how can I stop obsessing over a harsh email?

A reader writes:

I am a staff member at a university. There is a large student event taking place in a few weeks, and I am tasked with sending reminder emails to students who haven’t properly submitted paperwork for the event. That list of students is generated by the office hosting the event, and I have no access to view which items have been submitted. As per my director’s instructions, I copied each student’s faculty mentor on the email to make them aware that the students were in danger of being dropped from the event. I received a response from a faculty mentor a few minutes later that told me, “He already submitted his paperwork. You should check more carefully instead of sending emails. This is really unprofessional.”

I feel embarrassed and frustrated, and I can’t stop obsessing over her words. I’m frustrated because I’m being scolded for not checking the submissions carefully enough when I don’t have access to the submissions in the first place. I just receive the list and pass the information along. I am embarrassed because a person who doesn’t know me made a judgement about my work ethic and professionalism when she doesn’t know me. There is a sharp divide between staff and faculty at my university (enough so that there have been meetings called to address this issue), and I feel like she’s talking down to me because I am not as accomplished as she is, but I don’t know if this is my own insecurity talking.

To add to the frustration, two people in my office are taking new positions. Due to heavy budget cuts, my university is facing a hiring freeze, and I am taking over both positions. In a matter of days, I went from an entry level receptionist to having major, complex duties that previously took two people to complete. I am literally in day four of my new job and I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the new policies and rules I have to follow. During this transition the only constant, unchanging factor is my work ethic and motivation to succeed. This email has made me question my professionalism, and I really feel disappointed.

How can I stop taking her email so personally? How can I stop feeling like a victim of her words, and learn to brush it off? How can I politely respond to her and stand up for myself? This is my first professional job and my first experience ever struggling at work, and I can’t find a way to compartmentalize my feelings.

You’re taking it way too personally. You’re letting someone who knows way less about the situation than you do control how you feel about it.

Her email actually said more about her than it does about you. Think of it this way: If you were in her shoes, would you have ever sent that response? It’s not a normal or reasonable response. In fact, if she wants to talk professionalism, it’s not a professional response.

It’s legitimate for her to be concerned that a student is being told he’s in danger of being dropped from an event when that’s not the case. But the proper response to that is to say something like, “Actually, Fergus submitted his paperwork a week ago. Can you re-check this?”

Her response was rude and unwarranted.

You shouldn’t be embarrassed because you work with a rude person. You shouldn’t take the emotional burden of feeling responsible for not checking the submissions over when you didn’t have access to that information in the first place. Your job is to receive the list and pass it along. You did your job.

I’d send this back to her: “I don’t have have access to the submissions myself, but certainly a mistake could have been made. I’ll ask the person who compiled the list to confirm with Fergus that she does indeed have his paperwork or to let him know if for some reason she doesn’t.” In other words, keep emotion out of it, and just politely explain the situation and what you’ll do with the information she gave you.

But she’s a jerk. Don’t give her the power to mess with your head.

{ 282 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Fifi Ocrburg

    I think writing Alison’s email makes sense, but I wouldn’t bother send it. The professor won’t apologize and it just makes another cycle of emails. Perhaps checking with the person who complies the list would be useful–maybe the student’s paperwork was overlooked?

    Reply
    1. Shannon

      This. It’s a lot easier to resolve it and get this person out of your life if you can add something like “I checked with Susan, the person responsible for compiling the list, and she said it was a mistake and has fixed the situation/ does not have Fergus’ paperwork. Regardless of how the professor acted, there *is* still a problem.

      Reply
      1. Callie

        I would reply with something like, “According to the records I received from _____, Fergus’s paperwork is incomplete. Please see ____________ for further clarification.” And then not give it another thought.

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    2. Myrin

      I’m not sure it would create an email cycle – what could the professor possibly answer to an email like Alison outlined other than an apology (unlikely, I agree) or something that will make her look even worse than the original email? I’m in favour of sending a message using Alison’s wording, if only to get a feeling of having done something about this, but that’s obviously OP’s call to make.

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      1. Amber T

        I’m almost think Alison’s wording is too nice. Had the professor emailed something like Alison’s example, that would warrant a nice response. I would send something like “I am given a list of who has not submitted their paperwork to contact, I don’t have access to the files themselves. I will check with Fergus/I have checked with Fergus and the situation has been remedied/your student did not hand in the paperwork.”

        For what it’s worth, having to email people about incorrect/missing paperwork when you don’t access to the files seems like a more complicated system than it needs to be. But 1) I get that you’re in a hiring freeze and are picking up responsibilities you didn’t think you would need to and 2) Even if it was smooth sailing, that wouldn’t be your damn fault anyway.

        OP, let this professor wallow in their self importance and TRY not to take it personally. So much easier than expected, but this person is an asshat.

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        1. Amber T

          Nope, so much easier said than done. Not easier than expected. That’s the opposite of what I mean. *More coffee please*

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      2. jaxon

        “I wish your office would be more on top of these details, it’s absurd how unqualified you all are and it makes more work for those of us who do our jobs properly.”

        The professor could EASILY write this in reply. I’m just saying.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          Sure, unless the keys stick the professor could write whatever she wanted, from a love note to a puppy-snatching threat. But it’s more likely that she got the irritation off her chest and won’t respond.

          And even if she did write that, so what? That’s pretty much the opinion she shared before, so it’s nothing new, and it’s just annoying person being annoying and probably just wanting the last word. The OP has made her point and doesn’t need to respond.

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        2. College Career Counselor

          Yup. You’re highly unlikely to “win” in an escalated email interaction with a professor. Whether “win” means an apology, an acknowledgement that you didn’t do anything wrong, or better behavior.

          The professor was annoyed, shot from the hip at the OP,and is likely to either ignore anything subsequent (no matter how nicely worded), or double-down on her position.

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          1. Doriana Gray

            The professor was annoyed, shot from the hip at the OP,and is likely to either ignore anything subsequent (no matter how nicely worded), or double-down on her position.

            Yeah, this is why I’d let it go completely. Responding isn’t going to make the professor see the error of her ways, so for me, it would be a waste of time. I would just mentally make a note that she’s an ass and move on.

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            1. Andrew

              Except she does need to respond to make sure the issue gets resolved. Not the person’s rudeness, but Fergus’s situation.

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              1. Doriana Gray

                She didn’t need to respond unless she checked with the person who had access to the forms once again and still determined the paperwork was incomplete. OP did end up responding though, and her response was perfect for the situation. But had she refrained from responding once the student turned in his completed forms, that would have been fine too.

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    3. BRR

      I completely agree. Knowing professors like this, it would do absolutely nothing. Checking with the person who compiled the list to try and figure out what happened makes more sense.

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    4. Anna No Mouse

      I think replying professionally and offering a solution (i.e. reaching out to the person who does have the list to double-check) would make OP look far more professional than the faculty member who sent the rude email to begin with. While it may start a back-and-forth email cycle, I doubt it. If anything, it will reflect back to the faculty member how out of line they had been, even if no apology is forthcoming.

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      1. CADMonkey007

        If OP replies at all, it should be a polite “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I have forwarded the discrepancy to the appropriate person for review.” Or something like that.

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        1. Jadelyn

          I like this one – it has the exact right air of professional, courteous “F*** you”, especially if you don’t pad it out with niceties or apologies or softening phrases. It neatly makes a contrast between your professionalism and the professor’s pissy tantrum attitude.

