72

I work as a researcher for a startup company. We are into research and I report to my CTO. The company consists of a handful people.

I required three letters from my CEO and emailed him three weeks back. I hadn’t got it until last week and I asked him in person, he said he’ll give it in two days, and I can feel free to text him anytime and “not feel shy”.

I reminded him on Friday. Exact email:

XXX CEO,
Gentle reminder regarding the 3 documents.
Regards, Myself.

His response:

Stop these reminders, (Myself). You are on my list. I am very busy.

Today morning (8am) he sent an email with two of the three documents (only the documents, nothing else mentioned about the third document), and I first of all thanked him and reminded him about the third document (at 9am).

This was his response which shocked me (at 9:09am):

YOU ARE GETTING ON MY BLOODY NERVES.

I AM F**ING WORKING ON YOUR DOCUMENT.

I DON'T NEED TO BE COACHED OR REMINDED.

At 9:18am, he sent the third document.

  1. Is this professional? I have been in the industry since four years and have never got emails like these. Is it how it is everywhere?
  2. What should my reply be?
  3. Am I wrong for reminding him?

Edit:

He had not mentioned anything about the third document, and hence I waited for an hour (8am - 9am today) to receive the third document (after the first two were sent). Atleast a reply like "Yes, I'm working on it" would have been enough. I don't deserve to be spoken to like this by anyone; my parents themselves never spoke to me in this manner, ever.

Office culture: I hardly talk to the CEO. Nobody here uses any such language, not even close to what he said in the e-mail. My manager is the one I report to. All my other colleagues are normal and definitely respectful. I am the only female worker (shouldn't matter in this case though).

I definitely want to show to him that I don't encourage such exchange of words with me, to make sure it doesn't happen in future.

Update:

The manager was cc-ed on this thread of emails. I love my work here, and I’m staying in this company only because of the work and my manager. Also, the CEO just sent an SMS message saying:

in future, please try to avoid sending excessive reminders, ...... etc.

Edit:

Thanks a lot for all of your suggestions. I did not reply to the text SMS message yet. Although I did reply to his email when he in which he shared the third document, with a simple “Thank you”. I was very frustrated and would have definitely reacted impulsively. All of your suggestions helped me calm down and not harm my current job. I do not intend to reply to his SMS. I hope I’m doing the right thing.

My CEO is always prompt in his responses and work. I am not complaining about receiving the documents late, all I’m concerned about is the language used at workplace. I am completely against this kind of behaviour and conversation with me.

closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, gazzz0x2z, OldPadawan, Dmitry Grigoryev, Rory Alsop Jul 4 '18 at 16:48

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Uhm, do you know what "list" he was referring to? Are you sure he means the same "list" you're thinking of? – Mehrdad Jul 4 '18 at 6:57
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    "I am the only female worker (shouldn't matter in this case though)". Unfortunately, this could be the culprit in this particular situation. Women are not considered to express aggressive behaviour, so he's may 'playing it safe' by making you his punching bag. Is he that rude towards your male colleagues? – FunnyJava Jul 4 '18 at 9:10
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    @Mehrdad Almost certainly his to-do list. – David Richerby Jul 4 '18 at 16:44

10 Answers 10

186

This is unacceptable workplace behaviour, and not something OP should have to put up with or apologise over. The fact that it's coming from a CEO just makes it worse - the head of (and probably the public face of) a company should absolutely know better.

Nothing from the OP's account of events suggests that they're at fault. If someone sent me two letters when I was expecting three, I'd also send back a quick email saying something like "Thanks! Don't forget the last one!" or "Do you have an ETA for the third?"

Nobody should have to walk on eggshells when sending routine follow-up emails to co-workers or their boss (especially when they've been waiting three weeks already).

OP mentions this is a tech startup. I've seen a lot of tech startups with young and inexperienced CEOs. If this is the case here, OP apologising may just give the impression that it's ok to treat other employees like this.

My advice is to tackle the issue - approach your boss and ask them to speak to the CEO, explaining calmly and politely that neither you nor any other employee should be spoken to that way.

Based on your update, that SMS from the CEO is not an apology, and worse, it's extremely manipulative.

You did not send excessive reminders. You did what any normal person would do, especially after being kept waiting for three weeks. They are trying to shift the blame to you. This was not your fault.

Getting employees the materials that they need is one of the firm's needs. You did not ask for anything unreasonable.

Working 18 hour days is not a reason to lash out at employees, it's a sign of someone who doesn't know how to properly delegate work or manage a company (i.e. someone who should not be anyone's boss).

