There was a very serious conflict this morning with a coworker which resulted in an angry email from by boss with an accusation that isn't true. How do I handle this without sounding juvenile?

Here's the story:

My coworker and I are both IT systems administrators for a hospital, and this week is my turn to be the on-call support person. I took a call at 7:40 AM (20 minutes before open of business) about a problem with a system that he is responsible for, and that I know little about. I figured he'd be on his way into work for the day, so I texted him for guidance. He responded that he was going to be in late due to a personal errand, and suggested I try rebooting one of the application servers.

Very long story short, you can't reboot a server in the middle of a medical procedure, and I couldn't reach anyone in that department to see if there were patients. I wound up calling all the way up the hospital supervisor, and she said she would take point on it. So I left it at that. I logged the incident and called it good.

When he finally arrived at work, he had a total come-apart on me. Lots of f-bombs were dropped. I ended the conversation by telling him that it's not my job to do his work for him and that he should call me back when he grows up. Not very professional, I know, but I was livid at that point with the way he talked to me.

Several hours later, I get an email from our director, CC'd to both of us. It's obvious from his tone that my coworker "tattled" on me, and that he took his story at face value. It was one sentence to my coworker about how unprofessional he was being, and a whole paragraph to me about how serious that system is and my lack of urgency in dealing with it.

The thing is, this is absolutely not true! I did everything I could have possibly done to resolve the issue. I spent almost two hours checking server logs and making phone calls with no help as to what I was even looking for. I am absolutely confident about the way I handled the situation (the technical part, not the argument).

My problem is that this whole situation is childish, but his email demands a response. If I don't, I leave it on the table that I messed up, and implicitly accept blame for not fixing that system in a timely manner.

I don't do office politics well, and I don't really care about "winning" a stupid argument. But I DO care about the quality of my work and how its perceived. I'm very proud of my work product.

How do I respond to this without coming off as petty? Bear in mind that my relationship with my boss is tepid, but their relationship is very friendly, and I've had other issues with this coworker before that his email confirms he's heard about, but has never said anything. Point is, he's only ever heard one side of the story and now I have an uphill battle to fight.

EDIT

The root cause of the problem turned out to be a transaction server running out of disk space. I missed it because I did not know to look there. There is no documentation as to which servers do what or what data gets stored where (his job), and there were no monitors configured to watch that drive to send an alert in advance of the failure (also his job). Again, I am desperately trying to avoid throwing him under the bus (that's being petty), but his dodgy work turned a normal problem into a crisis and he is shirking responsibility by blaming me for the aftermath.

  • 41
    "I don't do office politics well [...] my relationship with my boss is tepid, but their relationship is very friendly" - maybe it's time to start getting better at office politics... – AakashM Nov 17 '16 at 9:10
  • 74
    In the context of your last paragraph, if you threw your colleague under the bus you'd find a very straightforward manifestation of an ill Bus Factor of your company. Seriously, how can the smooth function of hospital software rely on what a single person keeps in their head, unshared and undocumented in any way? – The Vee Nov 17 '16 at 11:41
  • 31
    "(his job)...(his job)...(his job)..." You are an IT team: "(our job)...(our job)...(our job)..." Starting today, you should dedicate some amount of time to become competent in all of the systems you might be called on to maintain. You're fortunate your colleague was able to respond to your text that morning. What will you do if he is out of reach next time? – Kent A. Nov 17 '16 at 11:56
  • 14
    At the point where you turned it over to the hospital supervisor and stopped working, you should have let your coworker know that you were doing so. His response may have been "No, this is a critical system, you need to fix it ASAP." – David K Nov 17 '16 at 13:31
  • 7
    @JoeStrazzere perhaps due to lack of training -> There is no documentation as to which servers do what or what data gets stored where (his job) and there were no monitors configured to watch that drive to send an alert in advance of the failure (also his job). You just can 't expect a sysadmins to blindly/randomly checks things, they're way too many to find it in time. To be honest I would feel like pointing that the server was not monitored and undocumented when it should have been done. – Walfrat Nov 17 '16 at 15:14

10 Answers 10

up vote 239 down vote accepted

Respond with an email laying out all the things you tried, up unto calling the supervisor and leaving the problem with them. If there's some kind of "how-to-fix" checklist, read over it and check if you've done all the steps.

Then close with an honest question about what more he would have liked you to do. This will either with your boss realizing you did everything right, or you realizing you missed some important step.

Don't blame your colleague for anything, or assume it's impossible that you made any mistakes. Just lay out the facts of what happened. If your colleague is to blame for anything, a factual layout of events will be enough to let your boss reach that conclusion for themselves.

