I was not clear enough, yes, the IM systems record things, and that is the whole point of using them in a case like this, to have a reference trail. However, many are set up to have the logs offsite, changing the legal retention requirements from company to provider, one of the few issues the boss might have other than simply wanting no trail. Odds are this is mute as by far the most likely issue it wanting no trail so they can shift blame. – dlb May 10 '18 at 16:53
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    "If this is true then the only real CYA is to carry your A to someplace else to work." Absolutely. And brilliantly put. +1. – berry120 May 11 '18 at 10:33
38

Turn the process around. Say something like

Can I get that in writing, please?

when you are given instructions where you feel you require a CYA or clarifications.

It's then your manager's choice whether he'll give you a handwritten note, send you a fax, an email or a text message (SMS) or a direct (or public) message on the company's team chat (e.g. slack). Obviously, if he opts for a non-persistant written medium (Snapchat maybe? unlikely though) insist on something persistant. Same for media with plausible deniability (e.g. OTR instant messages or unauthenticated IRC).

Be open and honest about your reason for such requests. (At least when asked by your manager, depending on context/situation mood maybe also pro-actively.):

For CYA, e.g.:

You know I have my reservations about that and that I fear this may blow up on us. [Or: "... may be more detrimental than beneficial to the company/business" for less crass decisions.] I really hope it doesn't and will do my best to avoid damage, but if it does, I don't want to look like I was acting arbitrary and unauthorized.

If you yourself doubt you'll be able to account for that decision, you can still redecide now. And if it isn't your call, maybe you want to get it in writing from your boss, too?

For clarifications:

I just want to avoid any misunderstandings, as this is a complicated and delicate issue.

(Obviously, rephrase and adapt these to local/company culture and best also to your boss' attitude and to the professional relationship between your boss and yourself.)

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    I tried that actually. His reaction was: "I don't understand why you need that!". And after my explanations (similar to yours), he told me he didn't think it was necessary to give me that in writing. – BigMadAndy May 10 '18 at 12:11
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    Then you have all the reason to escalate (not the individual decisions, but the principle to get stuff in writing when you request it) to your boss' superior and/or HR. If they deny you that (and don't offer alternative solutions satisfactory to both of you), look for another job ASAP. (Also if you too often have reason to request stuff in writing for it to still be practical.) – das-g May 10 '18 at 12:21
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    @Toss, he doesn't have to understand why you need it. Let him know that you want it in writing for clarity, to ensure you understand the exact request, and to refer back to if you have any later questions about what was required of you. And if he complains it will take too long, then of course you write the details yourself. However, since all this has failed, it does sound like you're dealing with something unsavory. I agree with BradC's answer. – Wildcard May 11 '18 at 8:41
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    If it is not necessary to give you that in writing, then you never received his instruction, simple as that. Don't do what you find problematic and don't get in writing. If asked about it, deny that you received his order. – Tom May 11 '18 at 10:25
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    @das-g how much worse do you need it to be before you stand up for yourself? As for the lying: You use the age-old "I don't remember" and nobody can prove the opposite, and it establishes that it was necessary to give it in writing. – Tom May 11 '18 at 12:42
27

You are now at war with your boss

He gave you a direct order. You violated it, and CC'd his boss in the process.

Either you or your boss will likely be leaving the company, either voluntarily or involuntarily. If your grandboss takes your side, your boss will likely be fired. If he does not, you will likely be fired.

At all times, try to be the most reasonable party. It makes it more likely that your grandboss will take your side. If there are conflicts between your boss and grandboss, either try to get meetings together with the three of you where you act as peacemaker, or take your grandboss's side.