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        2. Snazzy Hat

          I really like this, especially because “therefore it is no longer my problem but it may still be your problem” is implied at the end.

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      2. John

        +1. And I can’t see how they can respond in any way other than thanking OP for helping them. What’s the worst they could say? Something to try to save face such as that the apparent mistake shouldn’t have happened in the first place? (And newsflash: I suspect there’s a 50/50 chance part of the submission was incomplete or never made it to the right place.)

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      3. The Strand

        I agree. There are some emails from professors that do not merit a response. This, however, needs to be rectified, because the student cannot participate if the problem is not resolved. At the very least, the student needs to understand their paperwork is not on file, and allowed to resolve it.

        Sometimes faculty members “side” with students against staff members, when students have made a mistake and staff are just trying to do their job.

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        1. AnonInSC

          Or when it’s the faculty member’s mistake/sharing of incorrect information…some blame staff then, too.

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    5. Sadsack

      Nope, I’d send it just so I feel better and to not let the rude person have the last word, especially if her last words were incorrect. But that’s just me.

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      1. AMG

        And make no mistake–the professor won’t reply. When people are rude like that and are called out, they never respond.

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        1. Clever Name

          Very true! A client sent a really obnoxiously rude email to me and some others at my company, and basically questioned the quality and conclusions of about a dozen of our reports. We looked into it and the PM sent a very polite reply apologizing for not communicating that we had made a change to make the reports consistent with each other, etc. The client’s response? “ok thanks”

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        2. Doriana Gray

          When people are rude like that and are called out, they never respond.

          Sometimes they do. I had a guy email me once in my last position demanding to know the status of one of my files. He was the employer of one of our claimants and for whatever reason wasn’t communicating with his employee or his employee’s attorney about the employee’s injury claim. I had just been assigned the file to handle my portion of it on the back end and barely had time to review the facts. I responded to him letting him know that I was newly on it, would investigate further, and get back to him and his employee when I knew whether the adverse party was going to handle the situation, and this guy sends me a smartass reply back saying, “So you’re telling me you’re not doing anything on this.”

          Well I was already having a rough day, and that shit pushed me over the edge, so I responded, “Where exactly did you see me say that in the email I just sent you? Did I not say I was just assigned this file and needed to investigate before I could say anything to you? And furthermore, you’re not even a party to this particular matter, so me giving you any kind of update is a courtesy.”

          He emailed me back the next day saying he was sorry, he was just so upset by the whole situation, and only wanted to make sure that his employee and my company got the monetary compensation we were entitled to from the people responsible for the injury. He ended with, “If there’s anything more I can do to help, please let me know.”

          Right.

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        3. the gold digger

          Not always true. :( My husband got into an argument with his half brother, Ted, over their father’s will. (The money is in trust for Ted’s retarded son and Ted has been trying to drain the trust to fund his IRA and remodel his house. And take a trip to Europe this summer.)

          Primo responded to something nasty Ted said. Then Primo felt bad about it because he was a bit sharp to Ted, which is not his way. He apologized and Ted took that as an opportunity to be even more rude, telling Primo that Primo could not apologize to him because Primo could not possibly offend Ted because Primo was punching above his weight.

          Every single interaction with Ted causes dread because we know that no matter what Primo says – whether he is nice and polite, which he usually is, or if he responds in kind to Ted’s rudeness and sometimes viciousness, Ted will hit back hard. Some people are just jerks and they have to have the last word.

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          1. robot

            Hey, the word you’re using to describe your half brother’s son is a slur, and it’s a bit surprising to see here in the comments of a generally kind site.

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          2. mlleml

            I’d like to second robot’s sentiment – I don’t think that sort of language should be acceptable here (or anywhere, frankly).

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    6. LawBee

      I don’t think the intent of the reply email is to get an apology, but to be professional. It’s really the same email that the OP would be sending if the professor hadn’t been rude. The OP does need to respond to the part about Fergus having already sent in his submission – the rest of it can and should be ignored.

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      1. LBK

        Completely agreed – the professional thing to do here is to address the underlying problem (the discrepancy). I think that’s also part of what’s making it hard for the OP to move on, because there is actually an implied action item beneath the rudeness. Once that’s wrapped up, that will allow to OP to feel like she’s done what she needs to do regarding this issue.

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        1. Not So NewReader

          This is an important skill to learn. I have defused a few situations by keeping my own voice calm and logical. I became benign to the rude person. There have been quite a few times where I have said to myself, “Take the anger out of the tone and what is left here?” This gets me to the point where I can see their request or figure out what is needed otherwise. “What does this person want that they do not have?”

          But by pretending not to hear anger you can better chase down the core problem and start to solve it.

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      2. fposte

        “It’s really the same email that the OP would be sending if the professor hadn’t been rude.” Yes, exactly. That’s the goal of the email–to be indifferent to the unprofessionalism and to respond to the information.

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      3. TootsNYC

        agree!

        In fact, when I can remember to, I like to respond to the email they SHOULD have sent.

        And, to remember that their stress is showing. You’re stressed, OP, right? Well, the professor is stressed too, and though most of us handle it more politely, some people just don’t. If you can summon sympathy for the fact that she’s stressed, it might be easier to forgive her for being rude.

        Because the only person who’s in the position of needing forgiveness is her.

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      4. Anna

        Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s not even about being professional. It’s about responding professionally so the jerkface jerk isn’t getting to blast crap in to the atmosphere.

        PS I’m still contemplating how to respond to something very similar to this that happened today.

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    7. Stranger than fiction

      I would. It sets the record straight. Who knows how much clout this B has and I wouldn’t want her spreading around I don’t know what I’m doing.

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    8. C.

      I disagree. I see your point that it doesn’t really have to turn into a Sorry Fest, but if there really is an issue where they don’t have this student’s paperwork on record, this professor/student should know about it so it becomes their concern, not the OP’s.

      To me, it looks kind of odd if the OP doesn’t respond to it.

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    9. Amanda Horne

      I would forward the Professor’s email to the person who checks the list, copy the professor and say what the Professor should have said. Like – it appears that student has already handed in his paperwork (see email below from Professor) can you please check your list again and let me know anything that I need to do to follow up.

      Reply
  2. The Other Dawn

    I have to admit, I do the same thing when I get an email like OP did. It makes me embarrassed and makes me doubt myself. Obviously I’m a bit insecure if it’s making me doubt years of experience and accomplishments–it’s my imposter syndrome kicking in, I guess–but it still happens.

    But I agree with AAM; it’s about the mentor, not the OP. And OP should definitely make it known that she has no control over that list.

    Reply
    1. Myrin

      I have the same thing but it thankfully only lasts about fifteen minutes and then I’m over it – just imagining carrying this with me for a longer period of time is making me stressed out! :(

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    2. TootsNYC

      I wouldn’t even bother making it known that I don’t have control over the list.
      Nor would I bother telling her that the list was pulled before his paperwork was entered into the file, or whatever. Because if she’s got half a brain, she knows that. She’s just annoyed, and she wants to take it out on the OP.

      I’d check into the paperwork thing, and send the shortest possible reply.

      “Confirming paperwork submitted 00/00.”

