how to respond to an angry, profanity-laced email from a coworker

A reader writes:

The situation I’m writing about has happened and been dealt with (sort of), but I’m curious about what other paths I could have taken.

I work in a small branch office of a larger firm. There is one other person at my level. We have differing but complementary skills. On the whole, we have a decent working relationship; our projects don’t often overlap, and he’s one of those guys who would rather do everything himself anyway. (Which hey, that frees up more staff time for my use!)

Recently, he asked to review a document I was working on because it was relevant to a project of his own, and he had some changes he wanted to suggest. Fine by me, I’m not precious about my work and am generally willing to take anyone’s notes. I sent it to him. After three weeks and several follow up emails, he still hadn’t gotten to it. It got to the point where I could not wait any longer, and the document HAD to be finalized. I emailed Coworker (on a Friday) that I needed his comments that day, and if he didn’t think he was going to be able to get to them, then he needed to let me know so I could move forward. He replied in a very bitchy and condescending manner – and was also incorrect in his assumption that my deadline was a false one that I’d created. (It wasn’t at all, which was underlined the next week by a general email sent from our bosses to everyone at our level – not spurred by me, I don’t know why the email was sent, although I did feel a fair amount of malicious glee when I read it.)

There was some tedious back and forth which I will spare you, then the following gems from Coworker: “Here. I’m sending you my edits in text, now F— off for the weekend,” followed by a string of texts where he scribbled edits on a printout of the document and sent me pictures. He capped it with an email where he dropped the F-bomb again, told me I was acting like he didn’t know what he was doing, and was basically a condescending jackass. I was absolutely infuriated; I didn’t ask for his input to begin with, and his emails were way out of line.

I didn’t respond (I’d gotten what I wanted, and honestly his comments and edits were pointless anyway). I kept the emails, but did not inform anyone at a higher level. He sent an email apology that Sunday. He apologized again verbally that Monday. I didn’t really respond to any of this because I was still angry and wasn’t ready to “forgive and forget.” Any response would have been a lecture anyway, and I really don’t want to be “teaching” a grown man about appropriate office interactions. Also, I’m not confrontational by nature, especially with people I know and have to work with.

Since then, we’ve been fine and our work has been completely separate. I was wondering what you think about other ways this could have been handled.

I wrote back to this letter-writer and asked, “Any sign of this kind of thing from him before?”

The response:

He’s never gone off the rails like this before, but he’s flared up a few times. One of his triggers is – well, honestly, he’s one of those people whom technology hates. He’s the only one in the office who can’t work the scanner, he’s the only person whose email repeatedly messes up, etc. And even though he knows the staff leaves at 5:30 and he can’t scan, he’ll wait until after 6pm to do letters and such, and then get angry when he can’t send them out right that second. So he gets mad, I ignore it (I’ve given up trying to help him through these tech issues), and then he’s over it. And I think that’s really only happened two or three times over the past couple of years.

This outburst was crazy. I suspect part of it was guilt for putting off what took him all of 10 minutes to do, and part of it was his inability to be in the wrong about anything. He hates being questioned, and really likes feeling like he’s the one who knows things. In all fairness, he often does know things! He’s not a terrible person, he’s just kind of annoying to work with sometimes.

Well, he was wildly out of line. I mean, it’s one thing to be grumpy at times — which is still best avoided at work, but not a horrible crime — but telling a coworker to F off crosses a pretty serious line.

It would have been totally reasonable for you to come down harder on him — meaning telling him directly that what he did wasn’t acceptable and that he’s not to talk to you (or anyone else at work) that way again. It also would have been totally reasonable for you to loop his manager in. If I were his manager, I’d sure as hell want to know that he was sending crazy, abusive emails like that, and there’s an argument to be made that it’s bad for the organization not to know that someone is behaving like this.

Frankly, if you wanted to, you could even bring this up with him now, even though it’s been a while. You could say something like, “Bob, now that some time has passed, I want to talk to you about those emails you sent me when I asked you for edits on the X project. You basically exploded at me and told me to F off. I didn’t say anything at the time because I was so shocked. But I’m not okay with being spoken to that way, and frankly, it’s made me hesitant to work with you because you crossed such a line. What happened?” And depending on how that conversation goes, you might also add, “I’d like to know that you won’t speak to me that way again, and that if you have an issue, you’ll discuss it with me rationally. Can you agree to that?”

But I also think it’s your call if you prefer to just let it rest now.

{ 119 comments… read them below }

  1. Clinical Social Worker

    I feel like this is automatic “tell the boss” territory, it’s just so far out of line. I also wonder if his apologies were true ones, yknow where the person takes responsibility for their actions, understands the impact those actions had, promises not to do it again etc. Not one where he rationlaized/minimized his behavior, made excuses for it, or apologizes for someone “feeling” a certain way. I feel like those apologies make it so much worse. “I’m sorry if you were offended. I didn’t mean anything by it.” I would guess the apology was pretty weak, something along the lines of “I’m sorry I blew up but I’m just so stressed.”

    1. Seal

      +1 to this. Even if it was an isolated incident his boss needs to know. I had a now-former coworker who sent me a similarly out of line response to a very reasonable request (minus the f-bombs, but still very rude, condescending and totally irrational). But in this case, my coworker was dumb enough to copy our boss, who sided with me and nicely made her to back down. It was the beginning of the end for this woman; I had raised concerns about her behavior towards me and her staff on a number of occasions, but this was the first time our boss had actually seen her bad behavior in action. Within months, the woman was gone.

