A reader writes:
I work in a professional school within a very large private university. Our campus is home to several schools, and a number of facility-type departments (IT, buildings & grounds, etc.) are shared between the different schools.
A colleague of mine had been trying repeatedly to contact one of these departments to set up a time-sensitive training for some new employees without receiving a response. The requests were sent a departmental email address rather than an individual, and this department is notorious for being difficult to get the attention of. He turned to me for help as I deal with this department more frequently. I did what I usually do to ensure a quick reply–I CC’ed my colleague, his boss, my boss, and my boss’ assistant. You see, my boss and my colleague’s boss are high-level administrators within our school (second only to the dean), and a complaint about non-responsiveness would be taken very seriously from them.
I received a response almost instantly–a response that only included myself and my colleague–so I know they aren’t appreciative of my passive-aggressive threats. Frankly, this is the only way I can get this department’s attention, so I don’t feel too bad about doing it. But I am curious as to what you think. Am I being out of line even though I feel I have no other choice? Is this better or worse than including that department’s overseer on the email (their manager receives the emails sent to the departmental email, so he already knows about this behavior)? Are there situations where this is more acceptable?
Well, it is passive-aggressive and won’t win you any friends. It basically says, “I don’t trust you to be able to do your job on your own, so I’m pulling in other people from the get-go to make sure that you feel a whip cracking over you. P.S. You’re lazy and possibly incompetent.”
Of course, you don’t trust them to do their job otherwise, because they’ve shown you that you shouldn’t. But I’m curious about why you don’t just address the problem directly. A department that’s unresponsive is a pretty big problem, and it’s one that’s worth addressing in a real, substantive way. (That won’t necessarily win you any friends either, but it’s still a better approach.)
Go over there and talk to the people causing the problem: “Hey, Joe, we’re finding when we send emails about X or Y, we often don’t hear back from you guys, which keeps us from being able to do Z. What can we do differently so that we’re able to get the answers we need?”
(By the way, “what can we do differently?” is polite code for “you need to do something differently.” It works in all kinds of situations. Try it!)
If the problem continues after that, then you need to alert your boss. Say something like this: “We routinely have a lot of trouble getting any response from Department X. We’ve talked to them about it but it hasn’t solved the problem. In fact, I find they only respond when I cc you. I don’t want to rely on that as a means of getting things done, so I wonder if it would make sense for you to talk to (Department X’s manager) and see if there’s a way to get more responsiveness from them.”
If your boss is any good, she’ll deal with this from there. If she’s not any good and thus doesn’t deal with it, then at that point your only remaining choice is indeed to cc the people who will ensure that you get what you need. But try these other options first.