Suddenly, I started getting some (around 5 in a week) emails from my manager in which he kept his manager in CC. I replied to one of the email saying "Why are you keeping your manager in CC in some of the emails? What are you up to?"

I was called by his manager (my manager's manager) and she told me that "What are you up to?" is considered offensive and she can raise it to the HR. She said that she understands that I wanted to know his intentions behind keeping her in CC, but still it is offensive.

I want to know whether it was really offensive or some other word describes it better.

  • Going thru the edit history this makes a lot more sense with the added context of working from home. I'm not sure why all that was deleted. Otherwise it sounds like everything is happening out of the blue.
    – DaveG
    Aug 3, 2018 at 13:10
  • At the time of appraisal, usually things happen out of the blue. This question was closed as primarily opinion based, I wonder why it's opened again? Aug 3, 2018 at 14:00
  • @All: I got my manager changed and my work life improved and I was also able to expose what was he upto? Aug 4, 2018 at 11:42

8 Answers 8


"What are you up to?" is a phrase whose implications vary with the context. Asked by a friend in casual converation it is just a pleasent enquiry about what you've been doing recently. Asked by a policeman when you are lurking in an alleyway with a crowbar, and it has a rather different connotation, and strongly implies that you are doing something wrong.

In the context quoted in the question, it does have a rather accusatory tone. It sounds something like "what are you fools playing at?" or "what on earth are you doing?" - it carries the implication that you assume the other person is doing something stupid.

And since the other person is your manager, they are even less likely to take that well.

That said, your manager talking about raising it to HR seems like a big overreaction, rather than just talking to you about what you meant and sorting out any misunderstanding (since email is notoriously lacking in tone and therefore prone to have the tone misread - written phrases in email tend to sound harsher and more judgemental than if you said the same thing in person).

Your best bet is probably to apologise for the phrasing and explain that it was meant more as an enquiry than an accusation.

For the future, something like "Is there some kind of problem at your end?" or "do we know why there is a sudden increase in escalations?" rather than "what are you up to?" would probably be a better way of phrasing it.

  • 5
    "your manager talking about raising it to HR seems like a big overreaction" By itself, it is an overreaction. However, I suspect that this email is just the latest in the chain of events which pushed the manager over the ledge.
    – Masked Man
    Jul 3, 2018 at 7:50
  • 3
    It’s not non-offensive. You can explain it through lack of knowledge of the finer details of English language, which it most likely was, but it’s not non- offensive.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 3, 2018 at 9:42
  • 2
    Well you can apologize without admitting fault. "I'm sorry you feel that way. I did not mean for it to be offensive." is basically apologizing without admitting you did wrong.
    – Dan
    Jul 3, 2018 at 16:39
  • 4
    @Dan The problem is, it's not apologising. It's trying to assign the blame to the other person. It will go down like a lead balloon.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 3, 2018 at 21:57
  • 4
    @Dan - that kind of "apology" can infuriate many people, sounding as it does anything between false and accusatory. Maybe leave off the "...you feel that way" bit.
    – komodosp
    Jul 4, 2018 at 8:57

You're basically accusing someone of "being up to something", as if they were scheming behind your back. This could be true or not, but it shows distrust on your part. Your manager bringing the issue to HR is probably an overreaction, but you've given her reason - exspecially if she was already escalating matters before.

You could have asked the very same question in a very different manner (e.g. "Why are there so many escalations? Is there something wrong?"). Be ready to apologise and explain that you didn't mean anything offensive.


Your manager said “She can” raise it with HR, not “she will”. I think she is telling you that your unfortunate word choice is something that can get you into trouble, and you have to be more careful. Especially in emails, face to face it is much easier to distinguish different uses of the phrase.

And yes, the phrase can be taken as offensive, and she could get you into trouble, but apparently doesn’t want to at this moment.

"What are you up to" is something that a police officer asks you if they suspect you are planning to commit some crime. "What are you up to" is something a mother says to her children if they are uncharacteristically quiet and she is sure they are planning some mischief. "What are you up to on the weekend" is something a colleage or friend could ask in a very, very informal way to find out your plans.

The last version would be not offensive, but much much much too informal for the workplace. The first two versions are offensive.

To apologise: "I am very sorry that I used these words. I didn't realize at all how offensive these words can sound, and this won't happen again". Remember it's only an apology if you apologise for something you did. You wrote these words, you are sorry for that. An apology can be followed by an explanation that makes you look less guilty.


Never write emails that can be taken out of context. By saying, "What are you up to?" it sounds like you're implying they're doing something sinister or malicious. The first thing I would have told your manager is, "I'm sorry. I did not meant the email to be offensive and was only asking if there was a reason so many tickets are escalated in a short span?"

Next time you can word it something like,

Manager, I notice a lot of tickets are going from low to high priority in the past few days. I notice the tickets seem to be unrelated to one another. I was working on ticket X, Y, Z, and will now work on these higher priority tickets. Is there a reason for the escalation of these tickets?


You asked what your response should be.

Your response should be an apology. Explain (with a gentle smile) that you clearly weren't very up on your English idioms, and you didn't realize the phrase could have such negative connotations. Tell him you didn't mean it in a negative way. Thank him for helping you pay attention to the meaning of that phrase, and tell him you'd be grateful to be alerted to any similarly unfortunate word choices in the future.


I'm afraid it could. A common interpretation of to be "up to something" would be to be plotting some trick or dishonest scheme (though this isn't the only possible interpretation).

If this wasn't your accusation you should clarify your question to the manager ASAP using friendly and non-ambiguous language.

Not sure why he would raise it with HR, but I can see how it could potentially cause offense.


Judging by your edits/comments it appears you were accusing him of being slightly dishonest (i.e. of trying to make you look bad in front of his manager). This makes things more complex as you can't just claim ignorance to the meaning of the phrase.

You could just apologise to your manager and let him know that you weren't aware of the offensive connotations of the phrase.

You may also want to clarify whether he is dissatisfied with your performance while you're working from home and if he is, get (or let him know) the specifics on how you will improve this (and follow through). You might also point out how you felt about his CC'ing his manager (especially if he is happy with your current performance) because he might not have been aware about your feelings.

But I wouldn't advise you on whether you should actually do this or not, because I've no idea of how good your performance actually is, or your relationship with your manager or his relationship with his manager. (e.g. it's possible that he doesn't like the "Work From Home" policy and he's trying to make a point to his manager).


If your question, "What are you up to?", was an effort to check your manager's available for one-on-one discussion regarding the number of escalations, when clarify that you meant no harm by asking "What are you up to?", you may also want to tell your manager that you were trying to engage in further discussion to better understand and act upon the escalations. Depending on the type of manager and company culture, seeking a better understanding may show initiative that can be shared with your co-workers, and as a result, could help your team's workflow for future issues your team might face.


Try to be as formal as possible when writing emails. 'What are you up too' is informal, therefore not appropriate for emails and yes, it has an accusatory meaning when not asked humorously from a friend and without context.

It might have been weird to you and you might just have been curious, but I don't think your manager keeping another person in CC has anything to do with you or should be of any interest to you.

Anyway, if you were curious you could communicate through messenger or in person if that's possible. Emails should be work related.

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