      1. AMG

        I have to agree. You could bring it up to your boss and say that it seems to have blown over now and that he apologized, but that you wanted to make Boss aware in case there is a recurrence. That way you are covered and Boss has the context s/he needs. Be aware that Boss will probably bring it up to Coworker Boss, and that’s ok. It’s a big deal and feels like an escalating pattern of behavior to me.

        1. Angora

          I agree with all three of you. This is something your boss should be made aware of incase it happens again. I have worked with verbally abusive co-workers that think “I’m sorry” takes care of it. Does not work, the behavior shouldn’t happen in the first place.

          I would forward the e-mail to your boss so they are aware. Some people believe that “the best defensive is an offense” especially when they are wrong. If he knows he’s wrong, and blows at the messenger of his misdeeds … in the future the individual may just not call them on it, or even ask them to do something. I wonder what his performance is like … sounds iffy to me if he’s unwilling to learn basic skills.

    2. BRR

      I also wonder if he’s really sorry. It could have been “I’m sorry because I know I should apologize” or “I’m sorry please don’t tell my boss.”

      Either way I would forward it to his boss.

      1. nep

        +1
        There are no words for this level of disrespect. And the disrespect does not go away with a couple of ‘I’m sorry’ ‘s. (And I reckon BRR’s descriptions of the apologies are accurate.)

        1. BRR

          I do want to add we don’t know if he’s sincere or not. I don’t really care though because I think his boss should know no matter what. If one of my employees was doing this I would want to know.

          1. nep

            Sure. No one knows whether the apologies are sincere. Agree — were I a manager/boss, I’d want to be informed of this behaviour.

    3. BritCred

      +1

      Forward it to the boss with “can we speak on how is best to deal with these types of deadlines with Bob?”

      1. fposte

        I think this is pretty much what I’d do. I’d add “While he did apologize the next week, I’d like to prevent the problem from happening in the first place,” because I don’t want to seem like I’m deliberately omitting the apology.

    4. SJP

      I’ve got to +1 on these responses cause they’re so accurate and on the money (as it were). By the sounds of the email and then in person apology he may have suddenly realised the impact of his actions and apologised in the hopes of you not telling the boss/anyone.
      So for that reason now it’s cooled down i’d definitely inform the boss, as others have said, to cover yourself if he does it again but also because it’s the kind of behaviour that is so out of line the boss would certainly want to know..

      I honestly don’t know how i’d have reacted to this if it happened to me..

    5. Artemesia

      I agree. This is crazytown. At this level, I would loop the manager into the correspondence — or just consult the manager about how you should deal with this sort of outburst. This isn’t someone being a bit snippy — which I would let go — this is someone being miles over the line in hostility and aggression.

    6. Meow

      +1 automatic tell the boss. Organizations have a duty to purge people like this. I have not read all the comments in this reply, so it may already be mentioned, but the book The No A****** Rule by Robert Sutton comes to mind.

  2. louise

    And if you do decide to bring it up, I’d add something like, “I had sent the document to you at your request, and was willing to make changes to it because you had wanted me to, so the only reason I followed up with you was because it had seemed important to you. I would have been fine with just finalizing the document on my own.”

    But then, I would add that because I like getting the last word where possible. Yeah, you probably won’t pass me if you’re traveling on the high road…

    1. LBK

      I wouldn’t phrase it that way but I totally agree with pointing out that he had made the request in the first place.

  3. AggrAV8ed Tech

    This actually reminded me of an incident I had last December where my boss went off on me over the phone, culminating with a loud, “Oh, f___ you!”…all because I wasn’t attending the holiday potluck party. It’s one thing to deal with if it’s a coworker, but what do you do when it’s your boss?

      1. Ruffingit

        Agreed. F**k you because you wouldn’t attend the holiday potluck? That is “I’m sorry your boss sucks get a new job” territory.

    1. Miriam

      A possible solution is Miss Manners’ immortal phrase, a frosty “I beg your pardon!” This would shame your boss for his bad behavior without pulling you into an exchange of insults–a battle you as the employee are likely to lose, even though you are right and your boss is wrong.

      Insulting and offensive language has no place in the workplace or anywhere for that matter. A warning of transgression (“I beg your pardon” or “pardon me” or a similar phrase) should extract an immediate apology from the offender and a change in future behavior. If this doesn’t happen, you’ll know you are dealing with someone who does not feel shame and is therefore beyond the reach of etiquette. In such cases, more powerful deterrents (involving boss’s boss or HR, etc.) may need to be considered.

      One may also choose to not respond in the moment and later report the incident to those with sanctioning power. As other posters have noted, context matters. One’s response to crude or obscene language will depend on the severity of the insult, the offender’s past behavior, and safety considerations, among other things.

    2. Not So NewReader

      “Please don’t speak to me like that. I don’t speak to you like, I am asking for the same in return.”

    3. Artemesia

      Wow. This would be my cue to start looking for a job. FU over a work screwup — not good, but might be weathered — but over the ridiculous holiday potluck? This is again nutso and speaks to a layer of unstable I wouldn’t want to work for. The boss I had who did this sort of thing and whom I feared because of it, in fact ended up shooting himself, so my spidey sense for crazy in the workplace is well tuned.

      1. AggrAV8ed Tech

        ’tis what I’ve been doing for a while now, job searching. That’s only one of the latest in a pattern of abuse from this sociopath. For a while, I thought it was just me, but when another department director here met him for the first time, his reaction (that he shared with me) was, and I quote, “What a pompous ass.”

        The main difficulty in job searching right now has been that my family and I are trying to relocate out of state (the jobs just aren’t here in my current locale) and, well, we all know how tough it can be getting serious consideration for gigs from out of state.

  4. JoJo

    I would notify management on the grounds that if he goes off on you, the next time it could be a customer, or even escalate into violence.

