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I am a new (3 months) software developer in a smallish software company (10 people). I've been given a new project which has complex and poorly documented requirements, and I've been asked to speak to my boss (who is a company director) before I begin work so he can show me what to do. I did contact him, asking him to help me, and he said he would but the appointed time passed and I heard nothing.

We are spread over three sites and the promised monthly company meeting at the head office has only happened once: in January. We may get one in April, if we are lucky. I work at a site with only 3 people including me: we are all new starters and one guy is the project manager.

We have a lot of complex projects for customers in very varying different areas ranging from manufacturing and distribution to service industries. The developers also have to provide support (helpdesk) for the applications and we are currently very busy, recruiting for 1-2 members of staff as we are struggling with the support and taking on the new jobs.

In my previous job I worked for 3.5 years for a disorganised company with a boss who was often unavailable for days and who did things in a chaotic manner with no structure whatsoever. I left because I got so frustrated by the environment there, starting in my new workplace in December 2018.

I am in my mid 40s and have worked in IT for 15 years, 5 of those in programming. The issue is that my background is in desktop applications, and in this new job I have had to learn web development (CSS, ASP, HTML, Razor views etc etc etc). I have found this surprisingly challenging and despite my educational background (PhD) I've been quite slow in comparison to the experienced developers.

My personal life is chaotic as my teenage son has autism/ADHD, I have depression, my teenage daughter has anxiety/depression and my wife has unspecified/undiagnosed mental health issues. She has mentioned feeling suicidal to me several times and gets no real help. The environment at home is physically and mentally chaotic, with frequent crises and lots of extreme stress.

I sent this email to my boss this morning, after trying twice unsuccessfully to phone him. I CC'd four other people: three company directors and the project manager in my office. The purpose of CC'ing them was because previously I have complained to the boss about lack of communication (no company meeting as promised) and what I got was a frustrated verbal reply about them being busy. I wanted to make sure something actually gets done about these issues.

Hi X

I can't log in to Visual Studio again, so I can't do my job. The same situation existed yesterday. I struggled for maybe an hour myself trying to work out the problem and when I contacted you, you were able to say that it is due to the payment problem which will hopefully be resolved today. It hasn't, which I find quite worrying. I am filling in the time watching tutorials on CSS and reading the spec/documents for ___________.

I was asked to look at ___________ and the plan that I was given was that you would get back to me, but that's not happened. In fact there has been more than one occasion when you said you would get back to me and you have not been able to - the time just goes by without any contact. I guess due to the volume of support that you are all very very busy up at (head office). You have my sympathy and its great that we are recruiting more people. I am under quite a lot of stress in my personal life at the moment and it makes me very anxious when I work in an unstructured environment with poor communication. Its also frustrating that I want to be productive and help you out by completing some of these tasks, but I can't.

Kind regards, Phil

He replied with:

Hi Phil,

The problem with your Visual Studio account was fixed yesterday, you should have received an email which I have now resent. If you still haven't received it please let me know. I will be in the (your) office tomorrow morning, see you then.

Regards, X

He is not a cheerful person and I am anticipating a bit of a backlash when we see him tomorrow. My question is this: was I wrong in copying in the other directors in the email? Maybe I should have sent it directly to him first.

Edit: I spoke to the boss on the phone today and apologised for sending the email, I said that I overreacted. He said that I did and that we need to have a conversation in person. He also made it clear that I am not being fired.

Edit: The boss agreed with me that what I wrote was unprofessional and that it was a mistake to involve other people, particularly a non-director. He said it looked like I was trying to 'throw him under a bus'. I said it wasn't my intention to challenge his authority and that I let personal stress (without going into detail) cloud my judgement. He apologised to me for the lack of communication but said he is overworked. In future he said if I need to rant, rant to HIM and don't involve others - except in the rare case when I can't get the right answer out of him (which is unlikely to ever happen). He even said I can discuss personal stuff with him if I need a listening ear. It looks like the boss is a LOT nicer man than I thought. So it is a strong unofficial reprimand. I am embarrassed by my lack of professionalism but the only thing I can do moving forward is to ensure I act professionally in future and this will just be forgotten as a 'blip'.

