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I work in development and support for one of my company's products. I'm the only support employee, but there is another person that is above me. He's not technically a support employee, but he's tasked with giving me assistance since he has a lot of inside knowledge.

Apparently he worked on a small project, related to the project I support, for a customer, but it got stored away. Another customer wants a similar project and so this employee was supposed to dig it out and update it.

Several weeks ago the customer emailed my co-worker a couple times about the project and I was CC'd. In the email he directly addressed my co-worker, as in "Good Morning Jake,". Today I was pulled into my boss's office and scolded for not replying to this customer's email. Apparently, my co-worker never responded to him. I vaguely remembered the email, so I had to check it after the conversation with my boss. The reason I didn't reply was because it was directly addressed to my co-worker and I knew nothing about this side project that he was working on, even though it was slightly related to the product I support.

Should I go back to my boss and try to defend myself since I know more about the exact circumstances surrounding the email? I believe he favors this employee since he's been with the company since it was founded and I've only been here for 3 years.

  • Why was it your boss and not the other person who went to you? Is the other person above you also responsible for you? – Tom J Nowell Nov 6 at 13:57
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    How did the customer know to CC you? Is there any responsibility on your part implied by whatever history or relationship led to the customer's having your email address in the first place? – Beanluc Nov 7 at 0:22
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    Define "Scolded"? "don't do that again"? written up? yelled at? – WernerCD Nov 7 at 3:52
  • Worth considering how you would know whether a response was sent that you were not CC'd on. That raises two questions: how could you know that had happened; and whether there should be a process where it doesn't. – Móż Nov 7 at 23:37

14 Answers 14

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Ask your boss: "How do you want me to respond to e-mails when I am only CC'd?".

I do not think you did anything wrong, but you can reach a more effective solution to the real problem by putting all blaming aside and focus on what they want you to do in the future. Work it through together.

A bonus with formulating it as a question is that you force your boss to think through the situation. This is a pedagogic trick that many teachers use. Hopefully your boss will see it through your eyes. Or who knows, maybe you are the one who misunderstood something?

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    When you ask your boss that question, have printed copies of the original customer emails in your hands, so you can SHOW him that the emails were addressed to your coworker. – John R. Strohm Nov 5 at 17:57
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    @JohnR.Strohm That's a bit confrontational for a suggestion to "put blame aside". The e-mails exist, and if the boss questions it they can easily be brought up, but it goes against the spirit of the answer to show up fully armed. – Centimane Nov 6 at 17:41
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    @Centimane, one of the things I have learned in close to 40 years in corporate America: BE PREPARED. You want to be the guy who brought the gun to the knife fight, not the guy who showed up unarmed for the gun fight. You can carry them in a folder, or in an engineer's notebook, but you want to be ready to draw and shoot. The boss has already reamed you out once, undeservedly, and, as a rule, a boss who will do that once WILL NOT HESITATE to do it again. – John R. Strohm Nov 7 at 2:37
  • @JohnR.Strohm How do you suggest OP implement your advice? Should he print out every email a customer sends and carry those printouts to every meeting with his manager? Should he only print out certain emails, and if so, how should he identify which ones? – stannius Dec 4 at 18:41
  • @stannius, I assumed for the purpose of my comment that the OP was going to go talk with the boss and ask that question. That being the case, the OP knows when the discussion will occur, and can prepare, which includes printing the emails in question. Obviously, OP needs to retain all such emails, from all customers. – John R. Strohm Dec 4 at 18:51
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Every time there's a misunderstanding between what you expect as an employee and what your employer expects, treat it as an opportunity to discuss how the workflow can be improved so that this misunderstanding is unlikely to happen in the future.

You can just explain that since the letter was not addressed to you directly you assumed that you were not the person who was supposed to response. OK, now that you know that employer was expecting some initiative from your side, can you kindly ask - what would be the exact work procedure?

Say, next time you'll get a letter where you are in CC - what is the exact sets of action you should take. Should you answer only if the main addressee hasn't answer in N minutes? Should you always reach the main contact itself and discuss who should answer? Should you just automatically immediately reply no matter what?

Those kind of transparent rules will make your life easier. So, don't escalate but rather try to negotiate a better workflow.