    1. OriginalPoster

      I’m honestly not even slightly worried about violence from him, although I do appreciate that with the right context, this would be a valid concern.

  5. Allison

    There’s someone in my office who does this too. Sometimes he swears when he’s alone in his office, we hear “oh you’ve gotta be f—ing kidding me” or “f—ing slow internet . . .” But one time I did hear him blow up at someone because they didn’t have the numbers he needed, and it was really awkward to overhear. I’ve also heard that he’s scared away candidates during interviews. I have no idea if anyone’s ever said anything to him about his behavior toward others, or if they’ve just shrugged and said “oh well, that’s just who he is.”

    Slightly unrelated, I once reported a grocery store associate for swearing at me outside the store. Surprisingly, he wasn’t fired.

    I totally get people who swear when they’re frustrated, but swearing AT people when at work is never okay in my opinion. Doesn’t matter if it’s a co-worker, superior, assistant, or customer, it’s extremely unprofessional.

    1. jag

      Yes, there’s a huge difference between swearing at situations and swearing at people. Very very different.

      1. Melly

        And swearing in writing feels more intense to me. Like he had time to review and delete that. Sometimes swear words slip out verbally, especially if you curse a lot outside of work. But in writing? No.

        1. Karowen

          +1 I curse all the time. At work, I curse at situations and inanimate objects. Profanity will occasionally slip out while I’m talking to a co-worker. But never directed at the co-worker and certainly never in an email. That’s so far outside the bounds of normal office behavior.

          (For the record, I’m trying to cut back on the cursing, but it’s difficult. I know that cursing while talking to a coworker and/or at inanimate objects is also not okay in the office, but it’s definitely more likely to just sort of slip out when you can’t stop and edit your words before letting them be known to the universe.)

          1. AVP

            I also have a potty mouth, but my boss has a worse one. We will curse in conversation to each other but you have to know your audience! And the great thing about email is that you have time to go back and edit and delete inappropriate wording.

          2. jag

            I curse in email sometimes, within a team about some problem we jointly face. As in “This is F-ed up, let’s have a quick call to figure out how to deal.”

            1. Karowen

              Yeah, I’d probably do that to if it wouldn’t get me in trouble with our IT group. So I take back what I said about cursing in email being outside the bounds of normal office behavior. But as AVP said, you really have to know your audience.

        2. Koko

          I love using frosty politeness to make my displeasure clear without sinking to the aggressive/rude party’s level. Great all-purpose reply when a coworker is offering unwanted help, issuing orders without authority, asking questions when it’s none of their business, etc: “I have the situation covered now. Thank you for your help.”

          Usually successful in getting the nosy coworker to bugger off, but nobody’s going to forward or print out that email and be all, “Koko said she was doing her job and she thanked me for helping! But she did it in, like, a bitchy way!!”

    2. Anon Accountant

      Sometimes we swear at our computers “this damn thing is moving like a dinosaur” but never when clients are around. Swearing at people or blowing up at people is absolutely something management needs to be aware of.

    3. Green

      I worked in a very rough-language environment and people were all pretty rude to each other basically all the time (giant law firm). And this OP message still crosses the line of what would have been acceptable in THAT work environment. Dropping the F bomb with colleagues would have been entirely appropriate (about vendors, deadlines, technology, opposing parties) in that place, but saying F off for the weekend in writing to a colleague would not have been. I most certainly would have forwarded that up the chain.

    4. Mister Pickle

      Heh, that could be me! I’ve been known to curse at my computer screen – usually I’m home alone but on occasion my wife and kids have heard an ear-load. “You’ve gotta be f—ing kidding me!” is probably #1 on the charts (with a bullet).

  6. kas

    I would’ve responded and copied his manager on the email. I like louise’s response above, however, I wouldn’t have been as polite. I’d also add in something about the profanity, letting him know he’s not to speak/write to me like that ever again. I would cc the manager on my response to him so he would know I’m not playing around and hopefully so he’d get in trouble for his actions. He definitely crossed the line.

    1. fposte

      I would support this, but I also think you want to wait–if you do it at the time, he’s still mired in frustration rage and this is likely to escalate it rather than make him see the error of his ways. If you wait until the red mist has passed and he’s realizing that he did something really stupid, your point is going to hit a lot harder.

      1. kas

        Ok I see what you’re saying and see how it could escalate further. I just know that I have a tendency to drop situations if I give it time because I don’t want to bring it up again/I’m over it by then. I agree with you though, the point will hit a lot harder if you give it time.

  7. Former Professional Computer Geek

    Verbally abusive. Makes false accusations. Cannot accept own mistakes. Know-it-all.

    This guy smells like a control freak and a ticking time bomb. I would definitely tell management because this is only going to escalate.

    1. neverjaunty

      Yes, this. OP, your coworker IS a terrible person. His inability to admit being wrong is not just annoying, but is creating problems for everyone: I would bet cash money that “tech hates him” because somebody who cannot admit to being wrong also cannot admit that maybe they should try something different next time.

      1. Serin

        Or cannot understand that he’s going to have to write down the instructions and follow them precisely. (And that when other people who look like they’re going up the scanner and randomly pushing buttons, it’s because they wrote down the instructions and followed them precisely until they had them memorized.)

        I had a boss once who used to call me into his office to explain how to upload a photo onto his Facebook page (!) at least every other week. I’d say, “Here are the instructions; write them down,” or, “I wrote the instructions down for you; please follow them,” but instead he’d randomly click links while saying, “No, no, I’ll remember it” or “No, no, it ought to be obvious.”

        Needless to say, the fact that Facebook wouldn’t read his mind and do what he really wanted rather than what he clicked on was always Facebook’s fault and never his.

