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I'm an (legitimate, I hasten to add) observer to a recent situation, and I'd like to take a bit of another look at it.

Background

Employee A has been working on a small technical advice note for most of Friday. Her project manager, B, who asked her to do it, was working from home. There's a nominal deadline for the note at the end of the day, though it's not critical.

There have been emails going back and forth between them for most of the day, co-ordinating what the note should say, how it should be phrased, etc., as well as for A to send her work to B for review. That's fine, that's normal.

Situation

17:45, and A received an email from B essentially saying the following:

Could you finish off the note by 18:00 and send it to me for review? I'll do the check and send it back to you to send out to the client.

At this point, A had left for half an hour or so to get to a pre-arranged meeting on a different project, so didn't get this email until about 18:05. By that time, there was another email received at 18:00, essentially saying the following:

It seems you've gone home. I'll finish off your work and send it out. I don't understand why you've gone home when you know there's unfinished work left. We'll discuss this on Monday.

Now perhaps, if A had indeed gone home, this would have been reasonable. However, as far as could be determined, B made no effort to verify that A was in the office or not beyond not getting a response after the 15 minute deadline he gave.

A sent the email trail to her line manager and project director, C. Having read the emails, C sent a rocket to B along the lines of

This essentially amounts to bullying language, and is not acceptable. I'll discuss this with you on Monday.

Question

It seems like B got a strong email response given their actions. I am trying to understand what the best way to deal with such situations is - how should C have handled this? Was an email the right response?

closed as off-topic by Philipp, Kent A., user8365, gnat, scaaahu Oct 4 '15 at 2:50

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    There may be interactions you're not aware of: keep that in mind if asked for your opinion. If you're not asked, enjoy the weekend, and only worry about it - if you need to at all - on Monday. – user52889 Oct 2 '15 at 21:44
  • I clarified this a bit to make it more on topic. – enderland Oct 2 '15 at 22:13
  • @JoeStrazzere Family of one of the three. The issue interested me. – ArtOfCode Oct 2 '15 at 22:59
  • Did any of this people use a corporate email client? Most popular solutions include a functionality that shows you as "Away"/"In a meeting" based on your calendar, so when someone is about to contact you, it makes clear you are not available at the moment. It would make a great difference in a case like this. – Trickylastname Oct 4 '15 at 16:49
  • @Trickylastname There is indeed such a system available. – ArtOfCode Oct 4 '15 at 17:42
11

Mistakes all around!

All three people here made pretty clear mistakes. It's important to understand the chain of mistakes here rather than looking at "was C in the right?"

Generally speaking, it's not good to communicate negative information or handle conflict via email. You lose tone and ability to empathize/respond in realtime (by definition, essentially).

Specific mistakes...

  • A should not have left B in the dark about the status of the project such that B was wondering about it when it needed to be delivered.
    • If A knew B would not receive it by 18:00, this should have been clearly communicated. Regardless of when (19:00 or 18:00) A could have done more to inform B what the ETA for the project was

Those are somewhat minor, but still significant - they caused this whole thing to start, because B had some right to be annoyed. The person they were expecting to deliver something by 18:00 disappeared for the 30 min immediately before it was due.

However:

  • B should not have been unclear of the 18:00 deadline was a firm deadline or a soft deadline. It sounds like B thought it was firm; A thought it was soft.
  • B needs to have a realtime communication method if something is time sensitive (~15 minutes timeframe for response is time sensitive)
  • B should not scold someone via email, especially when making assumptions.
  • If B wanted a specific deadline that A wouldn't know, they need to communicate that - earlier than 15 minutes before it's due.
    • B's email is pretty poor taste regardless of whether it's true or not.
    • If B is going to work from home they need to understand they won't have full information about when/where people are working. Making assumptions along this line is a big mistake.
    • If you have shared calendars, B probably should have looked and seen A was in a meeting before accusing them of leaving

Now, C gets a forwarded complaint and also makes mistakes.

  • C should also not respond in kind, their email suffers similar problems to the one from B
    • Don't reprimand/critique over email unless it's the only option (which it nearly never is). And when so, don't include third parties! At most, B and maybe A should have gotten C's email - how you got it is a mystery.
    • The email kind of comes across as mocking, with similar "we'll discuss on Monday" phrasing as B's email - this is not at all appropriate and the intent seems to be to mimic B's email.

Why do you even know about this?

