For the last 23 years I've been working at a community college in California, and several times I've encountered a certain situation with managers. I'm curious whether this dynamic is one that plays out only in academia, or whether it has an analog in the private sector. Except for a one-year stint at a factory job, my whole working life has been spent in academia, so I lack perspective on whether this is a uniquely academic style of dysfunction.

The situation typically involves a manager who is not at the top of the org chart or at the bottom. These folks may habitually, or in certain situations, ignore attempts at communication through memos or email, apparently because they believe that if they say something in writing, it can be held against them.

An example from a long time ago is the following. I was chairing a faculty committee on academic misconduct, basically trying to figure out how to handle cases where students cheat on exams -- we don't want to crucify a student who cheated once, but if the student is doing it repeatedly, we don't want it to slip through the cracks. There was one manager on the committee in addition to the faculty. We write up a report with some recommendations, and we all vote to approve the report, including the manager. Now I'm getting ready to present the report to the faculty senate. My item is on the senate's agenda. A few days before the senate's meeting, I get a very brief email from the manager saying that he has "concerns," but not stating what the concerns are. I email him back, CC'ing the whole committee, asking him to say what his concerns are. Silence. Email him again. Hey, mister manager, can you state what your concerns are? Silence. The aftermath was messy, but the basic problem was that the manager was not willing to state his concerns in an email.

Similar situations have come up a few times in my experience. Recently, in a particular case, a lower-level manager (my boss) told me that his boss would never say anything substantive in an email, because anything in writing could be held against him. For example, when his boss wanted to meet with him about something, he would always just send an email saying, "Come meet with me Wednesday at 3 pm," without any indication of what it was about.

Some of these situations involve potential controversy or liability. Some of them involve issues of academic freedom, which wouldn't really have any direct analog outside of academia. E.g., recently I sent out an email in response to a controversial academic talk. The talk, IMO, contained historical distortions and elementary errors in the use of statistics. A few days later, I got one of these summonses to a meeting, with the purpose of the meeting being unspecified. The manager (my boss's boss) who issued the summons didn't state what the meeting was about, so I had to kind of guess that it was because of this controversy. When I asked through email what the meeting was about, I encountered silence.

Can anyone give me perspective on this? Is this a generic behavior of bad managers, or would this only happen in academia?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Mister Positive, gnat, OldPadawan, GOATNine, paparazzo Aug 30 '18 at 14:04

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.

  • @JoeStrazzere: That makes sense, although one can send an email saying "please meet with me about controversial issue X" rather than just "please meet with me." – Ben Crowell Aug 29 '18 at 23:45
  • Lots of managers would rather not have their discussions about "controversial" matters be in something as tangible as an email, even if its just to tell you to meet them about "it", specifically. – Noir Antares Aug 30 '18 at 4:29
  • I don't see how there can be specific expertise gained through experience to answer the question. This question requires a collection of "me, too" and "not here" answers and then evaluate them. This does not really conform to the "Question->Helpful answer" expectation. – John Hammond Aug 30 '18 at 16:33

It is very common in the government.

In fact, nothing is in writing unless it specifically has to be in writing.

There's a saying in such jobs: "if it isn't in writing it didn't happen".


Is this a generic behavior of bad managers, or would this only happen in academia?

It can happen anywhere at any level. It's not necessarily confined to 'bad' managers, because there can be an ongoing backlash to anything in writing.


There are cases where you will have to think "I want to say X, but X could possibly be used against my company in court. For example, you might say to a colleague that a certain customer is an a*****e. If you wrote that in an email, and the customer for some reason took a complaint against your company to court, that email could serve as evidence that your company intentionally mistreated the customer. So you don't write it in an email.

Or if you think you might have found a severe problem in a company's product, sending that in an email could have very bad consequences for the company (including when the severe problem actually didn't exist or was harmless).

For things that protect the company, this is normal and wise. If it is about covering your *** then it is not normal, and sending multiple requests with no answer can show that someone isn't doing his job.

  • This exactly, and it would make me look twice at everything this person asks of me if I notice they refuse to put it into writing. It could very well be them covering themselves if something doesn't work out to blame you. Even more malicious example, my old boss always demanded people call in sick by phone, he did not accept emails. I soon realized why, he constantly harassed people calling in sick and a lot of that stuff could've put him into big trouble if it had been put down in writing. – TheDelta Aug 30 '18 at 10:02

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