[opening]

I would like to reply regarding the incident today with [source]. When the call came in at [time], I immediately took the following steps:

  • [time] read the logs
  • [time] contacted [colleague] (he suggested I reboot the system)
  • [time] contacted [hospital reception] to find out if any patients were there, but could not reach them
  • [time] etc
  • in the end, contacted [hospital supervisor] at [time]. They said they would take responsibility, so I closed the call

Please let me know what other steps you expected, I'll make sure to take those up next time.

[your name]

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Nov 22 '16 at 11:16

Ignore the argument and the emotional side of things, and just make a list of bullet points about when the issue came in, and what you did to resolve it. Ask for clarification on what you should have done differently. The calmer you stay, the easier it is to win the discussion. When I worked on-call for a blue-chip company, the rule was 'do whatever you have to, because somebody (or something) else has already broken the system'. You went beyond that - correctly - by seeking advice and not rebooting immediately.

I think the other answers are great but would like to add that you should show an opportunity for improvement. Not only explain what you did, but make suggestions as to how to make it better...

For example, your email should include something like:

I understand that there were some difficulties in getting this issue resolved in a timely manner. In order to improve how we get these done, I'd like to make the following suggestions:

  • Establish a "Technical Lead" and "Backup Lead" for each system who can assist the on-call technical support when issues can't be resolved.
  • Improve and review the documentation for the systems to ensure that accurate troubleshooting can be performed.
  • Perform an audit of each systems requirements
  • Set up alerts for items like low disk space, high memory usage, high processor usage, etc so we know the health of our system.

Etc...

This way you are not only showing that you took the appropriate action based on the available information but you noticed an opportunity to improve the existing system and support.

As a manager I never liked hearing problems without having suggestions about how to solve them. I hired people because they could perform the job, and if they have an issue performing the job I didn't want to hear "I did my best", I wanted to hear "this is how we do it better".

  • 3
    This answer is gold! This is the kind of answer that will get the OP promoted. – Stephan Branczyk Nov 17 '16 at 17:43
  • 15
    Suggesting future improvements is an excellent idea, but I would recommend putting that into a separate follow-up email / memo. Busy managers seem to have a tendency to only read the first "pane" displayed by their email tool (about 25 lines), so lengthy emails are best avoided (I learned that the hard way). It also doesn't seem optimal to mix the two threads "what just happened here" (still part of managing the aftermath of the current crisis) and "this is what I think should happen going forward" (now that we have all calmed down, let's work on averting crisis in the future) – njuffa Nov 17 '16 at 18:56
  • 27
    Don't do this. It will look like blame-shifting when it's done as a response to a criticism. It's great to suggest policy/process improvements, but do it next week once the current argument has been resolved and you've been cleared of wrongdoing. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 17 '16 at 19:51
  • 5
    @LightnessRacesinOrbit I don't believe it is blame-shifting. If the on-call tech doesn't have the expertise to solve a problem, and the responsible party is not identified as a lead, this is a deficiency in the organizational structure. I'd be all-for eating crow in the first part of the email "I apologize for the way I handled this and will not do so again in the future" would suffice for me, but I would be very happy as a manager to see my employee suggest improvements. You can only see deficiencies when issues arise, and the sooner they are identified the less likely this is to happen. – Ron Beyer Nov 17 '16 at 20:02
  • 10
    @RonBeyer: I don't believe it is blame-shifting, either, but it could easily appear that way to an irate manager at this point in the tale. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 17 '16 at 20:04

David K. made a comment that hit the nail on the head, and is not mentioned in any answer so far.

At the point where you turned it over to the hospital supervisor and stopped working, you should have let your coworker know that you were doing so. His response may have been "No, this is a critical system, you need to fix it ASAP."

The omission was communication.

From a technical standpoint, you may have done everything possible. However, you failed to communicate that you were ending off on the task.

You mentioned that you "logged it," but evidently that wasn't good enough.


There are two possibilities:

Either

  1. You had no idea that this was a critical system, or
  2. You knew that this was (is) a critical system.

If you didn't know it, the question I would ask (but not in your shoes with the current boss's upset) would be:

Who on earth let the sole technician responsible for this system go on duty with no training in how critical the system is?


However, given that you knew that you couldn't restart the system if any operations were in progress, you do seem to have had some idea of the criticality involved.

When you deal with a critical system you need lots of communication. This doesn't mean you ask for help constantly and don't learn on your own. It does mean you keep others informed of the actions you are taking.

