A person in our organization recently sent out an email implicitly calling out my team for not responding in a timely manner to an issue, and demanding that we act. I believe it was done unprofessionally primarily because he cc-ed several people outside the company who are involved with the project. He just wanted to make himself look like he was doing something for their benefit. The demands themselves are also unreasonable because

  1. Both my boss and I have informed him several times of our priorities and responsibilities that explain why we have deferred this particular issue.
  2. He already has our team calendar, in which we are clearly on a skeleton crew this week due to the winter holiday.

I already responded politely, but firmly to the concrete demands he made; however, I'm at a loss how to handle the rudeness and unprofessional nature of the email. This person is slightly senior to me, although not directly in the same part of the organization. Should I…

  1. Ask my boss to talk to him? (I am concerned this implies I can't handle it myself; Also, my boss is on holiday and won't do anything soon.)
  2. Reply directly, but cc my boss, with something like "In the future, I'd appreciate it if you didn't include third parties when calling out teams within your own organization."
  3. Something else I haven't thought of?
  • 10
    What's the problem? Your team is holding up the project. You knew beforehand that your team would be holding up the project, but that doesn't change that your team is holding up the project. Your team received an email, including all the other people who are held up, trying to put more gravity on the item. You responded. I don't see why you have to meet behind the school at noon. Dec 22, 2015 at 21:48
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    Rudeness and unprofessional nature of the email is something that can wait for your boss. Walk away from the keyboard.
    – paparazzo
    Dec 22, 2015 at 22:25
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    Rude I don't see this after all he only implicitly not explicitly blamed your team. Take your lumps and learn from this
    – Pepone
    Dec 22, 2015 at 22:58
  • @Pepone I suspect anonymous actually meant "explicitly". Dec 23, 2015 at 1:46

7 Answers 7


This is a political power play, and trying to "call him out" will only end badly for you.

Instead, whenever such a public e-mail goes around take the time to reply to everyone in the thread and demolish each point politely and professionally

I was a little surprised to receive your e-mail, as I thought that the circumstances surrounding this project were public knowledge. Please allow me to clear up any misunderstandings:

The reason we have not addressed X is due to this being placed on the back-burner in favor of project Y, which is much more sensitive in nature. etc.

I hope this cleared the air the brought all of us up to speed on the status of project X. Should you have further concerns or questions please don't hesitate to contact me!

Regards, etc.

Make sure to address him as if you're surprised at his lack of knowledge and simply seek to bring him up to speed. Don't word it as if you're throwing it in his face. On the contrary, you're being helpful, open, and honest with your colleague who is simply a little behind the curve on where things stand :-) Let his display of ignorance, arrogance, and aggression do the work for you.

He will make himself look the idiot by being the one to initiate these childish e-mail chains, and your professional demeanor in the face of his insults will score you points with pretty much everyone except the bully in question.

  • 28
    Reply to everyone except the external people on project X who should not be told they are in line behind project Y. Dec 22, 2015 at 21:56
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    @KateGregory - indeed, the email must contain information which will not anger the client.
    – AndreiROM
    Dec 22, 2015 at 21:59
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    its his bosses job he/she should not get involved
    – Pepone
    Dec 22, 2015 at 22:59
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    I'm with @Pepone, this is his bosses problem. I would refer the email to my boss and let him deal with it.
    – Kilisi
    Dec 23, 2015 at 8:31
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    I have to downvote this because, while this is generically the right thing to do, it's extremely important to coordinate any response with your boss. If you go and fire off an email, no matter how polite, without getting your boss on board first you can make things worse. Dec 23, 2015 at 16:19

How to call out a superior for an unprofessional email?

There is not a prescribed professional response to unprofessional behavior. Your best move is to continue to behave professionally despite this bad behavior.