        (He actually did get fired, but it was because he was as bad with people as he was with computer.)

    2. Sarahnova

      Yeah, even if we leave off the telling a coworker to F off (…and let’s not), he’s got some pretty significant issues to work on.

  8. fposte

    I think letting it go in the moment was probably a good thing, because there’s a lot of heat in that kind of moment that can make it hard to deal with somebody like that or report the problem effectively.

    But I’d pick it up again, either with him, or his manager, or both, come the next week, apology or no. I don’t see any reason to think that he’s going to be dangerous or that he faces off with customers, so that’s not the reason; this is bad behavior because it’s bad behavior, not because it’s a harbinger of disaster.

    1. neverjaunty

      It could be a harbinger of disaster other than the “bringing a gun to work” kind. Like a critical project collapsing because Mr. Perfect couldn’t admit he needed more time for his portion, or a critical employee leaving during crunch time because they no longer care to work with him.

      1. fposte

        Sure, other bad things can happen. But some comments seem to think that this needs to be mentioned because of what else he’ll do, and I think it should be mentioned because he did this.

        1. LBK

          +100. Whether he might do something worse or not is immaterial – he’s already done something completely unacceptable. There’s no need to hypothesize about what this may signify about his future behavior because his present behavior already warrants action.

  9. Clever Name

    I had a coworker explode via email at me. Minus the swearing, but he did accuse me of “stealing all his ideas” when what I was doing was recapping an email conversation and verifying what he had said. Turns out this coworker feels very competitive with me and hates my guts (apparently because I’m winning- heh). So, I’d be wary of this coworker in the future. This type of overblown reaction is all about him and has very little to do with anything you’ve done. In these situations, I’ve found that taking the high road pretty much always pays off. You end up being the reasonable person and the other person generally looks petty and childish.

  10. OriginalYup

    “I suspect part of it was guilt for putting off what took him all of 10 minutes to do, and part of it was his inability to be in the wrong about anything.”

    The stress build-up followed by an explosion can be a fairly common pattern with procrastinators. Avoiding the problem creates all this ancillary stress because you’re thinking about this Thing that’s out there and needs to get done, so at the end of the day you’ve spent 20 hours worrying about the Thing instead of just the 2 hours it would have taken to complete it initially. I once had a coworker flip out and scream at me for asking “What’s the status of X” because she’d been getting constant system-generated reminders about it already, so my asking a benign question was like the match to the gasoline.

    That said, this guy’s behavior to you was massively unprofessional. You (and others) shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of his frustrations from his self-created mess. I’m fairly confrontational so I’d probably be uber blunt with him about it in a private conversation: “Yeah, you seemed very frustrated and stressed out. But you were way out of line to speak/text me like that. Don’t ever do it again. In the future if you find yourself stuck on a deadline like this, I expect you to talk to me about it like a reasonable colleague so we can fix the problem. You are certainly not to tell me to F -Off for doing my job. I accept your apology for this instance, and I expect that this situation will never be repeated.”

  11. Alien vs Predator

    I’d just like to throw in a recommendation for the book “The No Asshole Rule” by Robert Sutton. It provides an excellent rationale for why people that behave in this manner should be called out and, hopefully, shown the door at the earliest opportunity. Nobody is such a genius that this type of behavior should be tolerated from anyone in any organization. It really is a book that should be read by every working person, whether one is a manager or not (but, especially if one IS a manager). Life is just too short to work with people like this.

    1. Lora

      THIS.

      I once managed the junior version of this dude. Could NOT accept any word or hint of criticism–whether it was from me, from a client, from a peer, from my boss, from my boss’ boss…he was happy to tell us all we didn’t know what we were talking about, were stupid and just failed to recognize his genius, etc etc.

      Both my boss and I had tried HARD to get the go-ahead to fire him from boss’ boss, but he was like, boss’ boss’ cousin or something so we were expected to take all kinds of crap from him. When some of his emails were forwarded “for your consideration, without further comment, just so you are aware of this situation” to the very high ups in a desperate end-run, boss and I were both told that we were just racist, despite our respective histories of working just fine with people of the same background…including our department director.

      Eventually Precious decided that this field wasn’t for him, because he couldn’t make enough money, and he was going to switch over to computer programming, despite knowing exactly 0 programming languages and having never so much as scripted before, let alone being able to get a networked printer to work for him without assistance.

    2. C Average

      I came here to recommend this excellent book! Very enthusiastic +1. This book may be my favorite business book. It tells you how to identify an asshole (versus someone who’s not an asshole but is just challenging to work with for whatever reason), how to coexist with assholes if you don’t have the ability to fire them, how to get rid of them if you are in charge, and how to not be one. Excellent, excellent stuff.

      1. Trisha

        I love this book! I bought it when I was dealing with a jerk at work a few years back and it made me feel better just reading it. Thankfully, he has moved onto a different company and I no longer have to deal with him.

        1. Alien vs Predator

          Yes, it is excellent. Haven’t read it in a while and probably need to look at it again. I’ll never forget interviewing for a job and seeing this book on the director’s bookshelf. I knew almost instantly that I wanted to work for her. She was one of the best managers I’ve ever had.

    3. Mister Pickle

      I have to read this book. I believe the entire “I have to be right!” syndrome is a major source of the world’s problems. I get sooo tired of dealing with it.

  12. Bend & Snap

    I would be elevating this to his manager so fast his head would spin. And also copy your manager so she knows what you’re dealing with.

  13. Mister Pickle

    Yes, this guy was totally unprofessional. But if this happened awhile ago? Personally, I’d just let it go. I’m not seeing that there is much to be gained by rehashing it or getting mgmt involved at this time.