      Reply
    3. MsChanandlerBong

      I nearly quit my job last week because I received a rude email at just the wrong time (if I was having a good day otherwise, I would have blown it off). I’m a freelancer, so I’m already stressed about trying to get enough work to survive, and then some jerk sends me an email insulting my writing (unfairly; I may not have been able to read his mind and anticipate that he wouldn’t want a paragraph on XYZ, but that doesn’t mean my writing isn’t good). I spent the rest of the day alternating between being really mad and crying my eyes out.

      Reply
        1. MsChanandlerBong

          Thanks! We’re almost done with the project, so I’ll be free soon. The guy isn’t really a jerk, but we’re approaching the project from different perspectives. I’m trying to write content that helps him get traffic and convert visitors into paying clients, and he wants 1,500-word pages filled with legal citations that 97% of people aren’t going to read. Now that I know that, I can adjust accordingly, but I came into the project with the idea that I would be writing content to help market the practice.

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    4. Lily in NYC

      This is so interesting to me! I am not an insecure person but I definitely stew over receiving a rude email. I guess the difference is that it doesn’t cause me to doubt myself at all; it just makes me dislike the person and I have to sit on my hands to stop myself from sending a snotty reply back. I guess it brings out “unwanted” sides of both of our personalities, just in a different way. You second-guess yourself, and I want to go into “HULK MAD, HULK SMASH THINGS!” mode.

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      1. fposte

        Oh, yeah, it’s unpleasant. It’s like a mean internet comment but from somebody you have to see again.

        Reply
      2. Stranger than fiction

        Totally. Same here. We had a client cancel his service with our saas product this week blaming technical issues that have been established to be on his end several times now. He sent a super rude email about it and I had to go to my manager and vent and tell her I couldn’t possibly reply nicely. She had my back and said don’t bother you’ve done everything you could, I’ll take it from here. I was angry for three days about it.

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    5. Jadelyn

      I’ve always been the same way. I actually take it as a good sign that I’m getting more assertive and self-confident now, because I am at a point where I tend to get mad rather than hurt by stuff like this – or, in extreme cases, it literally gives me the giggles because how much of a petulant child do you have to be to say things like that? Honestly! Like the time my bizarrely-territorial coworker “corrected” a form I’d filled out for her in her absence, sending it back – to the whole team, including our VP – with the note “In the future, I prefer to prepare all benefits forms myself.”

      The change she had made? Including the employee’s middle name in the “Name” field, which she has never done before nor ever done since then. It was such a blatant “No! You can’t play with my Legos!” moment that I ended up laughing instead of being annoyed – and yes, the entire rest of the team saw it for what it was, too.

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    6. Ad Astra

      I have a similar reaction when people scold me like this, especially if they pick up on a weakness that I’m sensitive about (in my case, accuracy and attention to detail).

      In OP’s situation, I’d have a really hard time resisting the urge to respond with something like, “This is my fourth day in the office and I don’t have access to the list, but I’d be happy to check with [responsible party] to see if there’s been an oversight.”

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        I would have seriously thought about saying, “I have forwarded your comment to Mary who complied the list for us. I am sure Mary will double check this for us.”

        I don’t cover for rude people. And sometimes I do not always take the ideal course of action.

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  3. Ian

    Quite a normal response for a professor: most are condescending. I know it’s horrible to receive such an email (and I would probably also be upset), but as Alison said: she was out of line.

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    1. saminrva

      +1
      I don’t know what makes some faculty act this way, but it’s not you. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been working in a role that supports faculty for 7+ years and things like this still sting — it just means you’re human.

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    2. FelineFine

      This is common with faculty. OP should respond along the lines that Alison suggested. She won’t get an apology, at least the faculty member will know that the situation was looked into.

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      1. Student

        I agree, I’ve seen this a lot from faculty toward support personnel.

        Maybe here’s another way to think about it to stop stewing over it:

        She’s not calling YOU out personally. She’s calling out the person who made the list. She simply thinks that’s you. Forward the email to the person who made the list and let them sort it out.

        Consider forwarding the hostile email to your manager with a short explanation, asking for advice on essentially how to handle a prickly and ignorant faculty. Many academic managers will provide cover, or advice, or permission to ignore/shortchange/be rude in return to especially rude, problematic professors.

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        1. Not So NewReader

          Good advice about checking with the boss. This person could be a person whose main means of communication is rudeness. I would like to know that up front so I can tell myself, “Oh, There’s Bob being SO VERY Bob, AGAIN!”
          OP try to picture a very tall 5 year old having a temper tantrum. That is basically what you have going on here.

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        2. Elsajeni

          Yes, that’s definitely true. My boss has been at the university for 10 years, so he knows our faculty very well; when I first started my job and started taking over some of the faculty-contact tasks he’d been doing, he was able to give me a lot of guidance on dealing with specific faculty members. (This professor prefers to be called by his first name; this one is generally easygoing but flaky, so plan on sending him lots of reminders; there was one “… you know what, I’ll just keep handling this guy, he’s… difficult” in there; etc.)

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        3. simonthegrey

          And somehow it stings worse when it is adjunct faculty against staff – when you (I) happen to be the staff in question, and also happen to teach a higher level version of the class the other instructor does.

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        4. babblemouth

          “She’s not calling YOU out personally. She’s calling out the person who made the list. She simply thinks that’s you. ”
          That’s true, but I think it’s important to mention, even if OP was the one who made the error, the tone of voice in that email would still be highly inappropriate in a professional environment. Mistakes are made in all work environments. Tearing someone down like this is never a good way to fix them, and implying a lack of professionalism for one error is very unfair.

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        5. myswtghst

          She’s not calling YOU out personally.

          This is one of the most important things I’ve had to come to grips with in my working life – it’s rarely personal, and even though it might initially feel that way, it’s better if I can kind of disconnect and move forward. When a customer is yelling, it’s not because I screwed up, but if I focus on being defensive, neither one of us is going to walk away happy. This isn’t to say you should suck it up and deal with abuse, but to say it’s worth taking a deep breath and a step back to realize that the problem is with the rude person (& their inability to communicate like a grown up), not with you.

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    3. Lilian Fields

      Hey. :) I’m a faculty member, and I would never have sent this email, and neither would most of my colleagues. Some professors–especially the most insecure–are condescending asshats. Others have real respect and appreciation for the difficult work of university staff. Don’t paint us all with such a broad brush.

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      1. Student

        With all due respect, I challenge you to go down to your IT manager and ask how often the support personnel get vile email from faculty. The faculty never do this to each other, but it is a real and pervasive problem. People with more power to make the faculty’s lives miserable (like a head department admin, who might be the gatekeeper to many department resources) tend to get more respect than people the faculty figure are powerless to stand up to them.

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        1. wellywell

          ^This! A thousand times. Disrespectful / contemptuous / abusive treatment of staff by faculty is the norm.

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          1. JaneB

            I’m a faculty member and whilst _I_ would never send an email like this to support staff (I hope!), far too many of my fellow faculty members are extremely rude to anyone they perceive as being ‘below them’ in the hierarchy (including other faculty members). Staff are not entirely blameless – some are jobsworth, some are patronising, some expect me to prioritise their last-minute requests for paperwork or data or meetings ahead of the needs of the students in front of me who we’re all supposed to serve, some will neither provide what I need or allow me to sort it out myself (at least I am allowed to do my own copying, no more forms-in-triplicate needed first) – but faculty are worse.

