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Due to some unfortunate miscommunication, one of the staff members at a university felt like I did not meet one of my obligations.

The staff member sent me an extremely rude email that happened to include other members of the department who I happen to know personally. The fact that the email was extremely condescending makes it seem like the staff member was trying to make me look bad.

Several months ago I received an email outlining some obligations. About a week ago I received another email explaining that I did not have to do one of those obligations. (Fortunately, it turned out to be something that was relatively simple and could be done at any time.)

Because I did not think I had to do the obligation, I did not do it. If the staff member would have clarified what they said, I would have been more than happy to do it. It also turned out to be something extremely simple.

Instead of clarifying, they sent an email that said "I did your work for you" and "here is what I said several months ago to prove that you knew you had to do this" but did not mention where they said "you do not have to do this".

The email was extremely rude and condescending. I would have been able to let it go if they did not include the other members of the department in the email. Now I am not sure how to respond. My thought is that they just forgot that they said I did not have to do the obligation.

I am not sure how to handle this. I have ideas along the lines of asking for an apology, clarifying the situation and explaining that I felt they were extremely rude, or forwarding the entire email chain to higher members of the department.

If I do decide to ask for an apology or clarify the situation, I can't decide whether or not I should include higher members of the department or who in the department I should include.

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    I think this might be more suited to workplace.stackexchange.com as the key issues seem more to do with generic practices/problems at work rather than academia/teaching per se – Yemon Choi Feb 4 '18 at 20:41
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    99% of the time, the right choice is not to dignify it with a response. If it's important to respond (e.g. because you'll get incoming if you don't), it's generally best to respond not to the email in question, but politely to the email containing the evidence, copying in the relevant people. A friendly "thanks for doing this after all in the end - much appreciated" will generally suffice. Everyone else will get the point, and the person involved will either have to let it go themselves or look foolish. – Stuart Golodetz Feb 4 '18 at 22:00
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    Are you a faculty member or a staff? – scaaahu Feb 5 '18 at 13:00
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    @YemonChoi Seconded – DeepDeadpool Feb 5 '18 at 14:02
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    @YemonChoi, I understand your argument, but I would assume that the academic environment has so many specifities that it is not off-topic. – OBu Feb 5 '18 at 14:54
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It sounds as if your co-worker was extremely rude, and owes you an apology, but pointing those things out in so many words is rarely productive. Instead, I would use something like the following template with a reply-all:

Hi John, there seems to have been some misunderstanding. From your email of January 28th (copy attached below), I understood that I was no longer required to feed the departmental axolotls - if I misunderstood this, could you please clarify what was intended? Anyway, thanks for fielding it on this occasion.

At that point, if your co-worker is a sensible person who was just having an off day, they will offer an apology without further prompting. If not, well, your other colleagues can form their own judgement based on the relevant facts.

edit:

re. whether it's better to respond to the CC list, or just in private: you certainly have a right of reply in the same venue, but whether it's advisable to exercise that right depends very much on circumstances.

If the alleged omission is sufficiently trivial ("you didn't wash up the teapot yesterday!") then "John" has already made themself look silly just by making a big deal about it, and it's not likely to harm your reputation, so I'd just let it go. The annoyance value to others from prolonging the thread outweighs any need for reputation control; cf. the old adage about wrestling with a pig.

At the other end of things, if leaving the allegation unanswered could harm your professional reputation ("you didn't label the poisons cabinet/feed the research animals/complete the grants proposal due next week"), and if "John"'s allegation might seem plausible to the recipients, then it becomes important to rebut it in the forum where it was made. You don't want a dozen co-workers believing that you're a menace to their health or their work.

Leaving aside your own reputation, it might be important to reply for other people's sake. People take their cues on acceptable behaviour from those around them, and bullies often bully more than one person; for either of those reasons, it can be beneficial to see bullying behaviour promptly challenged.

Because workplace culture varies so much, it might be wise to seek input from colleagues at your institution - they can probably tell you better than us whether people take your co-worker seriously.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Feb 7 '18 at 15:13
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Quite often, the right choice is not to dignify it with a response. Consider whether or not the other people who were copied in will care. If not, responding isn't necessary, and makes you look like you care far too much about something trivial. Similarly, if they already have a more negative opinion of the person who sent you the email than they do of you, then responding isn't necessary. It's only worth responding if the other people respect the person who sent you the email and care about the issue at hand. These two conditions are often not satisfied.

If it is important to respond (e.g. because you'll get incoming if you don't), it's generally best to respond not to the email in question, but politely to the email containing the evidence, copying in the relevant people. A friendly "thanks for doing this after all in the end - much appreciated" will generally suffice. Everyone else will get the point, and the person involved will either have to let it go themselves or look foolish.

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    I think the 99% of the time part is misleading. I would say you almost always should have a response, in public. I do agree the rest of it is solid though - be polite, stick to the facts, and leave the door open for owning up to mistakes if you made them. – corsiKa Feb 5 '18 at 16:40
  • @corsiKa: Saying 99% is perhaps too strong and somewhat misleading. A better guide might be to consider whether or not the other people who were copied in will care. If not, responding isn't necessary, and makes you look like you care far too much about something trivial. Similarly, if they already have a more negative opinion of the person who sent you the email than they do of you, then responding isn't necessary. It's only worth responding if the other people respect the person who sent you the email and care about the issue at hand. These two conditions are often not satisfied. – Stuart Golodetz Feb 6 '18 at 16:26
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Regardless of the setting (i.e. academia or corporate workplace) there is only one way to handle this: Professionally.