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    Depending on local and company culture, this may not be the case. In some west-European countries it's not just normal but even expected to escalate differences in opinion between employee and immediate boss to that boss' superior (who acts as an arbitrator) or HR and to amicability continue work together once the issue at hand is settled. It's also possible to move people who can't work together (anymore) to other positions within the company. – das-g May 10 '18 at 22:15
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    Ok - I'll give you a +1 just for the term "grandboss". – Omegacron May 11 '18 at 11:46
  • No he didn't. OP does not recall his boss ever telling him to not capture understandings in writing. Gosh, why would a boss ever say that, that sounds illegal or at least sketchy. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 12 '18 at 13:23
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    @das-g Perhaps. But based on the way he described his boss as being "furious", it sounds like a company where talking to a boss's boss is breaking the chain of command, and considered an attack on the boss. Many US companies are like this. – Matthew Grivich May 13 '18 at 23:27
  • @Harper From the OP: "he basically forbade me to write emails to him and other colleagues." and "I decided to write a CYA email despite this ban." – Matthew Grivich May 13 '18 at 23:29
18

he basically forbade me to write emails to him and other colleagues.

You are perfectly entitled to tell your manager flat out that you will not follow an instruction if you believe it isn't reasonable. Your manager then has the choice of backing down or escalating.

For specific decisions about your area of work, and anything technical, you don't fight that. You should get it in writing to make it clear that it's his decision, but if there's a decision to be made then someone has to make a judgement call. He has the authority there.

For issues about the way you work though, and particularly about emails and record-keeping, this is a case where there is no possible answer except "no". It harms you, because you might personally be blamed for something which was someone else's decision or a team decision. It harms the product, because it needs people to keep their understanding of how something should work in their head, and people may easily forget details. And it harms the company, because it leaves no documentation for succession management in case either of you are knocked down by a bus, quit the company, or are otherwise unable to continue.

This is quite simply a case where you need to refuse to do as instructed.

14

...that manager and his manager, who I also CC'ed.

Is he ok with you emailing just him (without CCing anyone)? If you send an email reiterating what he has told you, and maybe asking for clarification, right after the meeting, then it shouldn't be as easy to justify anger with "this email was an escalation".

Something like

Hi manager,

Thanks for the meeting earlier. Just to check that my understanding was right from the meeting, you do want me to shred all the accounting records? Would it be better for me to burn them afterwards, or put them in the recycling?

Best wishes,

Ass McCovered

Then you have a copy of the email, you can print it if you want and keep a hard copy, the email doesn't look like you are raising concerns or trying to bring it to someone else's attention. And if he later says "I didn't tell you to do this", you can point to the email and say you asked right after the meeting and didn't get a response, or whatever.

Alternatively, you could do it "James Comey"-style and write memos/emails to yourself after each meeting documenting what he told you, or to a trusted colleague. If your company has a compliance officer, you could talk to them and ask if they would be happy for you to send writeups of your meetings to them without letting the manager know. Alternatively someone from HR, or failing that just a friend in the office. You can also try to gather other evidence to corroborate your story if you ever need it - e.g. show that the work you did following a meeting matches what you wrote in the memo, and that your manager was satisfied with that.

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    I suspect he will just bark back "I don't read emails I didn't agree to this" – WendyG May 10 '18 at 10:19
  • @WendyG he could, but what good would it do him? It just demonstrates that he's a poorly organized manager. – CactusCake May 10 '18 at 14:30
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    @WendyG - Sounds like a solution then. "I didn't agree to this" means you're not going to do it. :) – Roddy of the Frozen Peas May 10 '18 at 16:11
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    The manager can still in person say he agrees to it, but then later in writing say that he did not agree to it. So if going this route it is important not to take any action unless the Manager responds in writing with the okay. – Anketam May 10 '18 at 17:34
13

I'm hearing impaired, growing up, I used something called "note takers". Another student would take notes, and I would get a copy at the end of class.

You can use a product like this, and keep a copy for yourself.

https://www.eurekaschool.com/c-115-duplicate-notes.aspx

You don't have to use these. Any kind of duplicate notes product will work.