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    As an added bonus, explaining it properly will bring to light that the mail wasn't addressed to OP, without coming across as playing the blame-game – Mars Nov 6 at 4:30
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    "Should you answer only if the main addressee hasn't answer in N minutes?" Note that if the addressee replies directly to the sender without CCing you again you might not even know about it. – user76284 Nov 6 at 16:40
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    @user76284 that seems to be the modern e-mail way: Reply to the sender on a group message where everyone needs to (or at least should be) kept in the loop. Reply All on chit-chatty "Happy Birthday", "Let me know what you're bringing to the picnic", "Congrats on winning the Heffalump of the month award", etc. messages that nobody wants to get in the first place. – FreeMan Nov 6 at 18:53
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I'd take this as a business-wide improvement opportunity on a few fronts:

  • If you're CCed into an email then in my mind that's an FYI, not a prompt for you to respond. That's just common sense.
  • It sounds unusual that the customer was sending a support related email to your colleague and CCing you when you have a support responsibility and they don't. One could argue that you have some sort of "implicit responsibility" to ensure that support related enquiries are handled but I'd temper this by saying that you shouldn't have to manage your colleague's tasks unless that's a part of your job description.
  • As the primary recipient of the email, your colleague had a responsibility to respond. If they were busy with something else or out of the office then that was their responsibility to set their out of office auto-reply or whatever.
  • This is a classic example of why support requests (faults/incidents) should be logged via a service desk rather than via emails direct to people. If your colleague was away or tied up for the day in meetings then the customer wouldn't get a response.
  • If something is urgent, encourage customers to phone rather than email. This might not always be practical but can help ensure they get a prompt response rather than emails which might not be checked as frequently.
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    @Mär I disagree. I consider CC as merely an FYI, in other words "be aware". – ChrisFNZ Nov 5 at 22:34
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    @Mär On the contrary, what is the value of being CC'd at all, if it is exactly identical to being in the TO list, with all the same responsibilities? In my business world experience, being on the TO list is precisely a prima facie signal that the sender does not expect me to take action. Of course, I am always responsible to use my knowledge and ability to decide if that should change, taking on responsibility to reply or address an issue where it makes sense, but in general don't CC me if you want me to take action—include me in the TO list, then. – CodeSeeker Nov 6 at 4:59
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    @CodeSeeker I agree with you, I assume you mean "being on the CC list" instead of "being on the TO list". – ChrisFNZ Nov 6 at 5:10
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    @ChrisFNZ yes, I made an unfortunate typo there. – CodeSeeker Nov 6 at 14:46
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    For what it’s worth, in a forty-year career, I’ve never been scolded for not responding to a CC. But I have been scolded for responding to one. – WGroleau Nov 6 at 16:20
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Should I go back to my boss and try to defend myself

No. This is a basic customer service issue.

The client sent an email to both of you, so one of you should have responded. Just because you are not directly addressed in the email does not mean that you are absolved of any responsibility to respond to it. If you see that your co-worker has not responded, as a common courtesy to your customer you should respond even if it is something generic like and CC your boss:

Hello X we will look into it and get back to you

Simply ignoring the email looks bad for you, your colleague, and the company.

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    I do agree with this. If a client cc'd you, then it must mean the client thinks you must know about the content of the email. Not necessarily having to respond asap, but at the very least a follow up if you don't see a reply-all within a reasonable time frame. Being cc'd in an email means you're not the direct person but you should know or at least have the opportunity to reply being a subject matter expert. – Dan Nov 5 at 20:02
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    A CC is "just for your information". If we are supposed to follow up on every email that we're CCed on, to make sure the person or people in the TO list actually respond, we'd spend all our time running around trying to make other people do their jobs instead of doing our own. In general, if you CC me, I am going to read it and do nothing, because there is no action item for me, unless in my reading I recognize that I have special knowledge, ability, or something that the people in the TO list don't have. The TO: person should have responded, No blame should attach to the CC: person. – CodeSeeker Nov 6 at 4:55
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    @Dan If I am cc'd on a an email regarding a project that I am not involved with, and I don't see a follow up my assumption is that the recepient removed me from the cc list when he replied. – Taemyr Nov 6 at 6:17
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    @sf02 No. Me being on CC means that someone thinks that it might be preferable that I be informed about the mail - so I should read the mail and see if there is something I could contribute. If someone CC's me and expect me to do something they do not understand email. If I am on the TO list and random persons starts asking about mail that they where they where CC'd I would be annoyed about the waste of my time. – Taemyr Nov 6 at 18:20
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    I think what a lot of dissenters to this answer are failing to grasp is that because the sender is not a member of the company they may not know who the "true" support person is. I agree with everyone's logic about "CC" being an "FYI", however, OP's role as the support (meaning they interact with clients when there are issues) is more important than (for lack of a better term) "email culture". As the support (I assume) it is their responsibility to interact with clients about issues. So even though the question was not directed to OP does not absolve OP of this responsibility. – Captain Man Nov 6 at 18:54
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If everybody involved is to behave professionally, Jake must go to Boss and straighten Boss out.

Tell Jake exactly what happened. Don't scold Jake for not answering the client; Boss will take care of that if necessary. Don't blame Jake for the scolding you got; that was Boss's error. Just tell Jake what you expect Jake to do.

