I am a 36 year old woman and work for a biotech startup on a 4-person sales team. We are aggressive, communicate quickly and swear frequently, for better or worse. We recently hired a new customer service person and he has immediately been sent into challenging or heated situations as part of his role. These situations, through no fault of his own, often result in him getting negative feedback from the customer or someone from one of our internal departments. CS rep related to me that he feels like he is doing something wrong because he is receiving a lot of negative feedback.

Yesterday, we needed to send him into yet another heated situation with our accounting department. Accounting is a nightmare right now. They have two new hires, the director has been out for a non-Covid, non-life threatening medical issue, and we were about to drop a deadline bomb on them that required the department to drop everything and handle this one crucial situation immediately with CEO pushing the issue through. I emailed CS rep and said "If accounting director is pissy with you, you didn't do anything wrong". I also followed up with CS rep via phone to explain the current nightmare situation in accounting so he didn't feel like he did something wrong or caused a problem. Well, my "pissy" email got forwarded to accounting director in a communication string and she took it to HR.

Accounting director told HR she doesn't know what she did to upset me, doesn't understand why I would talk about her that way, and wants disciplinary action to be taken against me. I got a call from HR and I explained the context of the email, how I followed it up with a phone call to CS rep, and how I have absolutely zero issues with accounting director. I apologized, committed to making my email communication "more formal" and "in keeping with the company culture", and how I would never let anything like this happen again. HR director now wants me to call accounting director and apologize directly for hurting her feelings and to explain the context of the email. I called and accounting director won't answer, so I left an apology message and asked her to call me back to discuss further. I can't see her in person because we are remote due to Covid, so phone or email is all I have and HR specifically requested a call.

What do I do now? This is a woman who has the power to delay every sale, PO, invoice and payment. She's clearly very sensitive, and I am concerned that she may lack the professional ability to move forward. I am very sorry I hurt her feelings, have no problem with her as a coworker or person, and did not intend to insult her in any way.

Any guidance or insight is appreciated.

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    forget the swearword: if I read you telling someone "if Kate is mad at you, you did nothing wrong" I would be mad. You know in advance who is right and who is wrong? Think about that next time you want to send someone into the vipers den, but the viper might read the email. This is about a lot more than "pissy" vs "angry" or other word choices. – Kate Gregory Feb 17 at 19:09
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    Are you able to talk to her face to face? I agree with Kate - I don't think you really understand what stung about what you said. The director probably felt you had a decent working relationship, and now you're disparaging her to the new hires as someone irrational. I don't know if you can fix this over the phone. – ColleenV Feb 17 at 19:16
  • Would it matter if you were referring to a temp? It shouldn't. There is no reason to make that kind of statement in reference to anyone. The implication of your statement suggests the person is irrational, while your explanation indicates that it is understandable. Also why is a entry level employee bearing the news of complete priority shift for an entire department? – Pete B. Feb 17 at 19:18
  • This person isn't entry level, he is new to an upper mid-level position. He was sent in by the head of sales, not me. I hear you all saying I labeled the accounting director as irrational. Would it have been better to say, "if you go into accounting with this information and get a negative response from the director, it isn't your fault for being the bearer of bad news"? HR took issue with the use of "pissy", which I understand. I wasn't shooting for an insult, I was trying to tell CS rep that an possible negative response from accounting wasn't caused by him, – mmconeyb Feb 17 at 19:28
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    For reference, don't put anything in an email about someone that you wouldn't say to their face. Personally, I would have said something like this right in front of them. There's nothing wrong with what you said. This person obviously lacks the context to understand it and the maturity as a leader to be able to handle it. I'd be surprised if HR does anything with something like this. – Joel Etherton Feb 17 at 21:24

I emailed CS rep and said "If accounting director is pissy with you, you didn't do anything wrong". I also followed up with CS rep via phone to explain the current nightmare situation in accounting so he didn't feel like he did something wrong or caused a problem. Well, my "pissy" email got forwarded to accounting director in a communication string and she took it to HR.

I think you chose a poor choice of words here. I think the better idea is in the future, don't explain how everyone might feel in the situation. The person should be professional enough to know that if they are going into a hostile situation.

Just drop any personal interpretation in future emails. Say only factual things about the situation and what they're going into and leave any and all personal feelings outside of it. Instead of saying they person might get pissy, just say, "Person A is at accounting and has a issues with the deadline. Please go see Person A at accounting to get it resolved. Thanks." And then send it. Don't add anything else.

What do I do now? This is a woman who has the power to delay every sale, PO, invoice and payment. She's clearly very sensitive, and I am concerned that she may lack the professional ability to move forward. I am very sorry I hurt her feelings, have no problem with her as a coworker or person, and did not intend to insult her in any way.

No she's definitely not being overly sensitive. If anything, I would first drop the attitude you have. You're going to get terminated or worse. Second, do exactly what HR told you. Not anything anymore than what they said. Call and simply say, "I'm sorry for my poor choice of wording. I did not mean to say it in that way and I apologize." Then end it. Don't add anymore things like why you don't understand or why they took it to HR or anything else. Just apologize and continue on. If the person is not accepting your apology or if they become combative, just tell that to HR. Again be FACTUAL, don't add personal feelings of what you think the other person is doing. Just say, "I called Person A to apologize and person A at first accepted the apology then became combative by adding the statements A, B, C." Then see what they say. At this point, HR is probably not going to be happy if there are any more issues and since you started it with the "pissy" email, I don't think this is going to end well for you. So just apologize, and no matter what the person says, just say I won't do it again in the future and hang up.

