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I manage a team of about 20 at my company. One the people I manage will occasionally send emails to me to tell me things he thinks I should do differently. If I disagree with him, he'll reply and cc my boss with his disagreements. My boss puts tremendous trust in me, so I'm not really worried about it affecting my job. I'm not at a military style company with a very rigid chain of command, but these emails seem to undermine my management while effectively complaining to my boss.

I plan on talking to him to ask him to stop this behavior.

What is the best way of having this conversation without appearing petty?

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    Related – rath Dec 9 '14 at 17:33
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    Doesn't he know about Bcc? :) – James Adam Dec 9 '14 at 18:46
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    This is a very well written question, welcome to The Workplace! – enderland Dec 9 '14 at 18:57
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    I was really confused for a few seconds: "What is the best way of having this conversation without appearing pretty?" – ANeves Dec 10 '14 at 20:38
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    Can't your boss tell him to stop CCing them? – Carl Smith Dec 11 '14 at 0:20

12 Answers 12

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Talk to your boss.

Maybe your boss asked to get cc'd. Maybe your boss also disagrees with your decisions too, and you should look into doing things differently. Maybe your boss is wondering why you're not taking care of things (and can offer advice).

But mostly, if your boss hasn't already had a talk with your subordinate to knock it off, he/she has tacitly approved of the cc-ing and is undermining you.

Having your boss politely decline this "helpful information" is probably the least jerky way to handle things. It provides you with the support you need, while hopefully letting your subordinate know that such things are inappropriate (in this case) and getting them back to working with you.

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    he/she has tacitly approved of the cc-ing and is undermining you. I believe it more likely that the boss is wondering why the OP is letting this continue. The person causing the problem is directly managed by the OP so if this behaviour is problematic it's up to the OP to stop it and no one else. – Lilienthal Dec 9 '14 at 23:33
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    Excellent solution. It's hard to say "You don't need to let that other person know." It's easy to say "You don't need to let me know." – Paul Draper Dec 10 '14 at 2:06
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    This is curious. One of our more frequent advice when someone is having problems with his manager is "escalate to his boss". It is interesting to see the other side, too. – T. Sar Dec 10 '14 at 10:20
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    @Lilienthal I don't think that a boss should deter cc'ing him on matters of importance. Neither should he let any manager force his subordinates to not CC two levels above. If you have one foul egg in the chain of command, severe problems a whole branch has with that manager may never reach the manager's boss. The OP's boss will have read that email, and possibly remember it should similar complaints come in from different people. Only then will he look into the reasons. – Alexander Dec 10 '14 at 16:30
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    In addition to @Alexander I'd like to suggest that the boss not replying doesn't necessarily mean he approves, but that he sees and does not think intervention is necessary, which is in fact supporting the OP's position. I would ask the boss if it's bothering him, and if he says no simply let it continue. Open communication is important, even if it doesn't lead to action every single time it is still in the spirit of transparency. – thanby Dec 10 '14 at 20:44
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My boss puts tremendous trust in me, so I'm not really worried about it affecting my job.

I'm not at a military style company with a very ridged chain of command, but these emails seem to undermine my management while effectively complaining to my boss.

I disagree.

Unless your boss doesn't trust you (in which case you have far larger problems), or unless your management style requires that folks on your team talk only to you, this is no way undermines your management.

What is the best way to stop this behavior without being too much of a jerk?

Behavior which is unrewarded and unreinforced usually dies on its own.

There is nothing to be gained by forcing them to stop. Instead, simply ignore the CCs. They will likely stop happening over time if the behavior isn't rewarded (by you or by your boss).

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    It's entirely possible that the purpose of copying the boss isn't to get a response from the boss, but is merely to make the coworker feel better about having stated his objections; the act of sending the message would be its own reward. As such, I wouldn't expect that it would stop but nor would I expect anything to come of it. – supercat Dec 9 '14 at 22:41
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    If I were the boss and receiving these communciations I would strongly wonder why the person I put in charge of managing the lower levels and filtering this kind of noise isn't doing his job and putting a stop to it. – Lilienthal Dec 9 '14 at 23:56
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    @lilienthal: If I were the boss being cc'd I'd likely just talk to the manager to see if s/he still wants that person on their team. – NotMe Dec 10 '14 at 1:55
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    Suppose you talk to a customer, and they ask, "Can I speak with your manager?" Don't you feel even a little undermined? Granted, there are some legitimate reasons to ask that, even if you do a great job. Perhaps the issue just needs a higher authority. But if it happens repeatedly, the customer obviously has little confidence in your ability to do your job well. Same thing here. – Paul Draper Dec 10 '14 at 2:10
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    Admittedly I don't have any reports with reports, but if I was the boss getting this email I might well think, "the manager seems to be handling this" and ignore it. After all, none of the disagreements is actually leading to formal complaints about the manager's behaviour, it's just a little puzzling what the employee is hoping to achieve by CCing someone into the middle of a conversation without actually addressing them directly. – Steve Jessop Dec 10 '14 at 11:40
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Perhaps you should first ask yourself why it bothers you so much? Why do you feel undermined by the fact that your boss knows about the conversations you're having with your team?

