A professional I employed made a conscious decision not to do something I had expected them to do (submit key documents to an authority) which resulted in negative consequences for me. It is possible they had perfectly valid reasons but they never explained them to me. I want to write to them to ask why to understand their decision but I want to avoid the query sounding accusatory or sounding like personal attack as I want to question the reasoning behind the decision, not the individual as a person.

What are the Do's and Don'ts? e.g. I think I heard somewhere that the word "you" should be avoided in queries like this, is this correct?

  • Regardless of whether your employee did the right thing or not, if the outcome was negative consequences for you, then your employee should have told you that they weren't submitting.
    – David K
    Feb 24, 2016 at 18:47

6 Answers 6


"I am not an expert in this matter, but my understanding was that XYZ should have happened. Could you tell me what the reason was that you did ABC instead, so I understand better what is going on? "

So you state the assumption that the person did the right thing, but you don't know why it was the right thing, and you want to know why so that you understand the situation better. That's absolutely fine to state, and anyone would give you a nice explanation unless they have severe personality problems.

If the person did indeed make a mistake, that gives them a chance to pretend that they found the mistake themselves (and not you), and admit to it or even start fixing it before you realise that it was a mistake - which is ten times better than being told by you.

(This will be different from country to country, but some state agencies may be a lot more helpful if they get a call from your lawyer / tax advisor etc. who says "I messed this up for my client, how can we fix this", because they don't like punishing you for someone else's mistakes).

PS. The question was "How to ask them without making it look like a personal attack", and that's what I replied to. Now if someone messed up, as that person apparently did, then "putting up with passive-aggressive nonsense" as it has been called is the smallest of their problems. The way I wrote this question they have a chance to explain what happened, maybe even fix what happened, without losing face. If that is not what the person wants, that's up to them.

Some people don't like arguing. That doesn't mean they keep employing you. It means they may fire you without arguing. Instead of "You're fired, you lazy idiot" they may say politely "I think it is better if our ways should part". The effect is the same.

  • 1
    If anyone every talked to me like this I would instantly not like to work for them or have them work for me. It sounds like you are talking to a dog. Even in your text I infer a tone of being talked down to and it seems overtly passive aggressive. My response to this would be simply, "If you have a question please ask it, I don't understand all of the other things you are saying?" And then I am sure you would spew more passive aggressive nonsense and I would reply much the same in a big loop. Wouldn't the workplace be more efficient if we talked normally?
    – blankip
    Feb 23, 2016 at 17:33

You expected them to do it, but did you explicitly ask for it? And if so, did they commit to doing it?

If yes, then it's a straightforward chat explaining that they failed to deliver (even if they had a valid reason, they should have notified you) and that had consequences which lead to reduced trust/disciplinary action/whatever. Remember that you are the authority figure.

If not, you can explain why you had that expectation (precedent, common sense, etc.), take action based on how proactive or negligent they were in the absence of clear instructions, and set clearer expectations for the future.

The key thing here is to communicate your expectations clearly and ensure that they understood them as you intended.

  • 1
    "You expected them to do it, but did you explicitly ask for it? And if so, did they commit to doing it?" This is key. If there was an implicit expectation, rather than a direct request, it's possible the employee wasn't aware of your needs. O Feb 23, 2016 at 2:00

I would try something like that:

"Hi, the authority told me that he never received your documents, I know that sometimes there are some problem in this process, so I would like to know if you need some help or if you have some problem about this task. Please, let me know if I can help because that documents are so important to me. Thank you for your effort"

With this message try to understand if there are problems and you aren't attacking directly the employee. I think that this approach could be the best, expecially if it's the first time he has this kind of problem.


You employ them, so just ask for a report. If they're a real professional you will get your answer there. If the report isn't satisfactory ask for clarification on the blurry points.

This isn't a personal attack, it's perfectly normal.

  • It isn't a personal attack, and not meant as one, but it might be perceived as one, depending on the exact words used and the personality and/or culture of the person addressed.
    – gnasher729
    Feb 22, 2016 at 13:58
  • 2
    If you keep the language and tone professional, you've done all you can. There's a simple question to be asked and there's no reason why it shouldn't be asked (and every reason that it should). -Not- asking the question is the unprofessional response as it will lead to distrust and resentment.
    – Dave M
    Feb 22, 2016 at 15:06

As a valid query, I would tell the employee in question that you need a detailed account of why action B was done instead of action A because there are implications for SOP that may result in revision of protocols. Mainly so that negative consequences don't happen again in your department.

  • I don't actually understand the downvote here.
    – CKM
    Feb 23, 2016 at 15:57

A question is not an attack. If I ask my dev guys why they insisted on html tables when writing divs would be faster and neater and more HTML5 compliant that is not an attack.

You could be passive aggressive about it and beat around the bush and a person truly trying to hide something or to dumb to understand will never give you a straight answer. So then you get pissed and your tone and possibly body language changes.

Just ask the question. "Why didn't you forward those documents to the authorities?"

That's it.

The way they take it is on them. If they thought they did something wrong or know they did something wrong they might have a hostile attitude. You can try to beat around the bush and smooth your delivery but their hostility for doing something wrong won't change. You just may prolong seeing it or cause them to hide it to seem more professional.

Questions are not bad. If someone asked me "Did you steal that computer on the third floor?" I would only be mad if it was under my desk :). The other PC crap just makes the workplace suck.

  • 2
    This is workplace, not advanced logic. You work with all kinds of people. Your first sentence - yes, many people would take that as an attack. Even if you were right, they would still take it as an attack. Not everybody, but many would. In your second question, if you talked to a foreign customer coming from certain countries, then a question starting with "Why didn't you" would make their blood boil and make them want to go at your throat. Unless their English is perfect. "Why didn't you " in some languages means "You are a total idiot for not doing..."
    – gnasher729
    Feb 23, 2016 at 11:11
  • And the person asking the question asked it exactly because they wanted to avoid that kind of misunderstanding.
    – gnasher729
    Feb 23, 2016 at 11:12
  • @gnasher729 - Two things. Asking a question isn't bad or an attack. If they take that as that then maybe they aren't the best fit for your team as they have other issues. Second it is a workplace issue. How much time did the OP waste asking this question, how much time will he waste asking it in a friendly passive aggressive way, and how much more effective could his workplace be if everyone could speak openly and ask questions at will. I work in said environment and hope to never return to your version of a workplace. Good luck keeping up with us.
    – blankip
    Feb 23, 2016 at 17:30

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