This will create a literal paper trail

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    OP can always take notes of course. The important point is getting the other person to sign off on them so you can prove that you've in fact notified them; With email this happens automatically (more or less, can't prove an email arrived after you sent it, but the email server should've logged both the sending and the receiving). – Cubic May 10 '18 at 12:27
  • I'm also somewhat hearing impaired (seems to be getting worse with age), so I always prefer to work with email instead of phone or interpersonal communications. As a bonus, it makes it a lot easier to track down tasks and/or change requests later down the line, too. – Omegacron May 11 '18 at 11:44
12

Have you asked him to send his "no emails" policy in writing? If not, perhaps you could send him - and his boss - an email asking him to confirm this requirement, given that this is not only unusual but leaves both you and the company vulnerable to misunderstandings.

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    Well Bob, would you mind email me your "no email" policy? That'd be great. Yeah. – Tony Ennis May 13 '18 at 14:17
  • implicitly, you're also saying "hello, boss's boss, do you realise what your dodgy underling is up to and are you OK with it?" – Francis Norton May 15 '18 at 13:18
6

When he asks you to do something you think might be harmful to the business, and he doesn't like to use emails, have you considered saying something like "Can you write that down on a piece of paper for me? Memory's a fallible thing; if it isn't written down, I might forget to do it."

  • this reads more like a comment, see How to Answer – gnat May 10 '18 at 12:50
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    The original poster was asking for strategies for dealing with a boss that didn't want to use emails, in the instances where they, personally, wanted a paper trail that they could use to cover their actions with. So, I answered with a strategy that nobody else had answered yet: use literal paper, and physically write it down, or get him to write it down, and, moreover, giving him a reason to get it written down: you might forget to do it if it isn't. – nick012000 May 10 '18 at 14:35
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    The main reason why I think this is bad advice is that it sounds like a lie, especially after the previous discussions. – pipe May 11 '18 at 9:12
  • That was going to be my suggestion as well - it clarifies between "I don't want a record of what was said" and "I dislike email for some irrational reason". – Allen Gould May 11 '18 at 17:11
6

Email him everything you discuss from now on. If he makes it a problem again, break chain of command and inform his superiors of his garbage policy.

The important thing to note is that it doesn't matter what your manager's policy is if that's not what company policy is. It's clear from your comments that your manager is incapable of managing things without email.

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    This. Send him a email with a summary of everything he tells you to do from now on. If he orders you to stop, tell him you need that in writing. If you get this in writing (I doubt it), CC it to his superior and check with them if this policy is ok. If he doesn't give you that in writing, deny he ever told you. – Josef May 14 '18 at 8:40
  • Why the downvote? – user53651 May 30 '18 at 17:04
6

Leverage an Automated System for the emails

Various issue tracking software can be configured to automatically send emails to people. Any time your manager gives you a task, create a ticket for the task in the system. If configured correctly, the system would then proceed to send an automated email detailing everything to you, your manager, and anyone else you want.

If he complains about the automated email, you can shift the blame to the issue tracking software and say it is built in. At the same time, the issue tracking system will provide a nice paper trail of what work you are doing and who requested it.

Even for work that does not involve programming, having a system that tracks tasks is very beneficial. So if you are working in an environment that does not have it, I recommend finding one that meets your needs and act as a champion for its adoption. If used correctly, it can help address the issue you are facing.

If your manager still claims that he never assigned you a task. Tracking software can have restrictions put in place on who can allow tasks to be moved into development. On one program I worked on which was rather large before any item or task could be worked it had to be approved by a technical leader or manager. As such the workflow went like this:

  • Open: Someone has created the task and is currently adding details to it
  • Review: Item/task is awaiting person with authority like your manager to review it
  • Development: Actively working the item/task...

After that there can be testing, verification, sign off or any other number of steps that make sense for what you are working on. The second step is the most important step since that would force your manager to sign off on all work while creating a paper trail.