They're trying to downplay their appalling behaviour with this string of flimsy excuses which make you seem like the instigator. If you don't push back against this now, this person will think they can get away with this again and again.

The CTO being CC'd doesn't mean they'll act. They may not have even read the emails. If you want something done about this, you need to initiate it yourself. As your manager, they have a duty to follow-up on this if you report it. Nobody should have to work in this kind of toxic environment.

52

Is this professional? I have been in the industry since four years and have never got emails like these. Is it how it is everywhere?

No, this reply is not professional nor respectful at all.

This shouldn't be tolerated or practiced in any workplace or professional environment.

Am I wrong for reminding him?

No, there is nothing wrong in reminding him.

If any, perhaps you were a bit more insistent than you could, so perhaps next time try to wait longer before sending any reminders or follow-ups.

What should my reply be?

Replying back to that chain of emails would surely be awkward (and perhaps cause more problems); I would not recommend it.

A better approach could be to thank him for the documents in person next time you see him, and politely apologize for your "insistence".

As he was the one being rude here, you apologizing should make him reconsider and most likely accept your apology, and give one back to you for the rudeness of his response. Everyone happy again :)

Now, if he does not apologize back don't take it personally. Some people have a hard time accepting they were wrong, but you would have done the right thing and put a stop to this situation.


Clarification per comments: I suggested OP apologized for his insistence... not to take blame or apologize for the CEO's unprofessional behavior, which is something the CEO should be apologizing for.

Yes, the CEO said to "feel free to text him anytime"... but he also clearly asked OP to "Stop these reminders, OP. You are on my list. I am very busy."... for which OP insisted on reminding despite the request. This is why I suggest to apologize for the insistence.

  • @FunnyJava yes there was insistence, and it was aggravated by the fact that the CEO was not so emotionally stable and was stressed at the moment. Apologizing for being a bit insistent, after the CEO explicitly asked for the opposite, is a mature and professional thing to do. Saying it will encourage the CEO to more rudeness is a speculation...The CEO was undoubtedly rude, and should apologize for it and is something that should not be tolerated anymore in the future (escalating if necessary). – DarkCygnus Jul 4 '18 at 16:48
40

No doubt, the mail was the super-rude response of an overloaded person - however, the second reply "Stop these reminders" - is an unambiguous red flag for you to not proceed with the reminders (despite the earlier message "don't be shy" - later instructions supersede earlier ones). Especially after 2 documents arrived, CEO made clear he is working on them.

Further reminders after the second mail were unwise. Now lay low and let it pass.

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    As to that last reminder, were I the OP I would have assumed the boss had missed or forgotten the third document. If the boss was actively working on it, they should have indicated so when sending the other two ("Here's the two documents, working on the third one now.") – David K Jul 3 '18 at 17:43
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    I think you are giving the frustrated CEO wayyyyy too much credit. I think it's just as likely that the CEO would have lashed out at him for NOT reminding him about the missing document. He is, after all, very busy and can't be expected to remember every little thing (like how he didn't remember that he'd invited contact). People can't 'know' things about our internal state of mind without us communicating it. The proper thing would be for the CEO to have communicated the state of the documents. 'Here are the first two, I'll get you the 3rd at some other point in time' – Rob P. Jul 3 '18 at 19:08
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    I agree with David K, I would have assumed document #3 was forgotten and asked as well after a suitable delay. This is not reasonable or professional on the part of the CEO. And honestly it's a big red flag regarding the CEO's stability or personality. Not someone I'd want to work for, and maybe time to start a job search? I don't recommend bailing every time someone offends you, but this seems really troubling, and this is the CEO; they set the tone for the whole company. So in this case I probably would consider bailing if feasible. – bob Jul 3 '18 at 19:30
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    The reason I would have assumed document #3 was forgotten is that in my experience if I ask for X, Y, and Z and you have X and Y done now but are still working on Z, then you will either give me X and Y now and tell me you're sending Z later, or you will give me X, Y, and Z all at once. Assuming I know you're still working on Z is assuming that I'm a mind reader, which I'm not. It sounds like the CEO is either burn out or melting down in some way, like they simply snapped in a very uncharacteristic way, or that they have a very unpleasant personality. – bob Jul 3 '18 at 19:35
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    @CaptainEmacs "it also can imply..." That does not support your stance at all. Clear communication does not rely on implying things. It relies on stating them. OP succeeded in communicating. CEO failed at communicating. CEO harassed OP for engaging in good communication. – Aaron Jul 3 '18 at 20:02
15

This situation is one that is more a consideration of what you should do with the company than a question of how do you respond to a CEO. A few points that need to be considered:

  1. A good leader will never, and I do mean never, lose their temper at a subordinate without apology. Anything short of this and the person is showing that they are not the stuff good leaders are made of. You didn't do anything wrong here, he did.