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    It needs a lot of context, but sure, the email could have be re-worded entirely. – Sourav Ghosh Mar 19 at 10:32
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    Welcome to the site Phil, I think a lot of the details in this question are unneeded to get the point across (the 4th, 5th, and 6th paragraphs specifically). I think you can edit them out and will be more likely to get good answers as the question would be easier to read. – Captain Man Mar 19 at 14:42
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    @CaptainMan I included those paragraphs because people were asking for context – Phil Mar 19 at 15:31
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    @JoeStrazzere I am seeing a counsellor, she is on vacation for 3 weeks and during that time I had a crisis and let it get to me, without having that insight. I can see today that it isn't just the ccing that is the problem, it is what I wrote - it is insubordinate. – Phil Mar 20 at 10:49
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    Also, glad to read the final paragraph with how it worked out in the end. It's good to see that even bosses can actually be nice and understanding people and it's also good to see you updated the post to let us know how things ended up. – Jasper Mar 21 at 9:54
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It is not the best thing to do (actually, it was quite bad), but it is not a career-ending mistake provided you learn from this mistake and not make it a habit.

In these kinds of situations (i.e. something not working), you should:

  • ask verbally (your colleagues or your boss) to whom you should report the problem in order to get support;
  • keep in contact with the support person until the problem is solved;
  • if the contact person does not want to help, notify your boss;
  • if your boss does not want to help, notify directors.

NOTE: things take time, there might be many things in need to be fixed at the same time etc. Do not assume that if your problem was not fixed in XX time, then somebody does not want to help.

Actually, "does not want to help" usually means that the person tells you something along the meaning of: "Go away, I will not help you."


My question is this: was I wrong in copying in the other directors in the email? Maybe I should have sent it directly to him first.

You were wrong, you did not follow the rules of escalation properly. You should have sent it directly to your boss first. Usually you send copies of an e-mail 2-3 times (at least 1-3 days apart, depending on urgency), before adding more people to CC.

I spoke to the boss on the phone today and apologised for sending the email, I said that I overreacted. He said that I did and that we need to have a conversation in person. He also made it clear that I am not being fired.

It is good that you two had a discussion, that you apologized, and that you will not be fired. When you will talk face-to-face apologize again, and ask him if he is willing to help you better understand how to handle these kinds of situations in the future - hot the escalation process works in the company.

I know it is difficult, but you need to "forget" the emotions from home when you are at work. One mistake can be forgive. Maybe the second, and if you are lucky, the third. After that, you should not have much hope.

Bottom line: you survived this experience, and you should learn as much as possible from it.

If it is not a "secret", please tell us the final outcome, when you have it. I am surely curious about it.

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    In my previous job I didn't make it a habit of complaining, I bottled things up inside until I was so stressed that I was unable to work, and then I left the company. – Phil Mar 19 at 11:12
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    Nooo... That is very bad - I tell you from experience. As much as possible, address things with calm when they happen. Many times, very simple things become huge matters in our heads. Just talk to people. You will make your life easier - and maybe some additional friends too. – virolino Mar 19 at 11:16
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    "but it is not a big deal either" Throwing your boss under the bus is a big deal. – sf02 Mar 19 at 12:27
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    The content of the email isn't the big issue. The big issue is that he copied the whole world on something that could have and should have been dealt with privately with his boss. – sf02 Mar 19 at 12:37
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    @virolino An employee who is already the least-well performing may well be on their way out of my team after this email, yes, unless I really needed them. If it were the first offence I would consider watching and waiting, but relations would definitely be frosty after this. The OP is clearly buckling under significant personal strain, and I do sympathise, but it is not the boss's job to make business decisions based on trying to safeguard the OP's career. I can assure you that this is much worse than "maybe just some amusement around the water cooler": it's open rebellion. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 19 at 15:43
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was I wrong in copying in the other directors in the email?