            My PhD supervisor was absolutely rigid on how we interacted with support staff – he pointed out that it was extremely arrogant and unprofessional to behave as if their jobs weren’t important and skilled, said that one of the most reliable ‘tells’ he used when hiring was to find out how the candidate had interacted with the administrator, reception desk and other junior support people they’d encountered during the interview process… and reminded us that an upset support staff member had huge power to make our day to day lives more difficult, so if we “found it hard to act like a decent human being because you ARE one, pretend to be one or you’ll suffer.” At the time I was embarrassed that he felt he needed to make such a big deal of it – as someone who was the first in my extended family to go to university I had a lot of fears and hangups around not knowing the culture and mores, and wondered if I was somehow acting ‘uncooth’ or giving off an entitled vibe, but I’ve since realised that he was warning me against adopting the dominant culture of many academic departments (the one I trained in was, I believe, unusual in that the really arrogant people were in a minority, which has NOT been true for everywhere I’ve worked since).

            So I guess I apologise for my fellow-faculty, whilst at the same time noting that there are exceptions to the rule, just as there are both excellent, professional administrators and ones who are less so (being told “there are no real deadlines here, none of this stuff matters, it’s just a university, it’s not like it’s a real work place” when trying to get a database entry corrected for a student who would otherwise not be able to graduate on a set date and therefore would lose a job offer was trying).

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            1. davey1983

              My PhD supervisor also was big into how I interacted with the IT staff and other support personnel. One day I sent an email to the IT about an issue, and I was rather demanding in the email. It was not my intention to be demanding, or be a jerk, it was just the situation at the time (same issue had been going on for months, I had been told it would be resolved by three different IT personal), and I let my frustration show (note, I’m not trying to justify my behavior, I’m admitting I’m human and let my emotions get the better of me).

              Supervisor somehow gets a copy of the email and points out that if I’m not careful, I’ll cross the line into being a jerk (actually, I was probably already well into ‘jerk’ territory). I ended up going back to the IT employee and apologizing. From there on out I worked on being polite to the IT and other support personal. Apologizing and building a relationship with the support staff actually worked wonders for me– I went from being the jerk who the support staff would never help, to the guy that the support staff would move heaven and earth to help.

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        2. my two cents

          ah, the circle of screaming (a’la how i met your mother)

          i’ve been working customer service type roles for over 15 years, and there’s always someone like this every so often no matter what industry you’re in – in-bound call center, food service, retail, application engineering…

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        3. Not So NewReader

          Student, I love reading your posts, I must say this so you know it comes from a place of respect but I have to disagree with how faculty treat each other. Where I went to college I could see that some faculty members would eat others for lunch if they could. These people were just CRUISING for an argument with anyone and peers were fair game. I saw some faculty actually afraid of other faculty members.

          But, reality is that any profession or any group of people usually has a few difficult people. So, OP, do not be discouraged by this jerk. I am sure his peers already know exactly how he is to work with.

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          1. hbc

            Oh, my, yes, the faculty infighting and backbiting. I guarantee you that the ones who are nasty to staff are awful to other faculty, just more behind the scenes. Watching the scheming and gossiping and whatnot that goes on when a department chair comes open is horrifying, and then you get all of the passive aggression within the field of study.

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      2. Gabriela

        I work in support staff and have never been on the receiving end of this from faculty…any level of faculty.

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    4. LBK

      Yep, my sister’s been on the staff at a university for the majority of her career and this sounds par for the course based on her stories.

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    5. AnonAcademic

      I know academia has a reputation for this behavior, but I’ve worked in 5 different university environments at this point (3 of them high pressure Ivy League medical schools) and have found it to be the exception, rather than the rule. It certainly happens but compared to my husband’s experience in the financial sector, for example, I don’t think it’s better or worse than other notoriously high pressure fields.

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      1. Red

        My experience at an Ivy (including supporting their med school) and other colleges and universities makes this LW’s story sound extremely accurate, sadly. Upper management staff (C-levels) were much the same.

        Reply
    6. Cath in Canada

      Most of the profs I work with are great, but this kind of attitude and behaviour is common enough that most of us working in support roles come across it eventually! IME, faculty members who act like this to one person will have a reputation for acting like this to multiple people. If the OP stays in her current position for long enough, I practically guarantee that she’ll come across colleagues who’ve had the same experience with the same person.

      Reply
    7. (different) Rebecca

      I’ve adored all my departments’ admins, and staying on their good side is important to me. They’re the people who run the behind the scenes part of the department, and a good admin is worth their weight in gold. I would never send an email like this.

      Reply
    8. Jennifer

      To put it bluntly, this is what professors do to peons and there’s nothing you can do about it but apologize up the wazoo. Your fault or not doesn’t matter, unfortunately.

      Reply
      1. KT

        Just commiseration:

        I was interning in a university’s marketing department and I sent an email out on behalf of the department asking faculty members for details for our directory. IT said “Please send me your updated address, phone number, and email address”. Most were just fine and responded with the information.

        One responded, “Have we gotten to the point where (University) hires high school dropouts? Anyone with a GED would know the Oxford comma was eliminated years ago and it shows how clueless you are. You’d be better served going back to freshman English”.

        Reply
        1. Rahera

          My jaw just dropped. That is… mindbogglingly rude. For the record, I’m a masters student in English, I use the Oxford comma for the look of the thing and sometimes for clarity, but it’s a *personal preference.* What an… I don’t think we’re allowed to say it on here, substitute asshat! I’m really sorry.

          Reply
        2. Manders

          Wow! That’s not only wildly rude, but incorrect. There were some articles a while back about the Oxford comma being “eliminated,” but that really just meant that one well-known style guide had dropped it. Someone who believes that an official governing body of the English language exists to “eliminate” things is showing how little they actually know.

          I bet that guy was unpleasant to work with in plenty of other ways.

          Reply
          1. MillersSpring

            I hate the Oxford comma, but I now use it because I work in healthcare marketing, and my company’s main audience is physicians.

            Reply
            1. starsaphire

              Yes! I recently left a non-Oxford job for a pro-Oxford workplace, and I’m much happier!

              I love, cherish, and adore my Oxford comma!

              Reply
        3. Anna

          This is where I pretend like the jerk is making a joke. “LOL! That would be wonderful if there were a governing body that could eliminate it instead of a style guide that decided not to use it anymore. That’s hilarious! Anyway, if you could send your info to IT, that would be great!”

          Reply
        4. Ms. Didymus

          I am equal parts outraged by the insanely rude email and the insanely incorrect statement.

          If you are going to be a jerk when correcting someone, you had better be sure you are absolutely correct.

          Reply
        5. Honeybee

          This professor would NEVER get any IT help. His passwords would be randomly changed every day; his Internet access would be blocked at random times; his email would be rearranged on occasion.

          Seriously, why mess with the people who have the power to mess up one of the most important tools you work with?

          Reply
        6. NotAnotherManager!

          I work in legal, and I can assure you that the Oxford comma is not dead. If I turned something in to an attorney without all the commas in a series, it’d be kicked back to me with a red-pen edit to insert. (Okay, maybe some of them would use track changes in Word, but some still love their red pens.)

          I love serial commas, and it bugs me when they’re missing. It’s one punctuation tiny little mark that adds clarity and uniformity to a list.

