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I recently received a critical email from someone who works at a company I deal with. It made a number of broad and inaccurate criticisms of some work I'd done. Copying in several managers for good measure.

After I read it, I got a mail recall notice, saying that the sender was recalling the mail and to disregard it. I guess it was meant delete automatically, but I didn't as I'm on a different mail system.

A day later they have sent nothing else.

But how should I respond. I feel these criticisms are still hanging, but I have no idea who read the email and don't know how to respond appropriately.

Should I just ignore it?

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    Did they address it to you specifically and cc the managers? Or were you part of a big list? If it's the latter it's more likely the sender had a freudian slip moment and included your name by accident, and later tried to undo their actions hoping you wouldn't notice. – Tasos Papastylianou Feb 27 at 21:50
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    This is my personal experience with Outlook specifically: An email won't recall if it's already been read. However, the recall is on a per-recipient basis. So, it's possible others still have it too. It's also worth noting that there is usually a report of sorts of which recalls were successful. It's entirely possible that he knows you (and possibly others) did receive and still have this email. – Xrylite Feb 27 at 23:15
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    While it was "broad and inaccurate criticisms", it is still rare to receive naked truth feedback of what people think. And while mostly false it may have some truth in it. Its great material to improve yourself. "Conduct inquires of your on into all the evidence against yourself. Play the part first of prosecutor, then of judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times." - Seneca – MPS Feb 27 at 23:52
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    You should assume that every named recipient saw and read the email, and that only you had it "recalled" (which is this close to meaningless anyway). It is not actually possible to remove email sent outside a domain, so it's possible nobody at the other company saw it, but unlikely that anyone outside their company missed it. – Michael Hampton Feb 28 at 1:50
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    Most people seem to be assuming that the sender has decided this mail was a bad idea, they changed their mind and they are recalling it. My assumption was that the only mistake they made was including you and that's the part they want to undo. Perhaps I am right and perhaps I am not. I would go to at least one person who was also included on the mail (ideally your boss or someone senior you have a good relationship with) and ask them if they got this mail, if it was retracted and if it was sent again exluding you this time. Then discuss the issues in an open manner (perhaps some are valid) – Eric Nolan Feb 28 at 16:47

11 Answers 11

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Should I just ignore it?

Chances are that this person realized that their criticism was broad and inaccurate after sending the email (and perhaps checking your work again), and retracted the email when they found out. (Anyways, pondering on the real reason is just speculation and will not bring any benefits to OP.)

I suggest you don't reply back and let it be, but still keep in mind what happened in case you notice any further suspicious or inaccurate activity from this person.


To make things crystal clear, you could also approach this person privately (perhaps go to their desk, or IM them directly) and tell them you noticed the email and its retraction, and would like to know the reason and if there is still something you can do to address the things stated in the email.

Keep in mind that, if you do this you have to be careful and polite, and only do it if you sense this person will not take it the wrong way.

As mentioned in comments, it is probable that the sender didn't intend to send the email to you in first place, so tread lightly here. Perhaps the "safest" course of action, as suggested before, would be not to reply back and be prepared for what you think could come based on the contents and intention of the email.


Edit: It was suggested to extend the answer and include more detail on how to handle the negative things said and the possible repercussions they may have on OP, so here it goes.

Before attempting to solve this issue, it would greatly help to know what is the real issue and what actually happened here with the sender.

That can be addressed by speaking to the sender carefully as stated before, and will shed some light on the reasons behind this... In case the sender actually retracted on their words, and realized their criticism was inaccurate, things will resolve faster and smoothly. In that case, the professional thing for the Sender would be to write another email excusing their inaccurate comments towards OP to set things straight...

...Yet, it could be that the sender actually meant those words and mistakenly included OP as a recipient, and does not retract what they said. In that case, things will be more complicated, as OP's professional reputation is being questioned/badmouthed.

In this case, I suggest that OP reads the email again and gathers evidence and arguments to back up their claims and counter those done in the email. After gathering that, OP should bring this to their Manger's attention and have a meeting to discuss these points (as also suggested in JeffC's Answer).

This way things will be cleared up, and the Manager can take any further actions they seem necessary here. Also, whatever case it were, it would still be a good idea to bring this up with Manager so they can be aware that this incident happened and act accordingly.

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If your direct manager didn't receive it AND still have a copy, forward it to them and ask them for a meeting to discuss the contents. Before the meeting go through the email carefully and make notes for each point with facts to back up any disagreements with their statements. During the meeting, go through your notes and present your case. Do it as unemotionally as possible.

Ask your manager if there's anything left that s/he is concerned about and what your next steps should be. I would assume (hope?) that your manager will handle it from here.