  • It's a good idea to use task-tracking software either way, but unfortunately it doesn't resolve the issue of the manager claiming later that he never assigned you the task. – Omegacron May 11 '18 at 11:49
  • @Omegacron that can be handled via process. On one program I was on, the only people who could move an item to development was technical leaders and management. I will update to mention that – Anketam May 11 '18 at 13:56
  • This is a good answer. As for the manager claiming he never assigned you the task, there is a solution: you write down all details and assign the task to your manager, asking him to reassign it back to you if you didn't misunderstand anything. If he does reassign it, he thereby authorizes it. If he doesn't, than it's not your task to do. – Matija Nalis May 11 '18 at 23:26
5

I will expand upon Chris' comment on another answer here:

It works both ways fortunately - if your boss is asking you to do things you don't want to just don't do them and if your boss complains then claim he never told you... Not necessarily the best course of action but it will certainly have it bought to light and mean that you won't get in trouble for making wrong decisions...

You could just keep sending the mails and then claim that your boss never told you not to send mails or just that you don't seem to have any notes on that topic in your inbox.

Should he decide to send you a mail for "not communicating with mails" then he's essentially stringing himself by his foot, if not, you still have no confirmation on this matter and can just carry on.

3

Another answer may have mentioned it in passing, but this does seem rife with the possibility for unethical behavior - the avoidance of a "paper trail" on discussions.

I've worked for 2 large companies for the past 13 years, and they have both had a company policy that behavior that you think may be unethical should be reported, and that making such reports cannot lead to retaliation. If your company has a similar policy, I'd ask about the behavior in general.

Try to stay out of it as a matter of CYA per se. If absolutely necessary, mention that concerns you've raised with your superior verbally have sometimes been ignored, and that you'd feel more comfortable being able to show him that you brought them up to him, if a question were to arise later.

0

Use a mini dictaphone in your pocket. I do this all the time in meetings. I have neither had to play it back nor admit it's there, and that's important, because doing that is a little like setting off the first WMD. How it works is this.. You KNOW what was said, and you are supremely confident in your knowledge because the evidence is in your pocket. Yr boss will SEE the confidence in you and back down immediately. If boss doesn't, he needs a medic, but I have never know that to happen (and I've had some tough nuts in my time).

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    Note that recording people without their knowledge and approval can be against company policy and may even be illegal. – das-g May 10 '18 at 22:21
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    I agree with das-g. If OP does this and is caught I would not be surprised if OP is not fired. Even if this evidence does cover OP's ass best case scenario both get fired. – TheSaint321 May 11 '18 at 2:19
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    Check local law before doing this! And if things go boom it's probably no more than whether you get unemployment or not. – Loren Pechtel May 11 '18 at 3:37
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    Adding to what the others are saying, even if it wasn't illegal if things go wrong and you're forced to use a recording, it will probably set stuff aflame more than what it already was.Recording people without their consent just because you don't trust them is something that will never go well, unless the other person is committing serious crimes and you want to report him to the police. – BgrWorker May 11 '18 at 6:41
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    I upvoted this back to zero. If the boss is willing to lie to his superiors, the OP needs drastic measures. All further interactions need to be provable, one way or another. – CCTO May 14 '18 at 16:04
0

Start writing down every exchange you have with your boss - date-marked and in pen - so that you have a record of when you converse with him.

Don't do this in front of him obviously - he doesn't seem the type that would take kindly to having what he's said written down in front of him. Keep it in a notebook that you keep out of sight.

In the absence of email trail, this is the only way you can CYA in case he tries to pin the blame on you.

And, as others have suggested, either report this behavior to head management/HR, or start looking for a new job (possibly both - as if it turns out your entire company is like this, you may need to take both routes).

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    I would definitely do it in front of him. He can have no possible legitimate reason to object. It is a perfectly normal business practice. If he does object, give him a chance to review what you've written, and even to sign off on it. Treat him like a customer. Tell him so. – user207421 May 12 '18 at 0:21
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    +1 for this. From experience I'd recommend a hard-bound "day book" where pages cannot be removed easily, use this for all written notes and as a scratchpad for ideas/diagrans... or email the answers to questions to yourself (not the boss.) Then if it hits the fan you can say "I queried it with you on <date/time> and you told me to..." – James Snell May 12 '18 at 18:18
-1

While I agree with other answers that this sounds suspicious on the manager's part, it seems that when you say "he basically forbade me to write emails to him and other colleagues" that those "other colleagues" are people above your boss in the chain of command ("which had relevance for both that manager and his manager, who I also CC'ed"). If so, your boss is correct, those emails are escalations. If you email someone's boss, you're escalating the issue. He is correctly recognizing that you have taken an issue to his superiors, which is one very solid definition of escalation.