          Reply
    9. Jillociraptor

      This is rampant throughout the university where I work. Not only faculty (though I see a very different side of faculty as a staff member with a lecturer boyfriend) but staff too. For all the complaining folks do about how Kids These Days are coddled and oversensitive and unable to deal productively with challenging viewpoints…good grief, what kind of world are WE modeling?

      Higher ed is such a weird world of both real and manufactured resource constraints. Everyone is always fighting over who’s doing the “real work” of the university with so little effort dedicated to synthesizing all our work together into a unified mission. It leads some faculty to respond with dismissal and rudeness to staff, and some staff to snicker behind their hands about the pointlessness of a professor’s research. And, of course, the people who suffer most are the students who need us to have our crap together so that when they keep up their end of the bargain, they’ll get a great education.

      I’m, uh, having a day.

      Reply
    10. The Strand

      This sweeping generalization is not accurate. I’ve worked at many institutions, from a community college to a SLAC to a R1 university.

      I have worked with a few horrendous professors and administrators (one was called “The Dragon Lady”; it was not a racist nickname appended to an Asian American woman; she was simply terrifying when she got in a rage). And I still would not say that this type of email is normal for faculty or administrators.

      The only generalization I would make about people working at a school is that attitudes towards their careers, and the work they do, can verge depending on whether they are locals looking for a nearby, steady position or trained for/passionate about a specific position and willing to move wherever to work in their field. And perhaps that the people who are “superstars” in their realm are more likely to throw their weight around.

      There are specific cultures where abuse is rampant, and “shit runs downhill”. You could have multiple departments in a given school at a major university; one dominated by shrill faculty bullies, one dominated by shrill staff bullies, and another full of laidback people who socialize together in and out of work regardless of what their role is.

      Reply
      1. So Very Anonymous

        Thanks for this. I’ve worked as both faculty and university staff and I’ve seen some really awful faculty, but also some good ones (and some awful staff, too). Differences between individual departments can be huge.

        Reply
    11. Honeybee

      Honestly I was going to say this. Many of them are pretty condescending and rude; I hate to stereotype an entire group of workers, but having worked with them for 7 years in various capacities I have found a higher proportion of them have this trait than other professionals.

      Reply
  4. S0phieChotek

    LW, I am sorry this happened to you, but I agree with AAM. This is more about rude professor than you, though I understand it can feel personal. I wish you the best with a stressful situation and transition.

    Reply
  5. CMT

    Ugh, it sounds like you’re pretty stressed, and understandably so! I’ve definitely been in similar situations where the sheer amount of stress makes me react more than I normally would. I don’t really have any advice, but I hope things get better soon!

    Reply
    1. Heather (OP)

      Thank you so much for your nice words! Honestly, by the next morning I was less embarrassed and more just irritated. I’m still learning my new job(s) but I’m already feeling more confident.

      Reply
  6. BRR

    Sometimes faculty members behave in non-office appropriate ways due to tenure and academia being a separate universe. Do not take it personally. A general rule for academia and non academia alike is sometimes when someone is like this, it’s them not you. They’re were an ass.

    If this is a common task, I would try and see about getting access to see who submitted what, have the office hosting the event send out the reminders, or possibly include something in your message like “if you have a confirmation that your materials were received, please disregard this email.” Another option, and I think a good life lesson, is to not copy the faculty mentors. It’s reasonable to have college students be able to handle something like this.

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth the Ginger

      I want to amend your excellent statement a bit:

      “Sometimes faculty members humans behave in non-office appropriate ways due to tenure and academia being a separate universe reasons that don’t have anything to do with you. Do not take it personally. A general rule for academia and non academia alike is sometimes when someone is like this, it’s them not you.”

      Reply
    2. (different) Rebecca

      While I agree the OP should ask, they may not be able to get access to the materials. If it’s for, say, a scholarship, the materials may be confidential, which may be why they don’t have them in the first place.

      Reply
  7. A Beth

    I’m also staff at a university and my biggest consolation/let-it-go mantra is that most faculty seem to have literally no idea what administrative staff do. I mean they know the accounting, right, and the course scheduling and enrollment–they know the tasks but not what it takes to complete them. So if any of them ever complain (unwarranted) over my performance I remind myself that they just don’t know what my job is and therefore their opinion doesn’t matter.

    Reply
    1. BRR

      This is such a good thing to remember. I’ve worked at a university and a performing arts organization (which are very similar because they both have a large number of “program” people who are unionized) and there can be no understanding of what others do. It happens in both directions. The thing is there are usually more consequences/blow back for administration weighing in on the program staff’s duties.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        Yeah, a lot of professors don’t know what other professors really do, and a lot of staff don’t know what other staff really do.

        I think that the professor’s email was using “you” in the way we use “you” to talk to a customer service rep–it’s the organization or unit the OP is representing, not her personally. It’s still a snotty and unprofessional email that the OP should shrug off, but I don’t think she needs to consider it snotty about her personally.

        Reply
        1. BRR

          I know people in my department who have 0 idea what I do and I have little to no knowledge what some of our program staff does. If I wasn’t a musician in a past life I would have had 0 idea what the musicians did when I worked at an orchestra. I think the best thing you can do is politely explain from your side, unfortunately this requires somebody understanding on the other end.

          I think the you was specific, but no matter how it was meant this professor behaved like an ass. I’m thinking of someone I know who is unhappy with everything. You could do everything correct and he’d still take issue.

          Reply
      1. Liz

        I also work in academia (though I’m one of those who would pull the list for you). I would reply to the professor saying, “Fergus was listed as missing form X as of [date]. I’ve copied Person A who can check that everything is correct.” And then leave it.

        Reply
    2. the_scientist

      I was coming here to say this. I work frequently with academics and this sort of disconnect is so par for the course that I dealt with it almost daily. OP can send a response that clarifies that she doesn’t have access to the database or whatever, but this faculty member doesn’t give two shits (pardon my french). The faculty member just wants the problem to go away so they don’t have to deal with it anymore and the OP is a convenient contact for that because she sent the email.

      Was the response rude? Absolutely. But I guarantee this woman has less than no idea of what OP’s job actually entails. Don’t take it personally, OP- I had an academic who thought I was an admin assistant when I wasn’t…….for eight months, after multiple reminders.

      Reply
    3. Rob Lowe can't read

      I work in a completely different field/environment, but my mantra for dealing with crabby coworkers is similar. If you don’t understand what my job is and I don’t report to you/you don’t evaluate me, I couldn’t care less about your criticism.

      Reply
    4. Chalupa Batman

      Another related thing I’ve noticed that may be helpful to the OP is that faculty suddenly get much nicer when they start to realize what you can do for them. They don’t care that you have 7 main duties, each with 22 subduties, they care that when you don’t get to duty 4 their lives become harder, and if they’re jerks, Duty 4 may become not so important to you. I *always* do my job, but if a faculty member treats me rudely, I’m much less inclined to do the extra little things that could save them a lot of time. They get exactly what they ask for.