Yes, you were wrong.

It's not clear what your goal was in copying others, but attempting to embarrass or undermine your boss is not a good career move.

Maybe I should have sent it directly to him first.

Not maybe.

You clearly should have sent it to him directly. Even better would have been to call him and talk with him directly.

If you wish to succeed in this company, you are going to have to find a way to work well with others, including your boss. Use your face-to-face meeting tomorrow as an opportunity to discuss ways to better communicate. Talk about regular one-on-one meetings. Talk about when you should expect him to be available and when you shouldn't. And talk about what you should do when you need help immediately.

You should come out of the meeting with a clearer understand of what communication medium to use in each circumstance. And hopefully, you will know when it is necessary to include others and when it isn't.

I am under quite a lot of stress in my personal life at the moment and it makes me very anxious when I work in an unstructured environment with poor communication.

Think long and hard before your meeting and decide how much you want to talk about your home situation with your boss.

Unless you are on very good and friendly terms with your boss, the general advice is to leave home issues at home. I have had bosses that I would be okay with sharing my situation, and other bosses where I absolutely wouldn't share.

Consider how you want your boss to react if you share what you shared here in your question. Do you want him to be sympathetic and cut you some slack? Do you want him to change his behavior so that you aren't so anxious?

The big fear should be that your boss starts to think that you have so much on your plate outside of work that you aren't up to handling this job.

Only you have any insight into how your boss might react. Try to be prepared, think it through ahead of time, proceed with caution.

Good luck.

I spoke to the boss on the phone today and apologised for sending the email, I said that I overreacted. He said that I did and that we need to have a conversation in person. He also made it clear that I am not being fired.

That's good news. Hopefully you can both now put this behind you, and find a way toward better communication going forward.

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    I think in a phone call you have access to the tone of voice and it is more of a dialogue rather than being perceived as a rant. – Phil Mar 19 at 10:51
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    "the general advice is to leave home issues at home". Personal issues should be shared only if you have friendly ties with your boss. I know from personal experience how hard is to face continuous frustration at the workplace while having a lot of issues in the personal life, but not all companies care about this. Some are great at supporting employees, but this is far from the rule. Another point to consider, are you on probation period? If so, coming up with personal issues at this point may not be a good strategy. – Quaestor Lucem Mar 19 at 11:52
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    @GregoryCurrie Not answering two phone calls is pretty typical of a busy boss and certainly doesn't warrant being put on blast via email with multiple CC's. That kind of escalation is unreasonable. – Underminer Mar 19 at 13:54
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    @Underminer I said that I agree with the answer. "Even better would have been to call him and talk with him directly." suggests that Joe didn't see the fact that that was attempted. If Joe had said: "Even though you tried to call him..." I would have known Joe saw it. – Gregory Currie Mar 19 at 13:56
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    If you are blocked from working (e.g. can't log into visual studio) then keep calling until you get the situation resolved. I don't mean just hitting redial until they answer, but it wouldn't be crazy to call every hour or two. You have nothing better to do anyways. – stannius Mar 19 at 15:37
41

Yes, you were definitely wrong to CC this e-mail. There are several problems here. Let's take a look:

Hi X I can't log in to Visual Studio again, so I can't do my job.

This may be true, or it may not. There are other editors you could use, such as the free Visual Studio Code, especially if you're primarily editing HTML and CSS. Did you consider focusing on these aspects of the app so you could be productive while you waited to get access to Visual Studio?

The same situation existed yesterday. I struggled for maybe an hour myself trying to work out the problem and when I contacted you, you were able to say that it is due to the payment problem which will hopefully be resolved today. It hasn't, which I find quite worrying.