LangeHaare's answer addresses a path forward for you to take once you recognize that one thing your boss is saying is correct--you have been escalating issues.

Also, as a basic rule of thumb, any time you go over your manager's head, expect either you or your manager to be fired (as explained by Matthew Grivich). It doesn't always go that way, but I would generally consider that to be the most likely outcome in a US business.

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    It is important to separate the issue regarding emails to your boss and the issue regarding emails to people above your boss in the chain of command. You are escalating the issues with your boss when you include those above him, and you have a very good reason to do so, but the primary issue is the reason you are escalating, not the fact that you are escalating. – David Schwartz May 11 '18 at 20:22
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    OP seems confused that when he emails the boss of his boss, his boss sees that as an escalation. It is an escalation. That's what I'm clarifying with this answer. he sees emails as escalations, he basically forbade me to write emails to him and other colleagues. It's not clear that the asker understands that at least some of his emails, and the only one that he gave us an example of, was, in fact, an escalation. It would be helpful for the asker to understand this, as part of the asker's problem might be the asker not understanding how a workplace works. – msouth May 13 '18 at 0:58
-1

If you had BCC'd his boss, and that person respected the BCC, you would have had a better cover that didn't involve your boss going to his boss and possibly making excuses and laying blame.

Your boss has forbid emails, I guess he can do that and recommend you for discipline (for that, or any other reason) if you don't listen.

Some ways to get around the email ban, CYA, and their forgetfulness

  • Strike up a short conversation from time to time with your boss' boss - get on good terms.

  • After some time, and your boss' boss knows you better, throw into parting comments that you need to be on your way - since you have to talk to your boss about XYZ.

That makes it look like you're going over him when in fact you are not, when he checks he'll find out you didn't, he'll draw more attention to the matter and be obligated to not be forgetful.

  • Instead of writing emails write a script, refer to your script while you're telling your boss something; even make checkmarks as you go - they can accuse you of writing an email but you can deny it, it's just notes of the points that you wanted to bring up with them.

  • Make a FAX instead of an email, a single copy to yourself and intercept it as it comes in. Make a seperate script that looks the same as the FAX, but without the header - go to your meeting with the script and keep the FAX as proof that you sent a FAX to schedule the meeting (be careful that it's not a smart FAX machine that someone understands as it will keep a copy of your FAX and they'll accuse you of only sending one copy to yourself - deny it as an oversight if caught).

  • It's legal in some places to record a conversation if you are present and speak, without informing any other party to the conversation - don't expect them to enjoy that more than email, OTOH if you're fired you'll have proof.

Make it a learned skill for your boss that there's an obligation to understand and remember what's being said - his dismissive behavior and denials are insulting, it's like when you tell them something they don't have to know or remember - just deny everything and advance his agenda.

I've had bosses that thought like yours and I've had it the other way around where the boss wanted to give his input, a spoonful at a time, every now and then. You have to wean them of their ways and get them off you.

Of course: How far you can push your luck is an imprecise measure of your: usefulness, replaceability, boss' patience, how little you earn, etc.

Finding somewhere else to work, and not feeding the hand that bites to you, is the way forward.

-2

Allow me to suggest an approach that I and others have used with great success -- it's basically just keeping a list of your tasks to make sure that you and others are on the same page.

See http://btorpey.github.io/blog/2014/08/21/status-reports/ for a write-up.

This may be seen as less threatening.

Good luck.

protected by Jane S May 11 '18 at 1:24

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