By the tone of your question, the term "call out" implies that you want to "teach your superior a lesson" or somehow make a point of how rude and/or inappropriate the email was, from your perspective. What is your goal: To prevent further emails like this? To "defend" your pride and/or your team? To lower this person's standing within or outside the company? Any attempt to reduce a "superior" will probably make you look petty, unfortunately. Any attempt to teach will probably go unheeded.

The best approach you can take is to respond as professionally as possible. by addressing points based on fact, explaining that you are doing your best on a skeleton crew, saying that you were under the impression that he was aware of the circumstances, offering a status update soon, etc.

You should not further advertise or try to settle "internal problems" in front of people outside your company (that's like parents arguing inappropriately in front of children). They probably already see how inappropriate the message is, and are hoping to not be pulled into your drama.

Separately request a meeting to discuss how to prevent problems like this in the future. CC your boss and ask if your boss should attend (or forward it separately and ask if he would like to attend).

During that meeting, point out that while his email brought action this time, it is not an effective way to motivate you and/or you team to help him. He may respond with personal attacks (like, "What, you can't handle a little humor?") so approach with caution. At a minimum, you can emphasize that you would appreciate it if he contact you and/or your team about such matters internally first, so that discussions about "who said what and when" don't make your company look bad to anyone external.

  • Both my boss and I have informed him several times of our priorities and responsibilities that explain why we have deferred this particular issue.
  • He already has our team calendar, in which we are clearly on a skeleton crew this week due to the winter holiday.

There is a very high chance that person isn't simply an unprofessional idiot, but instead a normal hard working person who strongly disagrees with your priorities. They are probably suffering from a lot of pressure by those people they CCed, and wanted to use the email to make you more aware that pressure from outside exists.

I assume they are client facing and you are not, based on the fact that a rude email gets on your nerves, while that's daily business for client siding folks. Keep in mind that tone in an email is something that's very hard to control, so there's a real chance that what they wrote wasn't intended to be as rude as what you read.

In short, there's 2 options:

  1. If there were direct insults or rude accusations in the email(e.g. calling you out as being lazy), they crossed a line. Involve your boss or HR.
  2. If the email was in the grey zone, get a punching bag, or go outside and breathe deeply a few times. When you've calmed down completely, which may be 2 minutes or 2 days later, call them, don't write an email. Let them know that their email upset you and figure out a way and a timeline to solve the actual problem the email was about.

By fighting the "enemy" and forcing them to write nice emails, you make the "enemy" into an "enemy" who sounds a bit nicer in emails. By talking to them and solving their problems you make the "enemy" into a friend, which makes a much more enjoyable workplace.

  • By fighting the "enemy" and forcing them to write nice emails, you make the "enemy" into an "enemy" who sounds a bit nicer in emails. By talking to them and solving their problems you make the "enemy" into a friend, which makes a much more enjoyable workplace. - Golden advice. I recently tried this approach for a different situation and it worked great.
    – Chethan S.
    Dec 30, 2015 at 10:53

Here's a charitable (to the senior) guess what happened, based on observing sales people and customer facing project leads:

The senior person responibilities include managing the relationship to the external people. He wrote a rude email cc'ing them to show them that he's 'on their side.' In other words, he was doing his job.

Even if this charitable view is correct, he should have communicated with you outside of emails, at best beforehand. This is where the guy screwed up IMO. It is likely that these email would bother you less if you knew that he's basically putting up an act for the customers.

Where to go from here?
Understand what actually happened, if my explanation is close to the truth.
The fact that you didn't call the guy directly (My usual way of handling escalating e-mail exchanges) means you're unsure what to do so talk to your boss. Make your boss understand that you won't stand by this unprofessional behaviour, and that e-mail exchanges like this force you to spend time refuting wrong allegations that you could use to solve the actual problems.

The goal should be either:

  • You boss talks to the guy, the next time a similar issue comes up he talks to your team before sending a mass email.

  • (less optimal) the guy does this again, you pick up the phone and tell him to cut it out, knowing your boss has your back.