Your boss probably has quite a lot of things going on. If it isn't his top priority to get you to work, that doesn't mean you need to harass him about it.

I am filling in the time watching tutorials on CSS and reading the spec/documents for ___________.

This is good; it shows that you're trying to be productive. It's not as good as if you were to find an alternative editor so you could work on the actual product, but it's better than nothing.

I was asked to look at ___________ and the plan that I was given was that you would get back to me, but that's not happened. In fact there has been more than one occasion when you said you would get back to me and you have not been able to - the time just goes by without any contact.

Now you're making accusations and criticisms, and worse, you're making them to an audience. To be frank, you're lucky you weren't fired or otherwise reprimanded after sending an e-mail like this. (Your reprimand may be coming tomorrow.)

I guess due to the volume of support that you are all very very busy up at (head office). You have my sympathy and its great that we are recruiting more people.

This is an attempt at a save after the accusations, but it would've been far better not to make them in the first place.

I am under quite a lot of stress in my personal life at the moment and it makes me very anxious when I work in an unstructured environment with poor communication.

This is unprofessional, especially to put in an e-mail to a wide audience. Your job is to do your job regardless of the circumstances in your personal life. Granted, that's not always possible, but if things at home are causing problems in the workplace, that's something to discuss with your boss privately, not to air in an e-mail of this sort. The "unstructured environment with poor communication" phrase is rather insulting to your boss and others who work there and is bound to put them on the defensive.

Its also frustrating that I want to be productive and help you out by completing some of these tasks, but I can't. Kind regards, ___

With some reworking this could be a reasonable thing to say, but as it is, it makes you sound rather powerless. Not a good look.

Now to other matters. You say you're slow compared to the other developers; does that mean there are other developers in your company? If so, you should be soliciting their help. They might also have suggested installing an alternate editor to get you started while waiting for Visual Studio.

As for the CC:, for future reference, when you CC other people on a communication directed at one person, it's usually a passive-aggressive act. It's the e-mail equivalent of having a loud argument out in the middle of the office where everyone can hear. In some ways it might even be worse, since it's permanently written.

Your job at this point is to apologize. Sending that e-mail was presumptuous and rude and puts your boss in a bad light. When your boss meets with you tomorrow, the first words out of your mouth should be an apology for sending the e-mail and losing your cool, and some indication that you were able to work around the problem (e.g. with an alternate editor). You are probably on thin ice at this point unless your boss has great reserves of patience, so focus on patching up the rift you've caused.

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    I agree with some of what is said here. The email was sent with the heat of emotion and although it felt like I was being tactful at the time, in retrospect I was not. – Phil Mar 19 at 14:13
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    "There are other editors you could use, such as the free Visual Studio Code" While true, it's terribly easy to end up in a "works on my machine" scenario if you use a non-standard editor/IDE other than what the company uses. This could be problematic in itself. – Kenneth K. Mar 19 at 17:12
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    @KennethK. Agreed. It would be intended as a stopgap measure to prove he was trying to get work done rather than as a permanent solution. I wouldn't develop C# with VS Code personally, but for HTML and CSS it's not bad. Even for .NET Core it might not be too bad if coupled with the command-line dotnet tool. – user1602 Mar 19 at 17:16
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was I wrong in copying in the other directors in the email?

yes.. I understand that you were likely frustrated but CC-ing others in to what is basically a rant at your boss is unwise.

It absolutely comes across as you wanting to air your grievance and annoyance with him in front of others and as an attempt to "shame" him in the process. Giving your relatively new boss a public "Reason you suck" speech is not only unprofessional but can be rather career limiting!

I'd suggest apologizing to your boss next time you speak to him - explain that you were just a frustrated that day and you let it get the better of you.