    Having said that: I’d document the instance described by LW, and if this kind of thing should come up again, *then* it’s time to take it to mgmt. If I read it correctly this is the first time he’s blown up like this, and he was apparently self-aware enough to recognize on his own that he was out of line and apologize. So if it’s a one-off, let it go. But if it happens again, it may be the start of a pattern. And it’s when bad behavior becomes a pattern that it becomes truly toxic.

    Just my opinion.

    Also – kudos to LW for keeping cool under pressure. Dealing with people who are acting like jerks can bring out the worst in a person, but you stayed in control.

    1. neverjaunty

      And then LW gets “But why didn’t you report it the first time, right away? Since you waited it must be no big deal.” No, reporting now, after having cool s off a little, is the way to go.

      1. fposte

        I don’t think reasonable management would say that, though. If she feels that the situation has been dealt with to her satisfaction, it’s legitimate to let it go, but note it as a pattern if it happens again.

        That being said, I’d probably mention it to his boss this time too; I just don’t think it’s a now or never thing.

        1. Lizzie

          Yeah, I agree with this. I think the critical thing is for the OP to document what happened this time, so that even if s/he feels that the matter has been resolved this time, there’s a paper trail for next time (or some other relevant future point).

      2. Mister Pickle

        In my work culture – which is admittedly not universal – “handling it” as a one-time incident and not getting management involved would be considered the “high road” and would enhance my credibility if there was a 2nd occurrence and I felt I had to take it to management:

        “So he did this before?”

        “Yes, back in January. But he apologized, both in writing and in person. I figured he was having a bad day. We got along fine after. I didn’t see a need to make a big deal out of it.”

        “But yesterday he did it again?”

        “*sigh* Yeah.”

        ——-

        Since you waited it must be no big deal.

        ??? Does not compute.

        1. fposte

          Yeah, I think you need to know your workplace culture, but a lot of workplaces would give credit for a seemingly solid internal resolution on the first go, not blame you for it later. As a manager, I’d be okay with either hearing the first time or the second in this case.

        2. AdAgencyChick

          I agree — I think if I were the manager in this situation, the longer OP waits, the worse off she is. If you report something out of line (and this is WAY out of line) immediately, I don’t think the manager can interpret it as anything but “this is an unacceptable action” for which F-bomb-dropper would need to be disciplined to make sure the working relationship could continue productively. I as the manager would interpret OP’s goal as getting things back to normal so s/he can work productively.

          But if it’s been a while, then OP has somehow found a way to work with F-bomb-dropper. In that case, bringing up the incident, unless something else has happened, feels more like OP’s goal is not to repair the relationship or to be productive but simply to have F-bomb-dropper punished in some way.

          This is not to say that OP shouldn’t bring it up after the fact — but it has to be delicately done. Maybe “I wish I had said something earlier about this, but it’s really still getting to me, and I need some advice on how to move forward with Coworker.” Basically, making the emphasis about how to move forward productively, rather than about “Coworker did this a while ago, go punish him!”

      3. Not So NewReader

        I have had several managers of this breed- “Well, you waited this long, it can’t be that big a deal.”
        My answer: “Yes, that is true that I waited. I do not like going to the boss with anything regarding a coworker unless I feel I am on solid ground. In this case, I put considerable thought into the matter before coming in here now. Yes, he did apologize and I do appreciate that. But I remain concerned going forward, what will be done to prevent another occurrence? I know Bob has countless frustrations with the technology and I have tried to help him in the past.”

        1. Sarahnova

          Love your phrasing and handling of that.

          I think the “but why did you wait?” tends to come from assy managers who are looking for any excuse to avoid handling an awkward situation.

    2. LBK

      I agree with the general idea of just letting some things go, but tell a coworker to f*ck off falls squarely in the “Not Even Once” category.

  14. Ann Furthermore

    I think it depends on the tone of the apology, and whether or not you feel it was sincere. I can’t imagine any situation that would make me think it was acceptable to F-bomb my co-worker, especially in an email, but on the off chance that it did happen, I would fall all over myself apologizing. The only way I could ever see myself doing this — and even this is a remote possibility at best — is if I was upset about something else and took it out on a co-worker.

    “Hey, Jane, I just want to say that I’m very sorry for those nasty emails I sent you on Friday. It was completely out of line and a really stupid thing for me to do. I had just found about [extenuating circumstances] and I was very upset, and ended up putting you in the crossfire. I really do apologize and I’d like to put this behind us and move forward. Here’s a $10 gift card to [your favorite coffee/lunch place] as a peace offering.”

    Now, if the apology was just, “Hey, sorry about that,” then yeah, the guy is probably just going through the motions because he knows he should, not because he’s really sorry.

    If I felt the person really was sincere I’d be inclined to let it go. If I felt that the person deep down didn’t think it was that big a deal and just apologizing to try and keep himself out of trouble, I’d be inclined to forward the whole string of emails and texts to his boss, and say, “This happened a little while back and frankly I was so shocked I was at a loss as to how to deal with it, plus I wanted to let things cool down. But after thinking about it, I feel that letting you know what happened was the right thing to do.”

    1. Canadamber

      Hmmm, yeah, I sometimes have trouble controlling my temper and I’ve taken it out on people before too, but I always apologize because it’s not fair of me and (probably) was not deserved. Now, if the guy doesn’t care or something… that’s another thing. We all make mistakes, but it’s owning up to those mistakes that is the important thing.

      1. fposte

        I think an apology is great, but it doesn’t automatically wipe the slate clean. In this case, I’d want not just an “I’m sorry I did that” but also an indication that he knows it can’t happen again. This isn’t a mistake we all make.