If you cannot contact the person, just go tell HR. Tell HR FACTUAL statements about what you were unable to do. Start it with, "Thank you. I apologize for the statement and called Person A to apologize. The person is not picking up at number XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. Please let me know how to get in touch with this person so I can apologize. Thanks." Then end it. Don't say they're mad at you, or you don't understand why they're mad, or anything. Don't add anything else on what you believe might be happening.

I am concerned that she may lack the professional ability to move forward.

If your goal is to show her level of incompetency, then I think you're going about it in a very wrong way. You're basically giving her gasoline and expecting to light herself on fire with it.

It's best to allow your company to see that she is incompetent and let them deal with it. At the end of the day, you were hired to do a job. Just do that job you were hired to do and if someone is holding you up, don't try to make them look bad by giving them gasoline. At this point, she has the upper hand on you now and in the future. Since you wrote the "pissy" email in your own word, that's forever in the HR files and something they could pull up in the future. So at this point your best chance is to simply do your job, and remain professional. Don't talk bad about other people, especially to someone who could accidentally forward the email with the text.

At this point in your career, you should and ought to be old enough to know sending emails can get forward. So it is best to always write as professional of an email as possible. That same email could get pulled years from now because that person might store it on the computer and one day try to find that person in accounting and say, "Oh here's an old email from blah." And they reply or forward that email.

So yeah, don't do that.

  • I agree. We easily get into bad situations we don't need to enter, when we imagine what others might do by describing the person instead of the behavior. If this email said, "We don't have all the reports the director wants ready, so expect the director to point this out. It's not the first time either, so let's hope the Director is kind." None of this would have happened. .... AND ... It's not your job to help or hurt her career. Let her make her successes and failures on her own. Focus on your failures and successes, because firing everyone else won't get you a raise. – Edwin Buck Feb 18 at 23:06

Go back to HR and explain that you are not able to contact her - she is not answering her phone when you call, although you did leave a message. Ask them if there is another way to get your apology to her.

HR is the ones who wanted you to call, and you've tried that. They need to know that you've tried and what the result was. At this point, just be professional and non-emotional, just state the facts and ask for guidance.

If she isn't professional, there is nothing you can do to change her. You'll want your own behavior towards her to be without reproach from now on, so if there are issues, it will not be you that they are concerned about.

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    This is a pretty good answer. You can't change how everyone else is but it is best not to explain that in ways that can bite you. – Dan Feb 18 at 19:25

At this point you have done what you can and it's time to move on.

Carefully document the steps that you have taken, review then with HR and have HR either confirm in writing that they are satisfied or give you specific & actionable alternatives. Repeat until HR confirms that you are done.

Then continue life as if nothing had happened and assume that the case is closed.

It's possible the accounting director will try to retaliate, be passive aggressive or try to make life difficult for you. You need to treat this very professionally. Document carefully all interactions and any incidents. If a pattern emerges that indicates unprofessional behavior, discuss it with your manager. Keep it STRICLY about work: describe the behavior and how it impacts your own performance and your ability to deliver. Do not mention the incident, do not blame, do not speculate about the reasons. Keep any emotions out of it and stick to the facts in as quantitative a way as is possible. Then let your chain of command handle it.


You need to change your strategy going into these meetings.

I think you did a good job of preparing the person for the response; but, did a poor job of wording it (and a worse job of letting them know why they would receive such feedback).

Share more of the situation with them. Clearly tell him you're about to drop a lot of work on a team that's effectively short three people, and they are going to react by targeting him. Let him know it is nothing personal, and that there is likely nothing that you or he can do about it. Inform him that it has no impact on the perception of his work, but the team will vent and he's the easy target. Apologize ahead of time.

You need to (attempt to) see this from the Director's eyes

The Director has a job to do. They have to keep quality in the financial process, keep processes performed accurately and honestly, and keep the budget within the guidelines. Any part of their job that you made more difficult should receive a response you would give to a subordinate that was not following your procedures.

You need to properly apologize to the Accounting Director.

This can be done in an online meeting. Try to make it more personal, so show your face, look nice and don't apologize until you really understand what you did wrong, and what you are going to do about it.

You handled the entire interaction wrong. You expected some negative feedback, and you worried that the person would take it hard. So, instead of properly preparing them for the meeting, or fixing the core issues beforehand; you prepared the person by generalizing away the details using language that said a lot more than you intended. You are very sorry, because you never meant to say something about the Director personally, you meant to say something like the Director will rightly push back on these points, because we haven't addressed them properly.

You knew very well that the meeting was going to cover items that deserved push back. Your mistake was your horrible preparation of others for the expected push back.

Then tell the Directory you'll do a better job of being more professional about preparing employees for undesirable situations. Tell the Director that they won't have to trust your apology is sincere, they will see it in their future interactions and meetings.

Live by those words, and become a good coworker to the Director.

If you avoid taking full responsibility for your mistakes, you can't grow

By taking the hit directly, without diverting it or blaming another, you have a chance to rebuild the relationship with the Accounting Director. Follow up with them, attempt to put them in a good light, and make their job easier, and they will likely not create issues to make your work more difficult.

We can't improve when we don't do anything wrong. Be wrong, learn from it, and embrace the failures (but learn to call them "learning opportunities" instead of "defeats").

  • Agree. OP was unprofessional in sending the email. Be humble and apologize. – HenryM Feb 19 at 1:41

I think you have already done what you should do to deal with the current situation, except (so I presume) for one thing: start being kind to your coworkers.

Your description of the situation involves many little hints which suggest a defective, especially uncooperative work environment in your organization.

The issue at hand is a symptomatic example of that. No matter how this particular dispute settles – if you, your coworkers, your managers are not willing to work on the basic values and principles of your organization, situations like this will happen over and over again and manifest frustration among everyone involved.

Being kind to each other would be the first value I'd suggest to embrace.

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