Example text messages you should have sent to your co-worker, given (a) his greater experience and (b) the fact (as you state in your question) that this system was primarily his responsibility:

Can't restart app server unless no operations in progress; can't reach anyone in that department to confirm. Still trying to reach someone. FYI.

Then, later:

Reached supervisor __________. She said she'll take point on this. Logging the task and ending off. FYI.

This last text would have gotten a text back saying, "NO, you need to handle that issue now!" To which you could have said:

I've checked the foobar log on the XYZ server and see nothing out of the ordinary. I've also checked the ABC and DEF servers. Where else should I check? I don't have any notes or documentation to consult, so I'd really appreciate the help....

And if he didn't answer in a reasonable amount of time (say, half an hour), text him with:

I understand that you say this is a very urgent issue to fix, but I don't have any documentation or working notes for this system. I've checked everything I can think of. Your long expertise and familiarity with the system is really needed in order to debug it. Can you please text me when you get this? Sorry to bother you when you're not in the office but you've mentioned this needs to be fixed ASAP....

With that text history to show your boss, a statement that "We REALLY need to get proper documentation for our systems!" would be received entirely differently.


Communication is the key to handling or preventing this upset, not technical expertise.

Something I didn't see in any existing answer, to me is the most important. If at all possible, TALK TO HIM IN PERSON! Write a list of bullet points, with the exact time and place everything happened. Write down what you did to rectify the situation. Then E-mail your boss (assuming you work at the same physical location), and ask to meet with him privately about the matter.

Take your notebook to the meeting, start by saying something like, "I'm sorry for interrupting your day, but I wanted to explain about this situation face-to-face, so that everything was clear." Then explain exactly what happened. You don't have to mention your co-worker, except that you called him for help, and what your co-worker said. If your boss is half decent, he will at least appreciate the effort and will likely understand that, at the very least, you believe that to be the unbiased explanation of what happened.

This method also gives your boss the ability to give you further instruction on critique. Maybe he will advise you do something differently next time, which will only benefit you.

  • 4
    I can't up-vote this hard enough. For situations like this it's absolutely essential to talk to people face-to-face once everyone has calmed down. Frankly, if I were the boss in this situation, I'd have both people in my office to discuss the situation. – ColleenV Nov 17 '16 at 18:47
  • 5
    Plus being in person he will be able to see the honesty on your face and it will remove any imaginary negative tones from your email 'voice'. – BigOmega Nov 17 '16 at 21:13
  • I couldn't agree more - talk over email every time. But ask his view on what he thinks happened first and listen to it. That way you can tailor your response to his attitude. He might say, for example, that he doesn't care about the incident but wants to know how to stop it happening again so you would need to talk about solutions and not go over explaining the situation. – matt helliwell Nov 20 '16 at 17:44

For your first answer, stick with the facts and do not blame the colleague.

Start your email by explaining your understanding of the situation. You have arrived early at work, have been faced with a tough situation, sought advice from your colleague, and tried to fix the problem as well as possible.

You have proof that you did take action. You have phone logs, and have talked to a lot of people, including the supervisor. In a first time, I would not use these proofs, but I would build a timeline of the morning, to be used later, if the boss does not take your word and demands proof.

The coworker dispute has not been the core of the email. Leave it behind for now, and do not mention it unless it is brought to you by the boss.

Based on these facts here is a proposal for the structure of your email:

Sir,
I would like to share my view of this morning events with you.
[Facts]
I will be happy to give you further information to clarify the situation, and I can prove I have done my best to handle the problem.
As I strive towards delivering a very high quality work, I remain at your disposal to establish the best course of action, were such a situation to happen again.

  • 8
    "I can prove I have done my best to handle the problem" sounds defensive to me. – jcm Nov 17 '16 at 9:32
  • 5
    The whole example response is extremely defensive, even supplicatory when you consider the "Sir". Might work in India, but not in the west. Surprised it was suggested by a Frenchie! – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 17 '16 at 19:53

When slandered, you must fight back, or the accusations will stick. When slandered in writing, you must fight back in writing, or the accusations will stick.

The other answers are right that you can give your side of the story, and that if you do so it has to be free of emotion and stick to facts.

But first of all, let your director know in a single sentence that you are offended and insulted by these accusations, which do not reflect what actually happened.

e.g.

Frankly, these accusations offend me. They do not at all match the situation as I experienced it.

or

I am insulted by these accusations, which do not reflect what actually happened.

or

I feel quite insulted by this email. The events described do not match what happened today.

The actual wording will have to depend on how severe the accusations are.

You don't even necessarily need you to write a summary of what actually happened in the email*. As long as you tell the boss the story they got is incomplete, they will know they made a mistake, and if they care about it they will come and ask you about it later.