        1. Ann Furthermore

          Very true. This would be for the first offense only. If it happened again, and/or on a regular basis, I’d pull the guy’s manager into the loop.

          You can’t just behave any way you want to and then say “sorry” and expect everything will be OK. I stopped letting my 5 year old watch a horrible show about 2 little kids who live in a cuckoo clock. The premise was the same each episode: they’re told specifically not to do something, they do it anyway, then they say, “Oh. Sorry!” and then everything is forgiven. I did not like the message of “Do whatever you want, and be a horrible obnoxious brat, and as long as you apologize it will all be OK,” so my daughter was no longer allowed to watch that show. (Actually what finally did it was an episode where the 2 kids are in a dance contest, the boy cheats by wearing “magic shoes” and THE KIDS WIN THE CONTEST ANYWAY. OMG. But that is a rant for a different topic.)

          1. hildi

            Wow! It’s surprising to hear that a show like that actually exists in kids’ programming. Seems like many of them are all about sending the right message. But then again I could be incredibly sheltered on this topic. My 5 year old only has a handful of favorites, but perhaps I ought to watch a few episodes with her next time just to make sure I’m not blissfully overlooking something!

  15. Katie the Fed

    I had a version of this in an in-person meeting. We had a new colleague with an amazingly bad temper. Like, 0 to RAGE in 10 seconds over minor stuff. I don’t do that stuff well. Anyway, he was getting into it with another colleague of mine, and being someone who hates tension, I tried to mediate. He turned to me and just screamed out a string of profanity, and accusations. I just calmly said “When you’re ready to talk about this rationally, let me know” and collected my stuff and left. The other coworkers who he was getting into it with followed me.

    Basically I just treat people having tantrums like children having tantrums. Tell them their behavior is unacceptable, and remove myself from the situation until they’ve calmed down.

  16. Jake

    I read some of the comments, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m either in an abusive industry, or I’ve worked only for abusive companies.

    This kind of thing happens all the time in both places I’ve worked, the big difference being that it usually isn’t in writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told to f-off in the last 12 months by coworkers and subcontractors. I work in construction, and I’m more shocked when a confrontation doesn’t boil over into cussing and screaming than when it doesn’t.

    I stood in a meeting with 30 people where a manager 3 levels above me went person to person asking (yelling), “Do YOU think I’m a Fing micromanager?” This was brought on when a coworker a level above me responded to his earlier abuse with “well, if you want to micromanage this, maybe you should do it instead.” The repercussions? The coworker was written up and given a 0% raise for the year for “instigating”. This was at least the third such incident for that manager within 12 months, and none of the other incidents involved this coworker. That manager was a member of the top talent program for the company. Not really relevant, just some insight for those that haven’t worked in an abusive environment before.

    1. Madtown Maven

      I’ve just recently gotten out of a very dysfunctional, abusive work environment. Please, try to find a mentally healthy and socially accepting place to work. The adjustment might be hard at first, but it’s so amazing! The longer you stay in a place that lets people — especially the leadership — treat staff poorly, the more you can begin to believe that you’re not worthy of being supported, successful, and happy at work.

    2. Not So NewReader

      I am so glad you said this, because I see it as fairly commonplace, too, in many work environments.
      I tried saying, “no, this is wrong” and I ended up being the idiot.

      It’s not the cussing that bothers me. It’s the temper flaring up that churns my stomach.

      One thing I have held on to: Loss of temper is the same as saying “I lack the skill sets to handle the problem.” People that know how to handle whatever problem is going on, usually do not lose their temper. They chose to focus on fixing the problem.

      This applies to OPs situation in that Coworker loses it with the technology. I feel that elephant on the dining room table here is that Coworker cannot do his job because he is too disconnected from the technology. Worse yet, Coworker is NOT teachable. OP has tried helping him to no avail. And the work he gave OP sounds like it was a total mess that she (?) had to piece together.

      Of course, Coworker is worried the boss will find out. The technology doubles ever 18 months, he cannot keep up now and at this rate he will not be able to keep his job in the future. He is keenly aware of that, too.

  17. Mike C.

    Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t see swearing to be that big of a deal. Sure, if someone doesn’t like it I’m not going to swear in their presence, but so long as you aren’t being abusive it really doesn’t bother me. If fact, I would say it’s warranted when someone acts in an unsafe manner or puts someone else at serious risk of harm.

    That being said, when I see a higher up manager screaming at a slightly less higher up manager over completely unreasonable expectations, that’s always unacceptable.

    I guess what I’m getting at here is that I’m way more bothered by behavior that is belittling, abusive, bigoted, and so on over the use of certain four letter words.

      1. fposte

        Nasty emails are hardly ever a precursor to physical aggression. If they were, most of us would have been dead long ago.

        That said, I think the kind of direct aggressive behavior in this email is a problem in its own right, because it means this person is impeding the work of the team. I think swearing at somebody is particularly aggressive, but a furious and aggressive email without swearing would be a problem too–the swearing isn’t really the issue.

      2. Mike C.

        I think this is a bit much. I’ve seen a ton of yelling here, and have never seen someone physically harmed.

        1. olives

          Sometimes people who use physical aggression don’t always make it obvious to others around them.

          Also, I’m somewhat with you on the use of particular cuss words, but when someone is explicitly told “F– off” in response to a work-related request? That’s going a bit far.

    1. Nina

      Swearing can be considered abusive language, though. And his behavior was belittling to the OP; in addition to swearing at her, he accused her of making up deadlines and claiming that she didn’t understand what he was doing.