      My tip is to assume faculty, often even the nice ones, don’t care about what you do unless it involves them, so limit your interaction to that. I would have responded with something like “Thank you! I actually don’t maintain the list, but I can check on that and let Fergus know if he needs to do anything further.” I siphoned out the useful information from the message (Fergus may have submitted the forms) and literally ignored the rudeness. I just respond as if they phrased their request/issue appropriately unless it actively impacts my job, which it almost never does. It’s hard to be rude to someone who’s always nice to you, and they almost always change their tone after that. It doesn’t go away completely because there will always be those few who think they’re better than you, and it always sucks a little, but as you build a reputation, the smart faculty get nicer, at least to your face, and you can join everybody else (guaranteed) in mental eyerolls at the ones who aren’t smart enough to reap the benefits of having competent support staff on their side.

      Reply
      1. Chalupa Batman

        I noticed that my suggested response didn’t fully follow my own advice-sometimes I can’t resist. It still works without the “I don’t maintain the list” side of snark. (This actually shows my process pretty well when I’m in this situation; I usually get a little irritated and point out why they’re wrong, then decide it’s not useful and edit it down to necessary details only before sending.)

        Reply
  8. Meg Murry

    +1, don’t let this person get in your head.

    Also, FYI, in the future if you are working off of someone else’s list, include that as a CYA in your email. As in “According to [that other office], as of DATE you had not submitted your official TPS report, and therefore are ineligible for EVENT. If you believe this is incorrect and you have turned in your TPS report, please contact [them not me] to get this straightened out. If you do not turn in your TPS paperwork to [them] by DEADLINE, you will not be able to participate in EVENT”

    Is there any way you can use the reply-to function in email, so that if the student or professor reply, it goes back to that office? Because all you can do is forward the message and get caught in the middle, and that’s not your job.

    However, I do agree with the professor a tiny bit in that the first part of this step after generating the list of people who don’t have their paperwork in should be to double check and make sure they aren’t on the list by mistake, or that there isn’t a stack of paperwork that is in the office but hasn’t been added to the list yet. Again, that’s on the other office though, not you.

    Reply
    1. Meg Murry

      And related, why is this your job and not the event hosting office’s job? Do they not have access to the list of faculty mentors? Because if that is the case, I might push back (to your boss) that this email should come from them, not you, and all you should be doing is providing them the list of faculty mentors and they can do the mail merge and send the message themselves. They send you list in Excel, you fill in column of mentor email addresses and send it back, they can use mail merge magic to send the email.

      Or is this a case where it comes from an overarching office like admissions or the registrar and then is passed down to you at the individual business school or basketweaving department and you are contacting only your own department’s students? Even if this is the case, make it clear in your email that there may be errors but that the student needs to check with the overarching department because as of right now they have a problem and you can’t fix it.

      Reply
    2. Heather (OP)

      I didn’t share the full list of names with all students due to privacy concerns – the event is research/funding based and deals with some sensitive personal information. Double checking the list of missing submissions is a great idea, but this was the second time that office sent me the list of missing submissions, so they had already double checked. Also, the submissions are electronic so I wasn’t worried about missing stacks of papers.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        I would rather run a double check on a student that was all set, than SKIP a double check on a student that was NOT all set. In other words, I see it as the lesser of two possible errors. This person verbally shot you for being thorough. Let them go through their day being annoyed about being about a trivial matter and you go build yourself a perfectly FINE day.

        When my husband encountered such people he would say, “Oh that person has diaper rash!” I think that saying put some things in perspective very well.

        Reply
  9. eunice

    I work in entertainment and have gotten my fair share of harsh emails. I hope you are able to let it go! My biggest weakness is that I take criticism too personally, but I have learned that sticking up for yourself can be worth it in certain situations!!

    Reply
  10. Clever Name

    Well, now you know that your colleague is not only unprofessional, but also jumps to conclusions and assumes the worst of other people. That says a lot about her character.

    Reply
          1. Wehaf

            That’s not uncommon for German academics – the professor degree and the doktor degree are separate, and in Germany often academics use all their titles (including Herr/Frau/Fraulein) – hence Herr Professor or Fraulein Professor Doktor.

            Reply
        1. Universtiy

          You know, I can’t even be surprised that in the time it took me to write that joke two other people had already made it.

          Reply
  11. Muriel Heslop

    OP, I know how you feel. The chunk of emails I get from parents assume I am at fault because they have taken the word of their teenager regarding that something was turned in/completed. Like Alison said: the professor was rude and unprofessional. But it still stings! This really does say more about her than you.

    Please update us, especially if it turns out the professor was incorrect about the paperwork being submitted.

    Reply
    1. Heather (OP)

      The office who maintained the list told me they received a submission the night I sent the reminder, but no previous submissions. According to the student, that was his third time trying to submit his paperwork. I hate to think this, but part of me wonders if something really did happen that caused his paperwork not to go through the first two times, or if he hadn’t submitted his paperwork and was trying to save face in front of his faculty mentor. I will never know, but oh well. I did what I could.

      Reply
      1. Kelly F

        But still, why shoot the messenger here? If you didn’t send the email, there’d be no way for students who thought they were set but weren’t to find out. As someone who’s about to finish her third university degree at a third university, I will say that I prefer when all the various departments bug you proactively about stuff, because it’s easy to miss generic announcement emails or think you just needed to do X on Website A, but you also have to log in to a different website (with a separate login) and also do Y.

        Reply
        1. Ad Astra

          YES. It is such a kindness for departments (and other relevant entities) to send out reminders and confirmations like this. OP was doing these professors and students a courtesy, and the professor responded to it like it was an accusation.

          It also would not be at all surprising if the student was lying. College students tell a lot of fibs about submissions not going through, “forgetting” to attach the document, etc.

          Reply
      2. Deanna

        Yes, it’s entirely possible the student was lying. I’ve worked in situations dealing with students before, and unfortunately some are more than willing to let admin staff face a reprimand rather than admit to their parents or instructors that they waited until the last minute to submit paperwork.

        Reply
  12. Katie the Fed

    I think you’d be fine to reply and say “I am limited to the information I receive from the event and had no way of verifying what they sent me.” Yes, it’s a little defensive, but you’re allowed to explain on something like that.

    And look, some people are just ill-mannered buttheads. And some people are ill-mannered buttheads who think they’re way above the admin staff. Forget them. They’re just ill-mannered buttheads and their opinion doesn’t matter.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      I wouldn’t send that. It doesn’t look confident or authoritative. (I think it’s the “had no way of verifying” that makes it seem supplicatory to me, and you really don’t want to supplicate.)

      I think there are ways to address the “charge,” but you want to make it clear that this error was not a big deal and therefore doesn’t deserve a lot of explanation. “Thanks for the tip! I’ll let the Red Tape office know that there’s a discrepancy in the records, and we’ll consider amending the automatic reminders in future.”

      Reply
      1. LBK

        Yes yes yes – I fully support forcibly recalibrating someone’s sense of how big an issue is like this. I think people tend to assume that you have to treat something as urgently or drastically as the person who raises the issue presents it, but you’re the one with the most information about the severity of the problem. Don’t let them tell you something’s a bigger problem than it is.

        Reply
  13. Fenchurch

    LW, you did exactly what you were supposed to do.

    That’s it. Anyone who makes a complaint about something outside of your control is not your problem. Stand by the fact that you did your job and made no mistake to the best of your knowledge.

    You’re doing a great job! Keep it up!

    Reply
  14. CADMonkey007

    Please don’t let this get to you OP!
    From a practical perspective, I would consider your original email. Be sure to include something like “our records currently show that paperwork hasn’t been received.” and also the disclosure “If you believe you have received this message in error, please contact X at “email or phone number.”