If Jake won't act properly, then it becomes up to you to straighten Boss out. If Boss is accessible then you can just have a conversation. If Boss is hard to talk to then you should send a memo (usually email these days).

Be careful to disengage your ego as much as possible. Just stick to the facts. Assume that neither Jake nor Boss is out to get you until you find out otherwise.

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Customers don't care who in your company is responsible. They want the problem addressed. That is the professional thing to do. No finger pointing.

You should have responded after your co-worker didn't with something along the lines of:

Hi, thanks for contacting us. We will look into this and get back to you soon.

Then you sit down with your boss and the co-worker and set up plan to address the request.

  • How do you know if the primary recipient responded or not? – Solar Mike Nov 5 at 19:49
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    @SolarMike a good way to keep all recipients updated is to hit "Reply All" button. This practice should be mandatory in client communication. So, if the client email wasn't followed by a reply from Jake (OP CC'd), it would be safe to assume that the request is still wanting the response. – Igor G Nov 5 at 20:05
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    @IgorG That would not be a safe assumption. Not every response happens through the same medium, e.g. a phone call could have been warranted instead of email. In addition, even if it was being used to assume the possibility of a lack of response, the first thing should be to check with the coworker, and not to email the client. 2 different people emailing the client could reflect poorly on the coordination of the business. – DariM Nov 5 at 20:35
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    Nobody has to assume anything. If there was a one-directional email chain where you were CC'd and it required feedback, while you are responsible for support, you can simply contact that colleague and ask them. – Mär Nov 5 at 22:22
  • Reply All is the bane of email administrators everywhere. – barbecue Nov 6 at 17:42
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There is space to clarify procedures and improve from it (leave the need for justice, specially finding the one to blame, aside).

I would expose, objectively, the situation, more specifically, the decision points and the decision taken, in order to discuss how that situation should be handled from that moment onward.

When doing that, start with the definition of CC: CC means Carbon Copy (the process of sending a copy of an email to one or more recipients).

In my experience, when one is added as CC to an email, one is welcome to respond if one has something relevant to add to the message. Else, the responsibility to answer is not on your side, as it is information for you to be aware of.


Extra considerations:

  • If one has something valuable to add and there are more CC recipients, keep in mind @HLGEM 's answer:

It would depend solely on the content of the email and the response. Sometimes you want to keep everyone in the loop and sometimes you want to provide some private information.

  • If you are CC'd and there is a question address to someone else, consider this answer by @IDrinkandIKnowThings (read the full answer here):

In general answering a question addressed to someone else, just because you know the answer and they have not replied, is a breach of professional etiquette. The question was asked of that person, and while you may be able to provide an answer, the person asking the question may want an answer from the person most appropriate to ask.

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It could be your boss only worked on the knowledge of what the client said. The boss might have emailed the client like, "Hey, we haven't heard from you in a while. Do you still X" And the client might have simply replied, "Yeah, we emailed Jake and Scott and never heard back." So boss is obviously upset and talked to you.

I say ask for another meeting or simply forward the emails in questions and ask for further guidance. Acknowledge that you'd like to talk to clients but state the obvious that the original email was never for you. Your boss might tell you that you should follow up if you don't see a reply-all such as, "Hey client, following up here to make sure you're ready to go." And the client might reply back that Jake helped him. Then blammo, you covered yourself. Obviously if you're cc'd in a indirect email, it would mean that the sender acknowledge the email is related to you, but not necessarily expected to hear from you. If you know a piece of what the client needs, you should at least be prepared to answer anything related to your subject area.

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Sounds like Jake was the developer and support person and they hired you to take over support so he can focus on developing.

In which case, the customer was probably not aware that Jake relinquished support duties to you but probably knew you were his protege because you helped them in the past.

That means you should've been handling all support enquiries.

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    Unless the other person who was on the TO list had been even the slightest bit responsible, and forwarded the email back to the OP saying "I think this is yours now." TO and CC mean things in business. If they are identical in meaning, they're useless. – CodeSeeker Nov 6 at 4:56
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The email was addressed to Jake, so he is responsible for handling it. So it was not up to you to reply to that email.

You are responsible for support, so you're responsible for making sure support calls are handled in time. It was up to you to ensure Jake took action on that email, e.g. by delegating the request to you.

Therefore, you share the responsibility. You need to meet with Jake and agree on how to keep this from happening again.

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If you're on the list, you're on the hook. You were included on the email, you share the blame.

This was your mistake. In the very least, you should have followed up with your coworker, and introduced yourself in the email chain.

As you said.

but there is another person that is above me. He's not technically a support employee, but he's tasked with giving me assistance

that means it's YOUR duty, not his. He was there to ASSIST you.