  • The boss isn't new, he has worked there for years - I am new. I don't want to give an unqualified apology to him when he comes, since I am not sorry for what I said - quite the opposite, the email was very restrained. What I do have to apologise for perhaps is involving other people at such an early stage. It would probably have been more tactful to just phone him. – Phil Mar 19 at 10:49
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    @Phil He's new to you is what I meant. If you aren't sorry then by all means don't apologize - I'm not advocating that you do against what you feel. But I have to say is that if you think that email (including the cc-ing because that's the key transgression here) was "restrained" then I think we have very different definitions of the word. – motosubatsu Mar 19 at 10:52
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    @Phil The email was not restrained (in an absolute sense). It might be the case that it's restrained relative to the strength of your feelings, but imagine you were one of the people cc-ed: how much of the information in that email is something they could actually use? My guiding idea is that the more people you cc on an email, the more vital every piece of information in the email needs to be to deserve inclusion. Resolving your frustrations with your boss and personal circumstances is not something that the three directors and your PM need to deal with. The cc-ing was the major problem. – Upper_Case Mar 19 at 13:59
  • I think you are right @Upper_Case. When I spoke to him today he is clearly angry and I need to think through what he might say, perhaps do some role-plays in my head. But cc-ing was probably a naive mistake. – Phil Mar 19 at 14:11
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Your frustration level is pretty high right now, and it definitely came out in that email. You should probably seriously consider if working in a small company on projects with complex and poorly documented requirements while learning new technology is something you should be doing. Some people thrive on that kind of nebulous situation, but most people don't. With your home situation, that is probably not a good fit.

I also have a son with autism/ADHD and that means I sometimes come in late, sometimes I leave early, and sometimes I need to work from home. Sometimes I even have a full-blown crisis to deal with. I discussed this with my managers before I agreed to be hired, because I wanted to be clear that my home life would sometimes require adjustments to my work schedule. It has never been a problem for me. If you haven't had that conversation with your employer, you need to have it now. You need to have that conversation will all your future employers.

The next thing you should do is go to your boss and ask for some period of time where you can focus on learning the stuff you need to know. I'd ask for a week or two, where you can put everything else on hold and spend your time doing tutorials, watching videos, taking online classes to learn CSS, ASP, HTML, Razor views etc etc etc. If you can fully focus on that and exclude all other responsibilities, it's likely that you will get yourself up to speed, your frustration will decrease, and the project can be successful again. If your boss says no, then I think the writing is on the wall. It's time to move on.

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It's so easy to parse the world in terms of justice—I have done so many times, myself. And if we are parsing the world that way, when someone does something that we perceive affects us negatively, it feels like an injustice. Suddenly a part of our brain says we have the high moral ground. Suddenly we feel like actions that expose, criticize, and put a very fine point on the issue are helpful and reasonable.

Unfortunately, most of the time we have not actually suffered a truly serious injustice. In the case of your employment, you are being paid to be valuable to the company. If things outside your control truly caused you to be unable to render that value, then you are blameless, so long as you communicated about it and asked for help. If you've done your job of doing all that you can to do your job, and you still can't do your job, then effectively, the company is paying you to sit around not doing your job, which is within its rights.

To start changing this way of thinking, I suggest that you read the book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Especially pay attention to the part of his story where he worked in a suicide hotline call center, and make a mental note to yourself: all people need you to treat them as if they are at-risk, and need your soft skills more than your brutal, hard, sharp logic. If logic is the job at hand, it still has to come after your attention to the people.

In the case of your boss, if you really couldn't do your job, it was time to just message him—what you had done, how you were stuck, and how you were attempting to proceed. If you see a pattern of not responding, then it is up to you to address it with the person who isn't responding.

And before you ever escalate again, you need to do a last-ditch communication (just like in the book) along the lines of "have you decided to not answer?" Perhaps much better in this case, "should I try to solve this problem on my own?" Make it a question where "no" is the answer you want. You want him to answer, you want his help.