No matter how you reply, don't "reply all", because correcting your boss in public may be seen as offensive.

Things to avoid:

  • Insulting your boss while telling them they insulted you (don't say "you're wrong", use "these accusations" instead of "your accusations").
  • Directly accusing your coworker of lying (don't say "you've been lied to")

*If you don't write down the facts in the email, still write them down for yourself, so you don't forget the details in case the story comes back at a later time, e.g. the next annual review, or every time you get a new supervisor.

  • Thank you, I might clean all those comments up apart from the last one, unless you'd like them to stay for some reason. – doppelgreener Nov 17 '16 at 23:46
  • 2
    The "insulted" part may be dependent on which culture this is in, and would most likely not work well in mine (because you are taking this personally instead of just being professional). I would in any case emphasize that this is not how I viewed the situation. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Nov 21 '16 at 8:05

You made a mistake, and you need to own it.

You need to show your manager that you understand the mistake you made. He needs to know that you have learned from the mistake, and that you won't repeat it.

Reading your question, it sounds like you don't yet understand the mistake you made:

I did everything I could have possibly done to resolve the issue. I spent almost two hours checking server logs and making phone calls with no help help as to what I was even looking for. I am absolutely confident about the way I handled the situation....

I'm sorry if this comes across as harsh, but you did not do everything you could have done. You failed to follow the chain of command:

I wound up calling all the way up the hospital supervisor, and she said she would take point on it. So I left it at that. I logged the incident and called it good.

You forgot the most critical step. You didn't close the loop with your team. After you hung up with the hospital supervisor, your next call should been to either your manager and/or your colleague. That you didn't close the loop implies to them that you don't understand how important this system is or worse, that you don't care.

One good corrective measure might be a promise to keep them in the loop if an issue like this ever comes up again. In any case it is important to make them understand that you will do everything you can to ensure this never happens again. Maybe this is the catalyst you have been looking for to generate some of that missing system documentation.

The important thing is to be pragmatic and approach the problem from the standpoint of the servers, not the petty attitudes of the people involved.

I can see how your action to this would make a person upset because at the time you did everything you could possibly think and you should get some credit for that. Now learning this situation, it can give you a better perspective on how to deal with similar situations in the near future. Nobody is an expert at everything...you become an expert by doing/learning on a regular basis.

So I think that what you can do is first document and communicate the situation even id you don't have all the answers. Communicate and let everybody be aware so the more people the more focus can be place on the problem and how to address that situation. Next is to become more familiar with the systems. So say no documentation is available , then take it upon yourself to help in this regard.

I am sure your boss would appreciate this even though is not your job but you took initiative to help.

Third thing to do is to start having conversations with the co-workers so you can understand how they react to people in general. Extend an olive branch, be more open to listen to them and talk to them as if they are your best friends even if they (initially don't think they are) Sometimes you have to let people get used to you and the best way to do that is being friendly. Forget the past and look forward to having a good working relation with your Co-workers.

I know you may think why do all that. Well in life you are going to run into this situations. its called living so let's start changing that paradigm ourselves. Change begins with one and you will find that you have a lot in common after all. All human beings run into situation like this but the real winners are the ones that recognize the importance of changing people perception and to bring a positive change in what you do.

You can't worry about his relationship with your boss being friendly.

I find your disdain for office politics irrelevant, self-righteous and irritating considering the situation that you are in. Drop the attitude because your disdain may very well work to your detriment. Not only in this situation but in future situations.

Give your boss the fact based version of what actually happened. That the call to you happened while he was running a personal errand. That when you called him for advice/support, he recommended that you reboot a server. Say that you were unwilling to reboot the server given that you were unable to reach anyone within the department to coordinate the rebooting of the server with. You eventually reached the hospital supervisor who stated that she was "taking point" on this issue, you logged the incident and left it at that. If simply stating the facts amounts to office politics to you, then there is nothing we can do for you. You cannot afford to leave your colleague's self-serving narrative to stand on its own, unchallenged. Not if you want to preserve credibility with your boss or even if your colleague, who probably needs to know that he cannot say anything he wants and expect to get away with it.

Having said that:

  1. I am wondering why you did not notify your boss nor did you follow up with your colleague when it was clear to you that you couldn't reach anyone in the department to coordinate the rebooting of the server with. You are not mentioning what you found when you checked the server logs for two hours but it looks like you found nothing. Your boss and your colleague should have known that you were unable to coordinate the rebooting of the server within say 30 to 60 minutes of you reacting to the incident.