    Reply
  15. Gene

    IF the OP decides to reply as AAM suggests, I would suggest changing this sentence,

    I’ll ask the person who compiled the list to confirm with Fergus that she does indeed have his paperwork or to let him know if for some reason she doesn’t.

    to something like, “Since I don’t have access to those records, I suggest Fergus check with {Staff person} the status of the paperwork.”

    It’s literally not OP’s job to monitor the paperwork, and she doesn’t have time.

    Reply
    1. LBK

      Eh, I think this depends on the nature of the work and the relationship between what the OP does and what the other department who manages the list does. In some sense, the professor is the client, and it’s not really up to the client to make sure your behind the scenes interactions are smoothed out – as rude as the professor was, I don’t think the expectation that things will be coordinated properly between departments without the professor having to get involved is unreasonable.

      Reply
      1. Anna

        I’m with Gene. It’s not the OP’s job to hand hold the student. If there were a discrepancy, the student should figure that out with the help of the people in charge of the list; the OP shouldn’t act as the middleman on this. This is one of the things we try to teach our students to do (we are not a university, but the same sort of life skill lessons apply). They need to learn how to advocate for themselves. OP really doesn’t need to be in the middle of it.

        Reply
        1. LBK

          But is the OP acting as the middle man here? My point is that from the internal perspective she is, but from an outside perspective, the university staff is the university staff; it shouldn’t be the student’s problem to understand the division of labor unless they’re truly addressing a completely inappropriate party.

          It’s completely reasonable to assume that the person sending you an email that says you haven’t returned paperwork would be the right person to ask about a discrepancy with that information. The fact that the work is divided up in a frustrating and weird way isn’t the student’s problem. I think the fact that there’s a student involved is skewing your perspective – if we remove that context and just think about how you would handle this at any other job, providing a unified front to your client (the student) instead of making them do the legwork to get around your department’s inefficient processes isn’t handholding. It’s professionalism.

          Reply
      2. Ultraviolet

        I agree with LBK here. It’s not really clear from OP’s letter exactly what her role is with respect to this event, so it’s possible that it’s literally not her job to let the organizers know that this professor says the student actually did submit the paperwork. But it seems kind of unlikely to me that the organizers would want her not to pass that information on. I also get the feeling OP is meant to be acting as a contact person for issues like this and would be expected to consult the organizing office rather than giving out the contact info of someone at that office. Otherwise I don’t see the point of having her be the person to send these reminders at all.

        Reply
    2. Dr. Johnny Fever

      I was thinking the same thing. OP is the middleman in the situation. Professor is not the requestor; Fergus needs to deal directly with event staff.

      Reply
  16. seashell

    I literally could have written this email. I found out someone complained I behaved inappropriately by not BCCing a group. In 2+ years I’ve never once been asked or instructed to BCC these kinds of e-mails, and now we’re changing our policy.

    Reply
  17. bopper

    You are so nice! I wouldn’t follow up ..if they are convinced the student got their stuff in, they must have…and if they didn’t it isn’t your problem anymore.

    Reply
  18. AnotherAlison

    Once you’re over the negative reaction for the professor’s lack of tact, you might find that she actually did tell you something useful. It’s a pet peeve of mine getting requests to do “X” because the requester didn’t do their due diligence. You’re brand new. You did exactly what you were told, but now you know you might want someone to pull a new list (or whatever) right before you do the work to make sure you’re up to date on these types of issues. I’m usually nice/professional about things like this, but it’s possible that the professor dealt with the same thing repeatedly with your predecessor. No excuse for rudeness, still, but it may be soon to brand them as a jerk.

    Reply
    1. Artemesia

      This. Many organizations are maddening because of their horrifyingly poorly designed systems. While it is not your fault that you sent reminders to people who had completed the required steps, it should not happen because people sending out such notices should be in command of the data. There is no excuse for this person to snot at you, but it may also be that this is the umpteenth time they have received this sort of poorly organized missive. Universities are notorious for having really bad systems for doing almost anything.

      It is easy to say not to take something like this to heart, but hard to do. I would send the followup to indicate that you heard and that the issue is not with you. And I would harbor evil thoughts about this professor which would make me reluctant to every lift an unnecessary finger to assist them in any way — but then I do hold grudges. But in your shoes, I would be alert to poorly designed processes that put you in this situation.

      Reply
      1. Deanna

        “And I would harbor evil thoughts about this professor which would make me reluctant to every lift an unnecessary finger to assist them in any way — but then I do hold grudges.”

        Ooh, me too. I keep an imaginary queue in my head, and kind people are always at the front of it. Nasty people will be helped of course, but only after I’ve finished attending to the kind people.

        Reply
  19. John

    OP, while your job may seem stressful right now, it sounds like these staff cuts are presenting opportunities for you to expand your skills and experience.

    And you care about doing a great job, and that speaks well of you.

    Reply
    1. Heather (OP)

      Thank you, and that’s a great thing to remember when times are tough: this experience will make me a lot more marketable and competitive.

      Reply
  20. Heather (OP)

    The student emailed me later that evening, saying he submitted his paperwork for the third time and asking me to please check again. So the next morning I reached out to the office that compiles the list, and they confirmed that the student submitted his paperwork the night before (after I emailed him the reminder) and they didn’t have a record of any previous submissions. I emailed the student back and said something similar to what Allison suggested – “I don’t have access to the submissions but I double checked with the people who do, and they received your submission last night.” I copied the faculty mentor on that email, and haven’t heard a word from either. I feel like I accomplished a few things: I told them that I don’t have the list, that he truly hadn’t submitted his paperwork, and that I was polite and professional.

    Reply
    1. LawBee

      Excellent! You did exactly right. (Also, students lie, so I’m not surprised that there were no previous submissions.)

      Reply
      1. AnotherAlison

        Internet glitches also happen. He may have submitted it, and it didn’t go through. (I’m skeptical, and expect he probably didn’t submit it but told the prof he did.)

        Reply
        1. Ad Astra

          One of the reasons students (well, people) lie so much about submitting stuff is because internet glitches really do happen with some frequency, so there’s tons of plausible deniability. Especially if the website they’re using kind of sucks, or the internet service on campus isn’t very good, or what have you.

          Reply
          1. The Strand

            Bless you for that. A professor (one of the few really rude ones I’ve worked with in the last few years) blamed her students for having technical problems; two of the students were at the point of tears when I spoke to them by phone. I found it was not their fault at all, but a mistake the professor had made. It’s the easy way out to think of the worst of students.

            Reply
            1. Anna

              I work with young people every day and it’s really not thinking the worst of them; it’s about being realistic. Sometimes it is a glitch and not their fault, and when that’s the case it becomes very clear very quickly. More often than not, though, it’s the student no following through, not doing what they needed to and it becomes clear pretty quickly when that happens.

              Reply
              1. Doriana Gray

                Yes, this. Every other day my kid brother has a system glitch, and it always seems to happen right around the time his papers are due or he has to turn in his application for campus parking or when he has to turn in his new lease or…you get it.

                Reply
              2. Honeybee

                This, and often the “glitch” itself is compounded by the fact that they are turning it in 5 minutes before it is due. If you’re trying to turn it in 12 hours early and there’s a glitch, we can get it worked out before the deadline. But if you wait until the very last minute and a glitch eats your work or means it doesn’t get to me, that’s at least partially on you.