Ask yourself what the underlying message is from that team member. If you can't see it, then simply ask that person why they do it. A simple, "hey, I noticed you've been CC'ing {boss} on our conversations and was just curious as to why?" should suffice and shouldn't come off like a jerk (hopefully; it's possible your past actions have already tainted the water).

From a worker's perspective, I am more likely to CC a third party when I feel I'm being stonewalled or misinterpreted, or I feel that something isn't being run right, and that my concerns are stopping at my immediate manager and not reaching the people who could really make the changes I believe are necessary. Since you mention that these conversations are about things he thinks you should be doing differently, it's likely he feels the same way.

Of course you're going to disagree with him. You manage the way you do, because that's how you feel is right, given the pressures put on you. Having someone telling you you're wrong is going to put you on the defensive, at least at first. Perhaps, too, take a little more time and consider where that person's concerns are coming from and see what merits they have and if there's anything you can do to at least meet them in the middle. If you can't budge on their concerns, then see where you can be more transparent in your communication to them about why things are the way they are. People are a lot more accepting of things that seem nonsensical when someone has explained the reasons for it (and, ideally, acknowledged that it is kind of weird).

Also, avoid using "that's just how things are" as a reason, especially if you work with knowledge workers. "That's just how things are" isn't good enough for most people, least of all those hired for problem solving roles (after all, they see a problem and are driven to fix it). If you give that as a reason to that type of person, then expect to find someone new to fill that position, because that person will very likely leave sooner or later (and the more he feels stonewalled, the sooner that will be).

Part of being a good manager (and good leader) is recognizing when, where, and how you've failed your team (and how they feel you could be more successful). (You're human, it's going to happen.) If one or more of them has felt the need to CC your boss, then they feel that you've failed somewhere, they're trying to fix that failure point before it becomes a larger problem, and they feel you're not listening to them. How you go about it will depend in part on what feedback they're giving you, but as it stands, you are very likely losing that employee's trust and respect, and when you take sincere steps to regain that trust and respect, he will be less likely to CC your boss when he has future concerns.

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    I think this is a perfect response. I think talking about problems with the involved parties makes life so much simpler, there's a lot less wondering and what-ifs. – guanome Dec 12 '14 at 19:34
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Manage him.

As a manager it's up to you to ensure that your team is as effective as they can be at their jobs. This includes handling potentially disruptive behaviour, no matter what form it takes.

When you identify such a pattern, discuss it with the employee and find out his reasons. If the employee's concerns are reasonable, act to resolve them. If his concerns are not reasonable or are simply part of the job (which includes following your direction even if he disagrees!), ask him to stop. Don't sugarcoat it, don't beat around the bush: just tell him that he should stop whatever it is he's doing. Employees aren't psychic so be explicit and what you expect from them rather than believing that they'll figure it out. This goes double for unusual behaviour like this as it suggests unfamiliarity with standard workplace norms.

If the behaviour persists it becomes a performance issue and you deal with it as such: caution the employee and warn him of the potential consequences, then enforce those if necessary.

The trick to not being a jerk? Don't act like one. Doing your job and expecting your reports to do theirs is hardly jerkish. You have managerial authority: use it, just don't abuse it.

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    I think it is best to manage him, but you should go into the intricacies of how he might approach the employee in a way that doesn't immediately put said employee on the defensive. – crush Dec 10 '14 at 17:48
  • Do you think all he is doing is cc'ing your boss? He likely is complaining to others. He does not trust you, otherwise why would he cc your boss. You are the leader he does not want to follow. You must either lead and get him to follow, or cut him loose (different department, etc.) Good luck. Not on defensive...he cares about the decisions, he worries about the direction...This behavior needs to stop because... <fill in why> – Paul Dec 11 '14 at 17:12
  • Its worth pointing out to the employee that by putting it in an email he has a record of his concerns, and that you have made a decision with the information he has provided. Reassure him that you have heard his arguments, and appreciate him bringing them to your attention, but have made a decision and, unless circumstances change, you are sticking with it. If it turns out to be the wrong decision he won't be blamed, but he needs to respect your decision (and your right to make these decisions). Of course if he has a legitimate grievance then he can contact your boss or HR – mattumotu Jan 5 '16 at 17:06
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Chances are good the reason this person is sending responses to your boss is because they do not feel they are being heard, or that their concerns are being addressed.