Be the bigger person and don't respond to the rudeness. Sinking to the same level just makes you rude, too.

Sounds like you've already responded, but any response should:

  • Reiterate the facts and timelines you and your boss have already provided.
  • It's perfectly OK to also include the date/meeting at which the current plan was originally communicated to this person.
  • Point out that you are not currently in a position to answer his demands in any other way.
  • CC your boss - given that your boss has already been a part of this communication, you are merely including him in the communication as a witness.

Use your best judgement when including the other stakeholders. If what you are doing is clarifying and confirming facts that you and your boss have already provided and agree on, there shouldn't be any harm to including the sender's extensive CC list in the communication. However, I don't know your entire situation, and if there's a recipient on the list to whom you think it would be inappropriate to share these details with, an approach you can take is:

  • respond to the sender as noted above
  • in your greeting, specifically address the names of the people on the reduced list.
  • note that you've removed a given individual/set of individuals as you did not feel the communication thread was appropriate for that part of the audience.

If you've already mailed back to the troublemaker - forward a copy of the thread to your boss, and summarize it. If you believe the situation is under control, note that you are just including your boss to keep him/her aware of the situation.

The time to involve your boss to ask for help would be:

  • if the trouble maker escalates with a threat/consequence that your boss was NOT already aware of.
  • if the project is likely to be further delayed than what you and your boss have communicated so far (say, if more of the skeleton crew gets sick, or differently occupied)
  • if another party on the CC list joins the discussion and provides more points of escalation
  • if a key stakeholder chimes in (even with a "me too") - for example the key make or break decision maker on the project says "I'm very concerned about this".

At that point, it's OK to attempt to interrupt your boss's time off, or to go to the acting manager in charge over the break - depending on office policy.

Also - it's a valid case that some people like to "finish" work before the holidays by clearing their desks of all email that they'd have to write when they get back to work after the holidays.


An unprofessional email should be reported through the proper channels to HR or an ombudsman. HR will likely take into account the severity of the offence and whether or not this is an isolated incident or a pattern of unprofessional behavior. You might be asked for more information and if they take disciplinary action taken you might not be informed.

Without more information, it's not clear that your coworker acted unprofessionally, even though the exchange may have been uncomfortable. HR can mediate with fewer repercussions than confronting him/her.

Hitting reply-all is likely to cause an escalation of the tension. Doing so may also fall outside your job duties and may be more of a role for your boss, if it is appropriate at all. If you don't have an HR department, or if this is a case of bad judgement rather than unprofessionalism, your boss may still be the person who's job it is to interact with the person in question.


I would leave this for the boss to handle. If you want to send an Email just to this person, copying only your boss, that seems OK. However, as you may already know, politics is attached to everything, including Email. As such, only you will know best as to what the boss would want you to do. Your boss is the only person you should be focused on in this matter.

WWYBD - What Would Your Boss Do

WWYBS - What Would Your Boss Say

WWYBWYTD - What Would Your Boss Want You To Do

WWYBWYTS - What Would Your Boss Want You To Say

If you don't know answers to these--and you're best equipped to know these answers--then do nothing and wait for boss to return so that the two of you can discuss it.

  • 3
    I'm guessing that WWYBD = "What would your boss do?" However, I'm guessing - please spell out what you mean with your abbreviations. Also, a good answer needs more than pithy little slogans, so please elaborate on what you mean with them.
    – GreenMatt
    Dec 22, 2015 at 22:31
  • 2
    Riddles are fun but hardly appropriate here.
    – Myles
    Dec 22, 2015 at 22:58
  • Bwyt: boss want you to. S: say.
    – keshlam
    Dec 22, 2015 at 23:27
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    I'm guessing WWYBD is "Why Would You Bother Dechiphering-these-letters"?
    – corsiKa
    Dec 23, 2015 at 5:32
    – user145
    Dec 23, 2015 at 12:50

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