  2. Just because you are filling a different role in the company than a CEO, that doesn't mean that the C level people automatically get a pass on bad behavior. What would he say if you had written that email to him?

  3. This is not only about you and him, this is about how much you like your job there at the company. The only risk you face by mentioning this behavior to him or others (your boss the CTO) in the company is that you will make an enemy and possibly loose your job. Does he have the power to do that? If so, you have to decide if you want to continue in an environment that would fire the victim instead of solve the problem. If you like your job there and want to avoid conflict, then find a way to apologize in public about your insensitivity to his workload and that you will work hard to never get an angry email from him again. You have to let him know one way or another that his actions are not OK, and that you did notice him being inappropriate. He, as the C level employee, has to be bigger than that.

  4. If you say nothing because you like your job, you will likely find that you are constantly abused by him. He will continue to treat you like this because you will continue to let him. No consequence for him means no behavior change. This will likely result in a toxic environment for you and you will quit anyways, feeling beat down and unsure of yourself because of the abuse you have taken.

Personally, I would just forward the email exchange to your boss and let him take care of it. Little chance of confrontation that results in you getting fired. I might put a note in there asking your boss if the CEO writes emails like that to him/her.

  • 3
    I like this answer in general. My two cents is that it's probably better to quit than to be fired. So if the OP is concerned that taking action X will get them fired, I'd suggest not doing X. Instead find another job, then quit their current one. So I'd only recommend taking this to the CTO if the OP doesn't think doing so will get them fired (seems dicey to me but I don't work there). Otherwise I'd recommend a job search or keeping their head down if they want to stay put. – bob Jul 3 '18 at 19:45
  • Indeed: youtube.com/watch?v=vqBPZR63vfA – Fizz Jul 6 '18 at 1:16
6

First of all, that Email from your CEO was extremely rude and does not belong in a professional environment.

That being said after he said on Friday that he was working on it and sending you two of the letters on Monday morning at 8am, your reminder was unnecessary.

I consider myself a very cool and chill guy, but receiving that reminder I would have THOUGHT: "Dude! What do you think I'm working on right now!?"

I would now thank him for the letters the next time you see him in person (without being sarcastic!). Probably he will apologize for his email.

  • 37
    "Dude! What do you think I'm working on right now!?"... not on OP's third document, because the others were submitted with no mention of the third, so it is safe to assume it was forgotten. – Aaron Jul 3 '18 at 20:04
  • Well, OP proves that your assumption is not universal. – Simon Jul 3 '18 at 20:05
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    First: It doesn't need to be universal. If the communication is ambiguous, you cannot blame others for not assuming that your personal interpretation of your own words is the only valid assumption - that would require us to be mind-readers. Second: Where does OP prove any such thing? I was under the impression that OP's assumption was exactly what I stated above, that the third document may have been forgotten. – Aaron Jul 3 '18 at 20:11
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    Yeah, I just re-read it... OP: "He had not mentioned anything about the third document [...] Atleast a reply like "Yes, I'm working on it" would have been enough." Looks like OP also thought the third document was forgotten. – Aaron Jul 3 '18 at 20:13
3

Let's dissect what happened:

  1. You were given direct permission to text him anytime and "not feel shy". Your first email was acting on this.
  2. He then changed his mind and told you to stop the reminders. And you did just that.
  3. He sent you an email with what looked like an obvious mistake: a 3rd document missing without explanation. What you've sent was not "a reminder". It was a follow-up. A necessary proof that you've received, read and understood the email. It's quite common in workplace that not asking for something missing means that you're accepting the given set "as is", so in future it will be your fault for not following up.
  4. He lashed out at you for nothing but you doing your job right. As I said, the email with 2 documents without explaining what's going on with 3rd one looked like an obvious mistake, so your CEO was wrong not only with the form, but also factually wrong. "I DON'T NEED TO BE COACHED OR REMINDED." - it looks like he forgot the 3rd document. Facts show that he actually needs to be reminded.
  5. He finally sent you an SMS. It was not an apology. It was merely further scolding: "avoid sending excessive reminders" - you've sent ONE reminder. How excessive is that? "I understand the urgency on Your part" - He either doesn't understand or he "forgot" to show it. Intentions are of little relevance, what's important is what one displays. He offered you neither the completed work nor an explanation how it's going. "I work for 18 hours per day" - excuses, excuses, excuses. Professional thing to do is not to lash out in the first place, not offer excuses why you did.