In other words, it is likely that this is a communication problem between you and this worker, and that it is entirely within your power to resolve the situation. Clamping down on it by telling them to stop is unlikely to resolve the root problem - they don't feel like they are being heard. Closing off the current path they use to relieve that frustration is only going to cause them to form new paths or decrease their satisfaction with the job.

Unfortunately you don't indicate the nature of the complaints, nor the person making them, and honestly there are too many possibilities to provide a good way to respond to any and all complaint types that would work for all employees.

Suffice to say, you need to re-evaluate your past email conversations with this person, and try to understand how you can better support them as a worker.

In fact, this would be a good discussion with your boss. After reading up on relevant management techniques, sit down with your boss and say, "I'm having difficulty communicating with someone on my team. When they come to me with a problem, I attempt to resolve it, but when they feel the resolution is insufficient they continue the discussion with me and CC you on all their replies. It appears to me that I need to better support them to prevent problems bubbling up to you that are within my sphere of influence. Here's what I've learned in my study of management possibilities. What else do you suggest I do or consider?"

It may be that they'll be able to guide you to better communication methods, or they may have another way to help.

Regardless, I don't think you need to start off by treating it as a problem with the team member, and even if it is a problem with them, the outcome will be better for all if you treat it as a communication problem you are responsible for resolving.

Even if you don't approach your boss, talking to the team member with this approach in mind will probably result in a better outcome than an attack on them. "I notice that often our discussions end up being CC'd to my boss after a few emails back and forth. I'm responsible for the team and its concerns, so I'd like to understand how to improve my responses. What are some ways that I can better support you when you come to me with a concern?"

  • I wouldn't directly reference the fact that you've noticed them CC'ing the boss. Be vague instead. "I feel like we might not see eye to eye on a few issues, and I'd really like to further discuss them with you so that I can better understand your perspective." – crush Dec 10 '14 at 17:51
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First you should ask him to stop. It is counter-productive to constantly have to include the boss every time there is a disagreement. People's time is a company resource that should not be allowed to go to waste. Your boss should have done the same thing, but maybe he's just being polite.

If your boss trusts you, then this person should have come to the conclusion this is a waste of time because it doesn't change your mind nor does your boss do anything about it. You should try and hear his concerns and offer some other forum to discuss them. There isn't always time to get everyone's input on every single subject. You should give this person boundaries where his suggestions and possibly decisions are more acceptable.

My guess is this person is trying to curry favor and possibly at your expense. You can always ask why he/she does it. Maybe this person just feels like that's the way to do it. We won't know until you ask.

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You say that it's not a military style office so therefore I would assume it is collaborative? In that case you should welcome the fact that your co-worker is looking to ensure that all parties are involved in a decision. One of the most frustrating things for an engaged employee (which this person obviously is, they are discussing rather than simply doing what they are told) is to feel they are not being heard. By cc'ing your conversation to your boss there is the attempt to be heard. If it doesn't bother your boss then it shouldnt bother you.

On the odd occassion when your boss may agree with your junior, don't take it as an undermining of your authroity, take it as a discussion.

I would engage with this employee as he seems to be your most engaged subordinate.

  • I would +2 (or maybe 3) this answer if I could, however I think it would be even better without the first paragraph. I can see how it fits with the second paragraph, but I think it detracts rather than adds to the answer as a whole, and the second paragraph itself would be a stronger opening. – Aaron Jun 26 '17 at 16:50
  • @Aaron Suggestion accepted. – Toby Allen Jun 26 '17 at 17:27
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All things aside, your emails create noise for your boss. Nobody likes noise. Tell your employee that he should only /cc relevant people in his emails.

"Can we avoid disturbing Mr. Boss name goes here with the noise from our discussions from now on? I'm sure that he is already busy enough to not enjoy going through the things that we can solve on our own."

That's what I'd add to my email, when the next episode happens.

On a somewhat less serious note, I wonder if your boss hasn't said anything yet because he just decided to filter out your noise from his inbox.