That leaves you with two options:

Option 1: Ignore it and move on. Maybe they were having a bad day. Maybe they aren't great at communicating. Maybe it's a once off. Either way, there's no personal damage to you and some things just aren't worth escalating. If you see the person, talk to them. Say something like "Sorry for the misunderstanding, but I thought from your other email that it was no longer required. Thanks for completing it for me". This gives them the chance to also respond and offer an apology of their own, if they are so inclined.

Option 2: Respond to his email directly, with something similar to the format suggest be Geoffrey Brent in his answer. Do not, under any circumstance, reply all and list your grievance, why you're right and demand an apology. Respond directly to the email, CC or BCC in your supervisor so that they are aware, and respond in a professional, succinct manner. And then leave it at that.

Responding in a Reply All email, listing why you're right and demanding an apology is not going to do you any favours. Keep it private and keep it professional. Apologise for any misunderstanding based on the previous email and leave it at that.

If they decide to continue, that's when you escalate with your supervisor and possibly further.

Most likely though, no one other than you is concerned or even paid attention, and chain emails to everyone merely make the sender look bad. The last thing you want to do in these situations is air all the dirty laundry in public. And if things do go pear-shaped, refusing to be drawn into drama and responding in a polite, measured, professional manner puts you in a good light.

Either way, chalk it up as experience and move on.

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    "there's no personal damage to you" - well, apart from the damage to your reputation and potentially your career (depending on what the "obligation" was in the original question). – psmears Feb 5 '18 at 12:37
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    I don't really understand your reasoning. For example "Keep it private and keep it professional". It's already not private. The privacy is gone, your name has already been sent out in a public way to other faculty members. The circle of "privacy" for this conversation is now everyone else the other party felt it necessary to include. This brings me to the "professional" point. As long as the wording is done in a polite and clarifying way; it's not unprofessional to keep people in the loop. On the contrary; everyone involved with the situation should get a chance to see it. – JMac Feb 5 '18 at 14:17
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    Why are you saying that the only options are ignore it, respond privately or respond publicly demanding an apology? Geoffrey's answer has a wording that is none of these. – Robert Grant Feb 5 '18 at 20:49
  • @RobertGrant - I thought the big bold "do not" in front of demand a public apology made it quite clear that I do not recommend that as an option – Thomo Feb 7 '18 at 4:23
  • @psmears - if there was the potential for damage to the OP's career (depending on the obligation) then it would be their supervisor that would be having words with them, and it would not be done in that manner. Given the information and tone provided, that is highly unlikely and taking it to that extreme doesn't assist the situation – Thomo Feb 7 '18 at 4:25
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I think I'd wait a bit. Eventually one of your colleagues who received a copy of the rude e-mail will mention it to you. Then you can shrug and say, "Actually, in a later e-mail, she said I didn't have to do that, so I don't know why her panties are in a bunch." At this point your colleague is apt to give you clear advice on whether the incident will hurt your career in any way. If not, you can let it go. If so, he can also give clear advice on damage control.

But I think that it's likely that the colleagues copied on the "extremely rude" e-mail already think that her actions were inappropriate. Someone may have already mentioned it to the chairman/supervisor.

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    I disagree with all of this, but mostly the part about "her panties are in a bunch." Stupid for both moral and practical reasons. – Mike Feb 5 '18 at 17:09
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    To extrapolate on Mike's comment, referring to someone of any gender's panties being in a bunch as an incredibly sexist insult. Thinking someone is being upset irrationally is no excuse for introducing a harmful stereotype. – Bryan Krause Feb 5 '18 at 21:25
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit It is sexist because panties are an underwear item most typically used by women: the phrase refers specifically to the stereotype of women's irrational (or hormonal) anger. A phrase like that should never be used in the workplace, particularly when academia (like other areas) is still dealing with gender imbalances in leadership. According to your logic, it would not be offensive to use a slur like calling someone a "dirty (insert racial/ethnic group)" - I think that logic is deeply flawed. – Bryan Krause Feb 6 '18 at 17:03
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    @BryanKrause I find it's just as often used on men; but with the implication that they are behaving like (upset) women. That obviously makes it more sexist. – JMac Feb 6 '18 at 17:42
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    There's a difference between doing something sexist and being a sexist. I don't think I am a sexist, but I do and say sexist things all the time without ill intent. I'm working on it, and I try to correct my own behavior that I realize or am informed is sexist. I don't think most people are intending to be sexist when they refer to "panties in a bunch," but I do think they are using a sexist stereotype to insult someone. I'm advising that people be aware of that connotation, especially in a workplace environment. @JMac summarized well how I view the phrase. – Bryan Krause Feb 6 '18 at 18:42

protected by Alexandros Feb 6 '18 at 11:04

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