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    Yes, that seems essential to me. You are being badmouthed to clients, in a totally inaccurate way. You need to first let your own manager know that this happened, and the specific points in which this is untrue (documentation is good here..). Then with this report in hand they can in turn contact the other company's managers that were the recipients of this email, and address the situation directly. This is not just an interpersonal conflict, your company's reputation is on the line, and you are responsible for setting the record straight before they lose the client – George M Feb 27 at 23:09
  • But what's the point? The email was retracted wasn't it? Why waste time analyzing an email that the sender didn't want anyone to pay attention to? – Malcolm Salvador Feb 28 at 15:47
  • I'm leaning towards "changed their minds" which means there's nothing to worry about.. for now. I'd keep the responses to myself for now though. – Malcolm Salvador Feb 28 at 16:13
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    @AConcernedProgrammer The email could also have been retracted because the sender didn't change their mind about its contents, but rather about the list of people it was addressed to (e.g., whether or not to include the OP). Just another possibility, but I think it's fair to advise the OP to take measures against worst case scenarios. – Will Mar 3 at 9:51
  • @Kat Thanks for the edit but my intent was as it is written. OP has stated that he has a copy, the question is more did your manager receive it and does your manager still have a copy (e.g. it didn't get auto-recalled or otherwise deleted, etc.). – JeffC Mar 3 at 16:50
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Prepare a response, but do not send. Yet.

You have the luxury of knowing what was going to be sent and to who; as well it seems they believe you haven't seen it.

If there are any valid criticisms (however poorly phrased), focus on how you can improve on these areas so when/if the e-mail is sent properly you will have addressed that concern and demonstrated your ability in your office.

I do not recommend responding to the e-mail. It was not meant to be sent and not meant to be responded to. Consider it a little window into how someone might think about your performance and how you should regard that person from now on.

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    If you do this, remove everyone from the recipient list before composing it. Sending an e-mail early is embarassing, sending a reply that you never meant anyone to see would be disastrous. – Ben Voigt Feb 28 at 3:05
  • @BenVoigt - yes, and I feel it should be looked at as a 'gift' that OP received this and that the other doesn't know they have the original e-mail - not to be too Machiavellian... – Mikey Feb 28 at 13:49
  • Most mail programs will tell you when something you tried to retract failed, so the author of the e-mail likely knows that OP has read it. – Ted Delezene Feb 28 at 21:56
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    @BenVoigt meh, if that happens you can just recall your reply. ;) – CactusCake Feb 28 at 22:09
  • @CactusCake "One of our company's foundational values is the recalling of emails. Just let it all out, hit send, and then recall like nothing happened. It's a great way to vent frustration!" – Mateen Ulhaq Mar 3 at 9:41
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Look at the possibilities.
1) The email deletion was specific to you, the email was still sent to the managers.

2) The deletion was for everyone, but it also didn't work for everyone else, so the email was still received by one or more of the managers.

3) The deletion was effective for everyone else and no-one but the writer ever saw the email.

As OP says there were "broad and inaccurate criticisms" if this was within your own company I would do a measured response, pointing out why those comments are wrong. If situation 1 or 2 is the case, this is probably the most appropriate response. In situation 3, this would mean exposing the original criticisms to managers who hadn't actually seen them, but if the writer was mentioning it in an email, it may already be muttered about at their workplace and still gives you a chance to get your point of view out there.

However, because it was in a different company, you should let your own direct manager know and discuss with them if they are okay with your planned response before doing anything.

You could also send a short email to the writer, saying "I saw this and think there are some misunderstandings, I'll send out a more detailed email to all the recipients to deal with it point by point." That gives them a heads up that you received the email and gives them a chance to let their managers know if they goofed in sending the original email out at all.

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I think they realized they included the OP as a receiver, which they hadn't intended. They wanted to complain about the OP to other people, not include him among the receivers. This kind of mistakes happens so frequently in offices.

It's hard to believe the colleague took time to write a long, detailed email and then simply decided everything they wrote was wrong and shouldn't have been written.

So how should the OP react?

Constructively. He shouldn't pretend he hasn't got anything.

Instead, he should 1) talk to the person and take a stance on the criticism, or ever 2) reply to everybody.

In both situations they should say/ write something like:

I realize this email has been retracted after being sent, but I couldn't help and read it.

Then the OP should take a fair stance on the criticism, not acting defensively but also not accepting the blame for what wasn't his fault. He should propose a solution how the cooperation between him and the colleague can be made better in the future.

Which should he chose, 1) or 2)? It depends on the situation. We don't have enough details on the political situation in their workplace and their political strength to tell him which solution makes more sense.