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    Except that the subordinate probably believes that the boss' boss is a relevant person, so that initial instruction might be confusing, or even ignored. And for your second paragraph, the subordinate could easily (if they did not feel bullied by you) respond with "Except that 'we' can not solve it on 'our' own. I tried to do so with you, but you unilaterally shut me down, so we do need help solving this." The problem here could just as easily be with either side, the subordinate or the manager. Note: I have not down-voted despite some disagreement. – Aaron Jun 26 '17 at 16:56
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I can relate to both directions on this. In a former position, I had several people reporting to me, and they in turn had a dozen or so reporting to each of them, over several countries. My boss's office was in a different city than me. His boss was in the same office as me and would regularly come to me for updates.

Almost anytime I would update my boss's boss on something I would contact my boss, generally before-hand, and make sure he was ok with it, and how I phrased it. I would do this because I knew (as would pretty much anyone) that this was a breach of the chain of command.

This direct report of yours is trying to stir things up, and feels that in your effort to be nice and play fair you will not do anything about it. He is likely baiting you. If you respond to the emails in any negative way, he thinks that will make you look bad, and in turn, somehow make him look good. You likely feel stymied by the situation. Anytime you feel that way, as a manager, something is wrong with your approach and you need to change it.

You are violating a common rule in management (with credit to Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Temptations of a CEO): Choosing popularity over accountability. We all do some of this at times. We want to be thought of as nice, reasonable, a good person to work for. But that's not your job. Your job is to make/keep the company profitable.

When I look back over the short list of the people I considered the best to work for, them being nice was never one of the prominent assets. Invariably they were the toughest on me and that's how and why I learned and grew. That's the mark of a good boss. Not how nice they were.

This employee is trying to undermine what the company has tasked you to do. Look at it that way and manage it out of this employee through communication and performance reviews. If that doesn't work in short order, get rid of him.

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This is just as bad a situation as your subconscious is prompting you to believe. There is only one reason that the employee would do this, and that is to put himself somewhere between you and your boss, and to normalize that position.

Let him know in certain terms that he answers to you.

If his disagreements are so strong and his trust in your leadership so weak that he has to document them over your head, you have a serious problem to manage. This sort of disaffection is corrosive to a team. If he is willing to risk offending you when you can see it, imagine the gossip he is spreading when you can't.

Don't be paranoid, but do manage your team and its individuals to benefit the company and the team.

If this individual is so necessary that you can't get rid of him or stop his behaviour, then you should discuss it with your boss. If not, replace him.

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This is my view as a manager who have people below him and no one above (except client) to answer to; and client always care for result and so is your boss! everything else is just spam!

If you have satisfying result and that your superior is 100% happy with. then it is best to ask your boss to reply him and ask him to stop it and discuss disagreements with you. this would clear everything.

If this issue has given you some stress and your superior is not happy with your result; You can ask staff to stop this and if he has disagreement with you he can discuss it with your superior only if it is allowed and not violating protocols.

Hope it helps

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I think the right answer is a blend of several here:

1. Talk to your boss about this

Solicit your boss's advice on how to approach this. She may have relevant information and experience that can help here, and you want her awareness and support as you lean into the situation. You don't say if she's responded to any of these cc'd notes; if she has, you may want to talk about why, and whether she should instead work with you to provide a response through you rather than rewarding these informal escalations.

2. Talk to the employee about their behavior

I like to use a "Facts, Impressions, Feelings, and Outcomes" framework for this kind of conversation. It reminds me that, while I may think I know what someone else is thinking, I'm just guessing; the only things that are concrete are behaviors, and that's what we're looking to change here. Walking through this framework forces me to be sure I've got a clear understanding, and that I know what outcomes I'm seeking.

Facts: clear, objective truths. "Sometimes you choose to add my boss to your replies to my email."

Impressions: what you're inferring from the facts. "It seems like you do this when we disagree."

Feelings: how this makes you feel. "When you do that, I don't understand why you've done it. I'm concerned that you're appealing to my boss rather than talking to me."

Outcomes: what you'd like to see happen. "The next time you feel like you want to do this, would you come see me instead? I'd like us to discuss it directly. If we agree that we should escalate it, I'd like us to do that together."

Splitting it up like this, and in this order, gives you the opportunity to understand better each step of the conversation. For example, maybe there's a different pattern you're not seeing ("No, I copy your boss on Thursdays. It just happens that you and I disagree more often on Thursdays"), and understanding that changes your understanding of the situation, your feelings about it, and maybe even the outcome you want.

Finally, if you don't have regular one-on-ones with your team, I'd highly recommend it. They provide exactly the venue for your team to talk about concerns like this, and for you to invest in your relationship with them ... which starts the virtuous cycle where they actively want to talk to you in moments like these.

Good luck!

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