So, to answer your questions:

Is this professional? I have been in the industry since four years and have never got emails like these. Is it how it is everywhere?

No, never. It's not professional at all. However, assholes can happen sometimes, so it's quite often that you have to chose between love for your job and hate for your boss. It's your decision that nobody can help you with. Perfect jobs don't exist, it's only the question of what imperfections YOU can live with.

What should my reply be?

It depends what you want to achieve. If you want to keep working there, don't reply at all (an excuse for you: "he's too busy to be bothered"). To minimize your stress in the future, flatly refuse to deal with CEO at all. If there is something you need from him, route it through your boss. If anyone tells you to get something from your CEO, keep repeating "I can't" without further explanation. Strictly avoid any bad mouthing of your CEO, just steer clear of him. If he asks you about why you're avoiding him, you can replay something like: "I didn't liked our email discussion. Let's never do it again."

If you want to hold your ground, you can try to walk through your exchange with him and explain that you did nothing wrong, as seen from your position. Something like what what I did above (leaving out the parts when he needs to be coached, obviously). Mind you, that it probably won't do anything but to satisfy your moral compass, as IMHO it won't change the guy. It might make him reconsider messing up with you in the future, but most likely he'll never let you talk it through, excusing with being "too busy", or he won't pay attention and brush it off.

If you are prepared to quit with a blast, you can reply in the same way: GUESS WHAT, YOU ARE GETTING ON MY BLOODY NERVES TOO. IT'S NOT IN MY F**NG JOB DESCRIPTION TO DEAL WITH ASSHOLES! IF YOU CAN'T CALM YOUR NERVES ENOUGH TO TALK TO PEOPLE CALMLY THAN YOU CAN'T HAVE EMPLOYEES, YOU OBVIOUSLY NEED SOME SERIOUS COACHING ON THAT.

Am I wrong for reminding him?

No. If you didn't, you'd be risking never receiving the documents but receiving the blame for not reminding him instead.

  • While I agree with the many statements that the behavior is very inappropriate, I can’t go along with “must be dealt with.” Who are you going to give a complaint about the CEO? The only way a CEO can be “dealt with” for something not illegal is as stated in this answer: by quitting loudly. Or being loud enough to get fired. – WGroleau Jul 4 '18 at 15:24
  • @WGroleau Hmm, never in my answer I said that the CEO "must be dealt with". I only wrote "refuse to deal with" by what I meant "refuse to interact with him". Is that the source of confusion? Maybe you can help me phrase it better? – Agent_L Jul 5 '18 at 6:47
  • I said “many answers.” Yours happens to be the only one (that I noticed) which recognizes confronting the CEO typically doesn’t work well. – WGroleau Jul 6 '18 at 11:26
2

My answer is based on the assumption that when the CEO emailed two of the three documents, he/she mentions/implies working or in the process of working on the third.

You told the CEO that you need three documents from him. He/She acknowledged this in the meeting and said you can email him anytime. On the first reminder email, his response can be taken as rude or neutral because he said he don't need a reminder and that he acknowledge that you need three documents and that he is working on those documents. His response might just be blunt and to the point.

He gave you two of the three documents, and it is unknown what his response is when he gave you that email. If he implied or said that he knows there is a third document, then your response might be excessive or taken as rude on your part. If he assumes he gave you all the documents, you can reply with a question on where the third document is. Something like, "CEO, Thank you. Did you mean you are working on the third document? If so, apologies for the question but wanted to make sure."

With that said, I would say nothing at all unless there is some requirement that you never mentioned in the face to face meeting or if the document is missing items. The fact that he first told you to stop sending reminders, that absolutely would make anyone upset but his response might be a bit over the top. I would simply not reply any longer since he acknowledges he's working on the third document and unless there is a hard deadline that passed, I would drop it.

0

Completely agree that no, he's in the wrong, and you did nothing wrong.

One other option not said in the other answers so far, is to cut all contact with the CEO for these matters, and let the CTO handle him. When the CTO replies and says "why don't you want to, you did last time" explain in detail and show the emails why; and explain that you've no intention to be abused. (And I recommend using that word; it highlights exactly what you think of the situation)

This WILL filter up; and you can expect the CEO to either accept it and be happy with the new situation, or to feel incensed that you feel that he was unprofessional - and try to convince you otherwise; and at that point you can tell him that if he replied in good time you wouldn't need to send him reminders; he could delegate the signing to the CTO; etc etc.