      1. Mike C.

        Yeah, I’m not disagreeing here, I’m just trying to say that specific words don’t bother me so much as the intent and the actions that come from them. In this case it’s clearly abusive behavior, but I wanted to hear from folks about swearing independent of such behavior.

        1. Nina

          I hear you. I know I’ve used some colorful language in regards to the office equipment. And while swearing itself is considered offensive, I do agree that intent is just as important as the word itself. Like, “Give me the damn paper” sounds more rooted in frustration and not as offensive, as opposed to “F* off for the weekend” which is blatantly insulting.

      2. Bimmer Guy

        It’s a serious matter, but I’m the person who probably would laugh to myself and shake my head if someone sent me an email like this. After all, when the swearer realizes what he’s done, it’s going to be a lot more awkward for him than for me. I don’t think I’d even care, to be honest.

    2. OriginalYup

      Profanity at work generally doesn’t bother me unless it’s directed at someone — “this f’ing computer” is fine by me, “you f’ing idiot” is not — but I’ve worked in a ton of places where even a single d-mm was a total no-fly zone. In this scenario, though, I’m less bothered by the language than by his massive tantrum.

    3. hayling

      It’s not the swearing, it’s the swearing *at* someone. “Oh f*ck” is different than “f*ck off.”

      1. hayling

        Although if you have a friendly relationship with a coworker I could see saying “f*ck off” jokingly, but probably not in an email because it’s hard to write sarcasm.

    4. LBK

      The issue isn’t “heavens me, a curse word!”, it’s the fact that using swears increases the aggressiveness of the statement. “Go away” is inappropriate but not really that aggressive to say to coworker. “F*ck off” is the same sentiment, but in a much more aggressive manner.

      I don’t feel like I’m explaining this well, but essentially: it’s not just the presence of a swear that’s the issue in this context, it’s the intent and level of escalation that including the swear represents.

      1. Mike C.

        We’re on the same page here. I just saw a few comments that seemed to be in the vein of, as you put it, “heavens me, a curse word!” and wanted to explore that a bit more.

      2. LJL

        Absolutely. it’s disrespectful, belittling, and rude. I’ve let a few f-bombs fly myself, but they are inappropriate for the workplace.

  18. Student

    OP, you asked what could’ve been handled differently. I think one big thing that you could’ve done differently was not bending over backwards to accommodate this guy. There’s no excuse for the way this co-worker addressed you, but being more assertive and less accommodating with him in general might make him think harder about treating you like a doormat.

    When this started, and he offered unsolicited feedback on your work, I agree with the initial actions you took to let him offer comments. However, you should treat this as a favor you’re doing for HIM, not a favor he’s doing for YOU, because it was unsolicited. You didn’t need to follow up with him beyond telling him your deadline for feedback. Repeatedly trying to get his feedback, engaging in any amount of back-and-forth over your deadline, that’s all way over the line of reasonable. That’s acting like you’re his admin (or his mother, trying to get him to eat his vegetables). If he drops the ball and doesn’t give his feedback, that’s his problem – because you didn’t need his feedback in the first place. You need to act more like his co-worker and less like his admin if you want him to treat you like a co-worker.

      1. Green

        Great comment. I’d totally missed that OP wasn’t even required to get his feedback because I was sidetracked by the great effort expended in the getting of the feedback. This is one of those times where people can puff themselves up into making themselves superior to you, but it only works if other people buy into it themselves (consciously or unconsciously).

    1. Not So NewReader

      Nice catch on that one, Student.

      OP, new leverage here. You can say, “Coworker, I value your inputs but I will no longer be asking for them repeatedly. I will ask you once and tell you my deadline. If I get your inputs before the deadline, I will happily consider them and work them into what I am doing.”

      I have done this in my work, too. I lose sight of the fact that something is optional to begin with and then get myself fixed on that optional thing. It happens OP. I have done it before and hopefully I won’t do it again,but probably I will. Sigh. Tell yourself you are five minutes older and therefore wiser.

  19. Cajun2core

    I have worked with people from the North-East part of the U.S. (New England) and they said that cursing in the work place was no big deal. I guess it depends what part of the country a person is in/from.

    1. GrumpyBoss

      Cursing in a workplace is different than cursing at your coworker. The latter is a personal attack and creates an unpleasant work environment, regardless of region.

    2. HR Manager

      I work in the Northeast and depending on the company and culture, I’ve heard some naughty language in the office, but GrumpyBoss is correct – it’s one thing to just curse at the situation vs attacking and being offensive to a person. I’ve never heard my employees curse at each other this way.

      Maybe I’m just a bitter but short of this guy coming in an personally acknowledging himself to be an a$$ and apologizing in a more sincere way, I’m inclined to address this. I would bring it up directly or I would even send the email to his manager with a “…hey, this is no longer a simmering issue between us and I’m not asking that this be addressed with him, but I was offended and disturbed by his email, and I thought you should know in case he does this to again or to someone else…”

      1. Not So NewReader

        I agree with this.
        You could let him know that this will not be happening again.
        And/or proceed to the boss. Your choice.

        I had a coworker raise a tool in a gesture that looked like he planned on hitting me with it. He didn’t. I had startled him so that was part of the problem. However, I went to the boss anyway. It was good that I did because the boss had other people reporting similar occurrences to her. It became a part of his record.

        You don’t know what other people are experiencing or will experience with this guy. From what you say here it looks like he is on a slippery slope anyway because technology is such an issue for him. I don’t think your report alone will get him fired. I think in the future, if he remains on the course he is on, he will get himself fired.
        Just like I did in my report to the boss, own the parts of the story that were your missteps. I startled the guy. I should have taken an extra second to announce my presence. This is something I would do for anyone- I should have done it for him, too. Perhaps approach it from the angle of “I don’t really expect you to do anything, but I wanted you to be aware that I had this experience.” I experienced an inappropriate over-reaction and so did you.