  2. You should have gotten back to your boss and your colleague when the hospital supervisor said that she was "taking point" on the incident. Because the incident was clearly unresolved from a technical point of view since the server had yet to be rebooted.

I don't know what your colleague did to resolve the incident but my guess is that he simply rebooted the server on his own and reported on you to your boss afterward. The fact is that the incident took place and that your colleague not you reported the incident to your boss - that counts as a mark against you. And you missed at least two opportunities to escalate the incident to your boss before your colleague did.

Your inability to coordinate the rebooting of the server with the department issue was a management issue and you should have escalated the issue to your management i.e. your boss the minute you realized that you were hitting the wall when you tried to go through the proper channels. In fact, both your boss and your colleague had the right to know and the concomitant responsibility to intervene when you realized that going through the proper channels was getting you nowhere.

You need to know when to resolve issues at your level and when to escalate. And you have to keep lines of communications with your boss and your colleague at all times. And make sure to report your colleague if he gets abusive or he fails to be responsive whenever you get back to him on anything.

Your concern that he is on friendly terms with your boss - that's irrelevant. This is the wrong time to worry about office politics. He probably knows enough to be on the boss's good side and for all anyone knows, he gets on the boss's good side by kissing up to him. Unlike you, he knows to keep the lines of communication open with his boss. You have to keep open your own lines of communication with your boss, too.

EDIT (in response to your edit):

Since you say that the root cause turned out to be a - different? - server running out of disk space, no amount of rebooting of the server you were working on would have resolved the issue, unless you were working the transaction server, and the transaction server was running out of disk space because it was stuffed with temporary files that a reboot would have cleared.

The finding is clear. It is also clear that the responsibility for monitoring disk space on the servers is his. You don't have to say anything but state or restate the facts. All of the facts including the root cause of the incident. How the boss deals with him is not your problem. I don't get why "I desperately want to avoid throwing him under a bus", it's a straightforward management issue that gets dealt with at your boss's level and your "snitches get stitches" attitude is neither relevant nor helpful to resolving the situation at hand nor to preventing the situation from occurring again.

The process of management cannot be effective if the accountability is not there. And if accountability is not laid under the right door, how do you expect the relevant party to be made to take the right corrective action? Which is preferable to the workflow of your department, that the right corrective action be taken or no corrective action be taken because you interfered with accountability being laid at the appropriate door because of your - highly judgemental - perception that you are are, as you stated in your original post, "tattling" on him.

It is highly unprofessional to unnecessarily to inject "office politics" and, as you stated in your original post, "tattling" into a situation that can only be managed and resolved if the correct set of facts are on display and at hand and accountability for corrective action is laid at the appropriate door. I suggest that you review and revise your definitions of "office politics" and "tattling" - you'll be much happier and you'll be more effective that way.

CONCLUSION: What conclusion should you draw from this incident? It is that while the responsibility for dealing with this incident was delegated to you, resolving it or managing it was never your responsibility alone. Keeping things running is a team effort that includes you, your colleague and your boss. You need to be able to assess on your own when you can resolve or manage a situation through your own efforts alone and at what point you need to rally your colleague and your boss to support you. Because there are things that your colleague knows that he is not telling you, and there are resources and contacts that your boss can call on and that are not available to you. And yes, even though you are getting support and assistance, you still own the responsibility for resolving or managing the incident until either your colleague or your boss explicitly takes over that responsibility from you. That's all there is to it.

  • 8
    You start by saying the OPs distaste for politics is irrelevant (implying he should care about politics) but finish by saying he should ignore the politics..? – Mark Henderson Nov 17 '16 at 11:49
  • 3
    This was a hard to read answer - its confusing at best. – JonH Nov 17 '16 at 19:36
  • 2
    You start by saying that the OP should "drop the attitude", then demonstrate a far worse attitude than anyone else on this entire page or in the OP's story. I can tell you're having a hard week because this happened yesterday, too; I hope everything is okay. If something is wrong, I am sorry to hear that. Perhaps take a little break then come back next week! – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 17 '16 at 19:54
  • 3
    Also, the OP never expressed a disdain for office politics; they simply stated that they're not good at office politics. It is certainly well within the realm of possibility to not be good at something without disliking it (e.g. I don't mind playing certain board games with friends even though I'm pretty awful at them), just as it is to be good at something while disliking it (for example, I have excellent handwriting, but despise writing; I strongly prefer typing). – Doktor J Nov 17 '16 at 21:12
  • 1
    This answer is needlessly aggressive and does not address anything the other answers have not said better already. – Toadfish Nov 18 '16 at 3:54

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.