Don't defend yourself, you will just be making excuses.

INSTEAD

  • Accept responsibility
  • Learn from your mistake
  • Be more active in your role
  • Always engage the client
  • Take initiative
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Nov 6 at 18:55
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    Cc and. It beeing addressed by name means off the hook, it would be a waste of your time if you check the state of each conversation you are merely copied. – eckes Nov 6 at 23:32
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    This is a good point. OP says they are the only support employee. A customer reached out for support and was ignored. If OP was my staff, I would seen this as their failure as well. – Cypher Nov 8 at 1:22
  • @eckes except for the fact that the OP is the only employee in his role, and the addressee is not in that role. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Nov 8 at 19:52
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No, do not go back to the boss. It's not productive. Think about it this way:

  1. The customer wants the problem solved. It matters much less who solves it as long as it is solved.
  2. The boss likely wants you and Jake to solve the problem without having to involve her. From her perspective, again, it matters much less who solves the problem as long as it is solved.
  3. From the company's perspective, it's imperative that the customer is happy. Being ignored and never receiving a response is very aggravating. Someone has to at least respond saying they're looking into the problem.

The customer likely doesn't know who is best positioned to solve the problem, so he emailed both you and Jake. Therefore, being merely cc'ed doesn't absolve you from blame. It doesn't mean you are at fault - that depends on who (you or Jake) is better positioned to resolve the problem - but it doesn't absolve you from blame.

If you go back to the boss now, it'll come across as you attempting to deflect blame. The boss is not likely to care much who is to blame. She cares about solving the problem. She cares that the customer is happy. From her perspective, it doesn't matter if you are blameless but the customer is unhappy.

If it makes you feel better, Jake is likely also to blame (it seems likely he is more to blame than you, too). But again, it is unimportant whose fault it is.

Suggestions:

  1. Send an apology to the customer. It doesn't have to be very sincere, but send it anyway. It'll make the customer happier.
  2. Solve the problem. I don't know if who (you or Jake) is better positioned to resolve the problem, but figure it out with Jake, and solve it.
  3. Then (and only then) worry about whether the process could have been improved. From my outsider perspective, the obvious thing to do would've been to stop by Jake's office asking if he's going to respond to the email. He should of course have done that to you too, but since he didn't, you could pick up the ball. If you adopt the attitude that "it's more Jake's fault than mine, but I could have and should have stopped this from happening", that will impress your boss.
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Here are some queues I think that is imporant in handling chain emails based on my experience:

  • If you're on the same Department of the person being TOed in the email, though it's not directly addressed to you it is everyone's responsibilty in that department to keep track of the email specially if it's from client.

    For instance, in my previous work, as a Software Engineer, though there are email conversations that are directly addressed to my co-worker, if I noticed that the email was sitting without response for x hours, I feel responsible to inform my co worker in person regarding the email address directly to him. Maybe he overlooked it, or delayed/never received the email due to technical issue.

  • If the TOed person is on break/leave I feel responsible to respond to the sender informing them that this person x, is currently not available and would try to assist them with what I can do, or inform them that you're going to inform person x directly once his around.

As a customer point of view also, I feel valued when someone respond to my email specially if it's about inquiry or complaint, because as a customer, if you did not received any response you'll feel like your email is ignored or you would probably think if you have sent the email to the right address which is a negative for any business which is why your boss reacted that way.

  • The general advice to keep track of all emails that are sent to your department is not workable. Departments can be huge. It's nice if you fill in the gap for someone else, but if at the TIME of first reading the email you recognize that you have no action items, and the action items belong to others, then there is no responsibility. Now, if the email is a customer support request and there are rules about who has to monitor those support requests, then of course everything is different. But it doesn't seem like in this case the rules were clear enough to the OP. – CodeSeeker Nov 7 at 20:42
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I agree partly with what Richard say but partly only.

First pointing the fact that OP was in CC and not in TO is expecting that every mail and every recipient are carefully choosen. Reality is that it is not, people will just say that you are nipticking and such remarks aren't really productive.

As for taking any blame, it would be very specific to each situation. In OP case, I don't see why OP should be managing every mail that receive his coworker.

However where I disagree the most with @Richard is to engage the client yourself.

If I am in CC or even in TO but it doesn't seems that I'm being ask to engaged within the conversation and I do have something to say, I would first discuss the mail within the team and act according to what have being said.

If I consider that I should say something then it's my role to at least say it to the people responsible in my company. Wheter they do something with it will thus become their responsability.

I would not engage with the client directly every single person engagin in a conversation will lead too often lead to confusion and misunderstanding. If someone his responsible of a project, he's the one that receive the incoming communication and the one that allow every outgoing communication.

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