    3. lap_giraffe

      As a Southerner now 8 years in Boston, I’ve also found that it’s common enough to let colorful language fly, not only in casual conversations but also in meetings and from the mouths of superiors. Definitely depends on the industry, like my partner works in higher ed and this is certainly not the case, but I worked in the wine industry (let’s be honest, the liquor biz) and it was considered de rigueur for VPs to insert a couple of carefully curated f-bombs into any and all important speeches and announcements. It’s amazing how I could sit there and think “this is so unprofessional” while also realizing that whoever is presenting just nailed it.

      I have noticed lately that I’ve let my own language slide, often because it happens at the worst possible times. The salvageable experience was recently having drinks with a guy I very much crush on, him getting me on a passionate topic and the f-bombs start flying, then I panic and hear my grandmother in my head “a lady who swears is common and has a poor vocabulary.” Jury is still out on this one.

      But then in all seriousness, I’m pretty sure I effectively bombed a recent interview at the end with swearing, for a sales position where I was talking about being genuine and customer relations and so forth, in an in-the-moment attempt at getting to the “heart of things” and after saying seven different professional versions of this, I definitely said something like “I don’t want to bullish*t people, it’s why I can only work with products like this one that I completely believe in.” Yup, didn’t get that job.

  20. Grey

    I think it’s a bit late to inform the boss of this. Your co-worker has spent the last few weeks thinking this matter was resolved with his apologies. It seems easy to believe this won’t happen again. Reporting him now makes it look as if you want nothing more than his punishment for a problem that was already solved weeks ago.

  21. Tenley

    I know I’m late, but what really jumped out at me — aside from the totally inappropriate behavior, of course — was the bizarre way he handled the edits. It sounds like he doesn’t know how to edit within a document if he printed out the text, edited the paper version, then sent you photos of the edits. How much time did that convoluted process waste? How many countless hours did he waste trying to edit within the document before resorting to that approach? I mean, it seems entirely possible to me that all of that was the real stuff behind the explosion. Not that it excuses his behavior in any way or makes anyone other than him responsible for learning how to do things with the tech so he doesn’t blow up again.

  22. Bimmer Guy

    I don’t know…I’m looking at this in a different direction. Is it really good for the OP’s working relationship with this person if he/she immediately goes off and tells the boss? I don’t know. I’m not one for grudges, so I’d save the emails and have exactly the conversation that Alison suggested, but I don’t think I’d turn him in this first time.

  23. Merion (de)

    I think going to the boss after the incident is days, weeks, months past, would be the wrong move.

    There is no question that the email of your coworker was wrong, but he has apologized without any prompting on the weekend, so he did realize that he was out of order and it was important enough for him to come and apologize in person. Of course there is a difference if you feel that the apology wasn’t sincere, but to me it sounds as if it was.

    But if it still bothers you and it sounds as if it does, I would talk to him about it. Tell him that what he did was really not ok and hurt you and ask him, what the cause for his behavior was. The way you write it, it is not normal behavior for him, even he gets angry about not working programs or equipment.

    Maybe he had a lot on his plate, felt stressed by the obviously forgotten document, felt pressured about doing it to the for him unnecessary deadline and after that had problems editing the document and had to resort to the complicated way.

    I’d really try to clear the air without being to confrontational about it.

  24. Bec

    +1 on keeping the boss updated, especially if it could happen again. Additionally, because of his position, he may have responded to other staff members like this and they haven’t felt comfortable reporting someone above them. Since you are on the same level, you may be one of the few brave enough to report him.

  25. snuck

    I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing different between US and Australia etc – I’ve worked in a number of large corporates here in Oz and this sort of thing can be quite common (in project management & IT areas at least) and I’m not saying you ‘put up with it’ but generally one might tackle this first head on, and then if it escalates/continues/degrades then involve your manager. If the person has a history of this you might tell management, but if it was a first time offence then you might just collar the person and say ‘pull your head in, I didn’t appreciate your lack of professionalism at all’ (and his email on a Sunday suggests he is aware of that)… But if the person is already on a fast track to the exit then by all means add to the pile of stench and chat to the boss.

    That said I had a peer blow up at me and swear and carry on like a complete idiot on a national hookup once (ie about another dozen peers were on the conference call, a weekly affair) – he didn’t like me (didn’t like many people at all actually) and was well known for being a bit of a git. He swore at me directly calling me foul names, I told him (on the call) that it wasn’t ok to talk like that, we were a professional group, he swore again directly at me and I said to the rest of the group “sorry, this meeting is over (I was chair) we will reconvene when everyone can remember their *company* values and behave like adults” and then terminated the entire conference call. All the others jumped on chat and told me I handled it well. I wish I had the power to boot HIM off the call – that’d be the way to do it, but all I could do was drop off myself, or drop the entire party line… so I took option B.

  26. Erin

    Hmm, he did apologize, twice. I wonder how sincere those apologies were. Anyway, he sounds annoying to work with but not like he’s a horrible person.

    I think it would have been appropriate to say something to him about how you’re not going to tolerate being spoken to at work like that, regardless of his issues with you. But honestly, the way you did handle it I think is also fine – you were honest with yourself that you were still angry about it, and didn’t want to lecture him or (I’m assuming) say something you would have regretted later. So you kind of said nothing, thereby not engaging in this crapfest – I think that was smart.

    But, since he did apologize, I would actually recommend not bringing it up again – unless of course he swears at you or otherwise acts unprofessionally towards you again.

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