As other answers have already said, please consider that you almost certainly need more emotional support. Do you have a big and strong enough support network? You are being pulled apart at home. You need people to talk to and share your problems and get advice and sympathy. Find a support group, or friends, or a therapist, or use your company's Employee Assistance Program to call someone, or go to a church and ask to talk to someone. Do something. When we feel like we're at the end of our rope, all of our random life circumstances can start to take on the sense of a life-and-death situation, even when they are nowhere near that. This puts us at risk of acting ineffectively or maladaptively, either of which will only hurt us more and push us closer to the end of our rope. You've got to take this seriously.

When you communicate with your boss, or anyone at your work, try to speak in these ways:

  • "X came to my attention and I'm worried that Y might happen. Do you think it's worth investigating further?" (NOT "if someone doesn't do something about Y immediately the company will burn down tomorrow.")

  • "I feel X about this situation that's happened a few times. My attempts to solve it so far have consisted of Y & Z, but they haven't appeared to work yet. Do you have any suggestions about how to proceed? This is affecting my work."

  • "It seems like you X (or it seems like you Y)", and try to reflect back something that the person will really connect with. For your boss, it could be something like "it seems like you are really busy over there. Things must be crazy. Is there some way that I can get help with Z without distracting you from your important work?"

  • Always ask "how ..." or "what ..." and don't start with who, when, where, and most especially NOT why. "How would you like me to proceed?" "What could I do to move forward?" "What do you think might be stopping this from working?" "Do you have ideas on how to solve this?"

It may seem unnatural, or unpleasant, but it is almost a guarantee that if you learn to start empathizing with people, making soft observations (e.g., "it seems like you feeling" instead of "you always do negative interpretation"), learning to synchronize with people, and so on, as I have briefly outlined, you will have far more success in your job and in life as well.

How do I know? Yeah, experience is the best teacher. The more I learn to be soft and not pushy, intense, accusatory, and so on, the better results I get in life.

1

I disagree with the other answers here. You absolutely did the right thing. The history you recounted demonstrated a clear pattern of behavior of ignoring your issues - promised meetings that don't take place, phone calls that aren't returned, etc. And if you'd followed the advice here, there would have been no consequence for your latest email to be ignored again, so it would have been. I'm a little bit older than you and what I've learned (through lots of attempts at taking the passive approach as suggested here) is that no good comes (for you) from always seeking to put others before yourself who also seek to put themselves before others.

You only got a response because you shone a light on the poor job performance of your boss. Do you honestly believe he sent an email and it somehow got lost? Of course not. He's covering his behind for never having actually sent the email. Do you believe he's going to be at your office the next day by coincidence? Again, no; he's doing that to save face and make himself look like he's on top of a situation he's completely ignored.

You did indeed do the right thing. Your boss clearly has his own interests at heart rather than your own. Loyalty to one's commander comes with the understanding that the commander will provide everything their subordinates need to the best of their ability, never throw them under the bus, be quick to take blame and slow to take credit, etc. Your boss seems to have left your location to fend for themselves without even providing you working tools to do so.

Don't worry about getting fired - you're too short-handed as is and losing an employee will look bad for your boss right now. That's without considering what he fears will come up in the exit interview. And now he's on notice that he can't walk all over you - things will improve now. Heck, maybe you're the most qualified to be the project manager there. :-)

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    Wow, and here I was thinking the question itself was crazy. – L0j1k Mar 20 at 4:36
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    @L0j1k It's crazy to expect to be provided with the basic necessities to do your job, so that the business can make money - instead of paying you for sitting around doing nothing? – Ian Kemp Mar 20 at 8:39
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    This is a very kind response for which I thank you but unfortunately I have to disagree. Although there is some truth in what I said, I exaggerated a situation which wasn't that bad - because I let the emotions get the better of me. Also the way that I went about communicating it was completely wrong. I should have gone to the boss first, and if I didn't get a satisfactory response then went to one other director. It was an inappropriate level of escalation which was driven by my feelings rather than the needs of the business. – Phil Mar 21 at 8:58

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