There is nothing wrong in not dealing with people who don't want you to deal with them, and trying to blame you for their bad time keeping is not acceptable.

-1

"Stop these reminders, (Myself). You are on my list. I am very busy." Is where things should have stopped, reminders and the CEO with the audacious responses.

The CEO made explicitly clear here that its on their mind. What they unknowingly did here was give you a get out clause, a solid reason for who ever needed these documents to be silenced should they come chasing them. A passive prompt I think would have been ok here. A "Thank you, I look forward to seeing the last one" email so it comes across as a passive reminder rather than a direct one.

However, their response was just flat out unprofessional. A calm, collect and constructive while being authoritative and professional response would have suffice, and got the message across further that it was on his to do list. Lashing out is just unprofessional and childlike.

The text they also sent you was also completely unprofessional, the CEO is trying to shift the blame to you as KevLoughrey said. And trying to justify his response to themselves and to you which was unjust.

I would mention it to your line manager and detail what happened and get them to escalate the issue. Having back up is always a good thing.

But the response from the CEO no matter how infuriating they found it was incredibly rude, and in some places line managers would be facing a disciplinary for that behaviour.

For the time being avoid contact with the CEO and lay low from him/her to allow it to settle. If you have to contact the CEO, loop in your line manager to all emails and communications with them so they are aparty to whats going on too so if needs be they can back you up.

  • 2
    OP did stopped the reminders. The missing 3rd document looked like an obvious mistake, so asking to clarify the situation does not constitute "a reminder", it's more of a "follow-up" and proof that OP did read and understood the email. – Agent_L Jul 4 '18 at 8:06
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    @Agent_L I understand what you're saying but I’m inclined to disagree. Without knowing the wording of the third reminder, in the above Saania states she reminded him about the third, not asked for clarification. The CEO could probably have stated they where working on the last one but I would argue it wasn’t needed. You could probably put 2 and 2 together and work out they where working on the last one. – UIO Jul 4 '18 at 8:15
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    The OP is not paid to assume or second guess the CEO - they're paid to follow up work they need from colleagues until they get it. The CEO had only to say e.g. "two down, third in progress" on the email to the OP with the first two docs and all would be well. The OP would be remiss not to follow up on the third in case e.g. the CEO accidentally forgot to send it with the first two - in which case, the third would never have appeared. – StephenG Jul 4 '18 at 9:09
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    Of course, it wouldn’t have hurt if the CEO had said that. But he did say that they where all progress and asked that reminders stop pretty explicitly, albeit very rudely. So to remind them again, you can see why this would annoy them, not that I’m condoning the reaction of the CEO of course. Something like “Thank you for those, I look forward to seeing/receiving the last one” would suffice rather than a direct prompt again. – UIO Jul 4 '18 at 9:25
-13

No it is not professional but you may have stumbled on an opportunity here. If he has set that precedent of direct and honest communication, you can act the same.

It is hard to know what the guy is like, he may just be a jerk, but if you can deal with him on the same level and he doesn't mind, great things could happen.

Next time he reminds you, send something similar back.

  • 4
    In my experience, those are some very big "if"s and following this advice could get the OP fired. Just because a CEO swears at their employees doesn't mean that they will accept the same in return. – Geoffrey Brent Jul 3 '18 at 22:09
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    If we were voting on what a character in a TV show should do, this answer would get my vote, it would be the most entertaining – ESR Jul 4 '18 at 0:30
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    @GeoffreyBrent so long as you have an emergency fund to cover the jobhunt, if you get fired for it, you're better off anyway. – Leliel Jul 4 '18 at 2:06
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    Yeah, this might not only get you fired, it might make your job hunt difficult. What if your next potential employer asks for two references from your current company? Or just one, and the CTO sides with the CEO? Doing this could seriously damage your career. Unless you can afford to retire, just don't. – Dawood ibn Kareem Jul 4 '18 at 2:46
  • @Leliel I've been in the position of job-hunting after angering the CEO of my previous workplace, who had power of veto on any reference my ex-manager might write for me. In my case there was no alternative, but it's not a pleasant experience and not something I'd recommend just for the fun of venting at the CEO on the way out. – Geoffrey Brent Jul 8 '18 at 3:51

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