Last, there is the question for why you (a self-claimed third party) even were aware of B/C's emails.

Criticism like that should not be handled in public - from either B or C.

If someone is forwarding this to you as a "wow look how bad [A, B, C] is!" type of thing or if you were copied the whole time? That's also not really a great situation.

What should have happened?

The process is pretty easy for nearly any stage of this. Pick up the phone and call the person. It's really that simple.

B should have called A, instead of firing off their email. C should have done the same. A quick conversation with A/B would have resolved their conflict/misunderstandings. Likewise, C could have pretty easily asked B on the phone, "what do you think about that email you sent to A?" and started a discussion about it.

Likely, A would have been apologetic to B and they would have had a "sorry about miscommunication! won't happen again!" discussion.

B probably would feel a bit embarrassed they sent what they sent, and something like, "yeah, that wasn't a good email, I was frustrated and it was pretty obvious - oops."

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    Yup, all around--including here. My read of the situation is that A was away from their desk because of the meeting, they did not read the first e-mail until after the second one was sent. Thus I see no blame on A. – Loren Pechtel Oct 3 '15 at 4:19
  • @LorenPechtel yes, but if A knew they were going to miss a deadline (which they would have if they were not done by the time they had a meeting scheduled right until the end) they should have said something to B. – enderland Oct 3 '15 at 17:12
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    I would look at it a bit differently. Given the back and forth between A and B all day, A should have sent B a note before the meeting to say she would be busy with the meeting from 17:30 to 18:00 and would/would not get the note out to B before she left at time T. – Eric Oct 3 '15 at 20:30
  • @Eric that's one of my sub points under A's mistakes :) – enderland Oct 3 '15 at 20:34
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    You seem to have overlooked that 18:00 only became a specific deadline at 17:45 while A was already in her meeting. – Eric Oct 3 '15 at 20:52
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From what you've presented, I'd say "yes, pretty much deserved". Some mistakes that B made in my opinion:

  • Using e-mail for a time critical issue. If you're expecting something to be done in 15 minutes, don't send a mail - pick up the phone.
  • Assuming bad faith. Unless there were other reasons to believe A had gone home, B should not have made that assumption.
  • Sending a mail while angry. The tone of B's mail has "angry" all over it. Never send mails while you're angry - it only over escalates a situation.

That all said, I'm not sure C should have handled this via e-mail either. In a situation like this where people are annoyed, personal contact is important - we all know that e-mail is not a great medium for conveying tone. Again, pick up the phone.

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    I would say that C using email was appropriate because A needs to know that (1) she was right to complain, and (2) her complaint was taken seriously and will be dealt with. C responded in a way that was similar to B, but with a completely different context -- there was no need for B to send a message at all, C needed to send a message so that A could be cc'd. B's message was petty, even if A had been derelict as accused, it was an attempt to ruin A's weekend. If C had responded privately or delyaed until Monday, A would have unjustly suffered from B's message. – jmoreno Oct 3 '15 at 5:09
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    I disagree. At this point, nobody should be sending emails which include both A and B. Sure, C should have sent something to A, but it should not have been the same communication as happened with B. – Philip Kendall Oct 3 '15 at 6:54
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    A has complained about having her job threatened. A message from C to A will appear to be empty assurances. The message that was sent, says that if anybody looses their job over this, it won't be her. I don't think this can convincingly be conveyed without including both. – jmoreno Oct 3 '15 at 14:20
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B was working from home. A huge advantage of working from home is that you are very flexible with your time. There have been times where I had to work with colleagues in the USA on a very different time scale, so I stopped work two hours early in the afternoon and did two extra hours from 10pm to midnight - I don't mind doing that when I'm working from home, but would obviously mind very much if you asked me to stay in the office until midnight.

So to me, there was no need to send that email at 6pm. And if B had waited just a bit, that whole unfortunate situation would have been avoided. The way the email was worded, B expected A to read it on Friday - and for many people in A's position that could have spoiled their weekend, totally undeservedly. Even if B had just got his or her priorities right - finish off the work first, tell of A second, he or she would have received an email from A at 6:05pm.

Personally, I wouldn't have categorized the email as "unacceptable" but as "something that should be avoided". "Unacceptable" is to me a bit harsh but not unacceptable. Is it deserved? I'd say more deserved than the email from B to A.

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    It doesn't sound like this was going on after normal working hours. – user8365 Oct 2 '15 at 21:54

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