  • Out of curiosity, this answer got -2, but no comment. Can someone explain what is wrong? – BЈовић Feb 28 at 9:35
  • A better wording might be "I read the email and then the retraction email arrived." – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Feb 28 at 14:40
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    @BЈовић There were comments, but they were deleted, along with the problem that caused the down-votes – Retired Codger Feb 28 at 20:12
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Don't assume that you're the only one to see this e-mail because you're on a different mail server. Recalling a sent message rarely works as expected: people who have e-mail sorting rules, devices with EAS/OWA mail access (e.g. corporate smartphones), or those who happened to check their mailbox on a "new e-mail" notification will see and read the message, just like you did. It's also possible that the recall was done to specifically exclude you from the recipients.

So, unless the message consists entirely of fact-less rant, you should treat it as a client feedback. Specifically in case of negative feedback, you should follow it up with your manager to see if there are points you need to improve, or your manager should communicate with the client more clearly so that the client knows what their expectations of you should be.

  • I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person to see it. – Jeremy French Feb 28 at 15:40
  • @JeremyFrench May I ask why? Is it because you would expect other people to react to the e-mail? – Dmitry Grigoryev Mar 1 at 7:36
  • yes, there was a delay between sending and the recall during which time people could have read and formed a bad opinion. – Jeremy French Mar 1 at 9:43
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Do not respond to the email via a reply. They retracted it so they realized it was the wrong thing to do.

But, do not ignore the email either. For right or wrong, they feel/felt that you didn't perform adequately. Put aside yourself for a moment and really consider if they have ANY valid points at all. If they do, these are things you need to improve upon. If not, then chalk it up to an overly emotional/critical response (which is why they recalled it).

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An example based on something I've observed to happen in the past, similarly regarding feedback on a collaborative project.

You will know better from the context, but it may have been that the email was written as a joke, to let off some frustration connected with your project, but never intended to be sent. Then later the writer hit 'send' rather than 'delete', by accident.

As a result of this experience (the repercussions I wasn't party to, but it wasn't a disaster), I always make sure to delete the 'to' when writing a reply to an email in anger (or just drafting something confrontational).

Or[1] - again maybe slightly different to your scenario - if the email was sent to both local managers and you as an external party, maybe the sender didn't realise that there were any external parties on the thread and was expressing dis-satisfaction with the internal process that was taking place, but this could be mis-read by the external recipient.

[1]: Sorry if you received an odd email yesterday...

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Reply to all involved parties with a formal statement like this

Dear [X],

following your mail from [DATE D], I received a retraction notice for this email.

I assume you could solve the issues you were facing.

Please let me know if we can be of any further assistance.

Best Regards, Y

This clearly communicates a few things and helps you cover your ass in multiple directions:

  • it makes it clear to anyone who did not receive the retraction mail, why no further answer with respect to the complaints follows from your side. So your manager might not start wondering why you don't take the mail serious.
  • It also makes it clear that you are open to help in your professional role should there any issues be left and you don't begrudge them for writing an accusatory mail.

  • In case the retraction itself was a mistake, it also gives the other party opportunity to let you know that they are still waiting for a response.

Should you not be willing to help / or helping this person not be part of your job, you could exchange the last line by something like:

If you do require assistance, please direct any further inquiries to Z.

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Bring it up to your manager. But just your manager.

Right now you don't know how far this went (who saw it, who it was intended for, what conversations are happening in response), so that's your first step, and your manager should know what the deal is.

Approach it constructively - a client/business partner seems to be misunderstanding the situation and isn't happy; how do we fix it? (Even if they're wrong about why they're unhappy they're still unhappy.)

Maybe you're the only one who saw it, in which case your manager now has a heads-up about a problem coming down the pipe due to your proactive response. Yay you.

Maybe there's ongoing conversations, in which case you're pitching in to help. Yay you.

Or maybe the ongoing conversations are less favorable to you (you just happened to get one of many complaints), at which point your job is less secure than you thought - but at least you have more notice.

  • Dealing with this kind of stuff is what bosses are there for. You can't reply in the same vein to a customer, but your boss needs to know what happened and should be able to advise you. – RedSonja Mar 1 at 8:10
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The way I see it, you've got two distinct problems:

  1. One of your clients is struggling
  2. They are blaming you

You obviously don't want to be blamed for their failures, but resolving this is going to come down to your boss' opinion of you and your work. Either your boss will think that you provided what they asked for, or you didn't. You'll have to make your case that you did what was asked.

Even if you did exactly what the client asked for, maybe they asked for the wrong thing. At this point, you are blameless, but your work is still not valuable to the client. I'd suggest going back to the client and asking them for a breakdown of their problems, so that you can provide something that they find easier to work with.

I wouldn't reach out to the client directly without your boss' approval.

protected by Mister Positive Feb 28 at 21:15

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