                Reply
              3. The Strand

                In the case I mentioned, the professor did take the easy way out, and blamed the students for her mistake. It was a perfect example of a faculty or staff member overestimating how much technical direction they needed to give a student for them to complete an assignment.

                The faculty called me and said, “Well, they always wait until the last minute to get their work done.” There was ample proof that this was not the case with the students I spoke to; one had been trying to fix the issue for more than a week (all of her files were clearly timestamped showing how long she’d struggled), another had asked a friend who did IT work at the same company where she worked to help, and even that person couldn’t resolve the problem.

                At the end of the day, the faculty did not understand the technology she was asking the students to use, and had provided almost no instruction. So many people from this one class (more than 30%) called the Help Desk at the institution, we had to write out specific, detailed instructions.

                I love faculty, I have family members and close friends who are faculty, but I do see this crop up all the time with technology – not with simple things like submitting a document into a LMS, but when students are using a new system for the first time, and the faculty don’t give them the help they need – or worse, don’t themselves have the background to understand what they’re asking (which is what happened here).

                Reply
      2. Tommy

        I wouldn’t just assume the student is lying. There are any number of possible explanations for why he might have thought he had submitted his paperwork and not actually done so, ranging from confusing user interfaces to system errors. Having been a student at three different colleges, every single online system was a muddled mess and it seemed that simple functions were never put in obvious places.

        Reply
        1. Sassy AAE

          Having been a student I’d also wager that the most simplest explanation is the truth. He probably realized his professor was CCed, and made up a quick cover story. This is probably why they CC the professors anyway.

          It’s a lot less easy to blow off submitting paperwork if the person who grades you knows you’ve been ignoring it.

          Reply
        2. neverjaunty

          While I completely agree with you about how systems are so often FUBAR’d, given the snotty advisor and the timing of the various emails, my vote is CYA’ing by the student. Regardless, OP handled this exactly the right way!

          Reply
        3. JaneB

          Yup, our university system can be really glitchy especially when accessed off campus – I have problems getting stuff submitted, so I’m not at all surprised that others do too.

          Students are also doing things for the first time, most often, and although we call them ‘digital natives’ I personally think many of them are more like digital tourists, especially in the complex, customised, often-archaic VLEs universities use – most universities run their computer services on the cheap and lack the resources to do any better, but if you’ve never used anything except Office and Google (or Safari and whatever Macs have), it can be a real steep learning curve

          Reply
          1. JaneB

            And I mean tourists as in, gawping at the sights, walking into people, mistaking letter boxes for litter bins and vice versa, mixing up the words for gents and ladies on the toilet doors – out of their depth, well-intentioned, and failing in so many ways it’s both hilarious and deeply annoying to the locals.

            If nothing else, thinking of them this way helps me be kind and patient when answering the same basic question day after day after year after year!

            Reply
          2. The Strand

            It’s not just that. My latest job, I work with students all the time who have technical problems. They are digital natives – to systems that have been streamlined, and are made to be user-friendly and simple. I’m not insulting Macs as computers, but I see this especially with people who picked Mac products because of the prestige and supposed “ease of use”.

            Many students don’t really understand the underlying architecture as many non-technical people who have been using computers longer have – for instance, your average 40 or 50 year old professional probably understands how to use MS Office in more detail than a 20 year old who supposedly grew up with it.

            One of my favorite studies on students’ use of technology was a British piece on Web 2.0. The professor running the study assumed all the students would quickly be able to create their own podcasts. Nope…almost no one could.

            Reply
    2. BRR

      You handled this perfectly. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t submit or it didn’t accept it/wasn’t received. Not only should you ignore the professor’s email but you should be super proud of yourself.

      Reply
    3. Rahera

      Well done, that’s fantastic!

      I was just trying to find the other response I wanted to second, which was about answering the question and leaving the unprofessional aspects of their behaviour out of it. It’s really hard to take the high road there but I think it’s something to aim for.

      I had a horrible academic experience a couple of years ago when an asshat academic shredded me nastily on a personal level after my masters presentation, in front of a full audience of academics, and then asked me a question. I was so flummoxed by the nastiness that I had no idea how to react and the answer to the actual question flew right out of my head. I’ve been cursing myself off and on since then, but actually I think being genuinely horrified and not knowing what to say is a better look in front of other faculty than firing back.

      I will be in a similar situation next time I give a presentation, probably in the next year or two, with the same asshat still around, and I am already rehearsing ignoring the awful behaviour, giving myself a second by writing down the actual question (and not doodling an asshat on my paper, although… :D), and then sticking strictly to the answer. If it’s any consolation, I have learned subsequently that this particular academic’s asshattery is well known, and I lost nothing by not knowing how to answer back on the spot… The worse they are, the better you look if you can control yourself. Clearly you did just that, so I take my hat off to you :). For what it’s worth, I’m willing to bet your own asshat has a reputation among his/her peers as well, Heather. :)

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        Sometimes being shocked and silent is the best response there is. I had a situation with a boss who made an almost unthinkable statement. I was so floored I could not answer. Matter of fact, I could not participate in the rest of the conversation, which very seldom happens to me anymore.
        I went to HR. They wanted to know what I said in reply.I explained that I was so shocked I could not speak. HR double checked, “Are you sure?” When I verified that I said nothing, HR did a happy dance. See, HR knew what the boss was like and they were just waiting for a clear cut situation to go to TPTB to report it. My situation was very report-able because I literally did not utter a sound.

        Just goes to show, sometimes silence IS the best response.

        Reply
          1. Not So NewReader

            I am kind of a shamed to say but my anger got me that day. It’s the second time in my life I saw blood red. (The other time I had been robbed.) I later put some thought into handling anger when people have behavior that is over the top outrageous.

            Reply
    4. Mookie

      I know this situation rattled you at a particularly vulnerable and overworked time, but your instincts seem really solid to me and I’m glad you’re treating what happened as an accomplishment. I hope as you navigate through this upheaval of taking on the work of two people you (a) take heart when remembering this because you behaved appropriately and in good faith, and (b) continue to see your professionalism and work ethic as an asset. Hold onto that and remember it when times are tough. Your career’s just beginning, but you’ve got a lot more going for you than many seasoned people. Good luck!

      Reply
  21. Catalin

    LW:
    I’m so sorry that this person condescended to you in an extra-snippy way. I CANNOT STAND when people talk down to me, regardless of the circumstances and you didn’t deserve this in any way.
    That being said, mentally crumple that email up and toss it like Jordan into the nearest recycling can.

    The real problem is that you’re overworked, overwhelmed and possibly under-trained. I’ve been there: I’m sure most of us have been there at some point. I advise that you give yourself permission to deal with the stress in unglamorous ways [Blasting old favorite music in the car, crying in the bathroom, creating stress-art without caring what it looks like, eating dinner while sitting in a corner on the kitchen floor because you can’t quite muster to get to the table, whatever works for you]. Then, at work, write things down in a notebook. Make checklists — it is incredibly satisfying to check tasks off as you go. Fight the tsunami by breaking it down into tasks and resolutions. Push back on unreasonable deadlines. Ask for what you need: people suck at mind-reading and often give no thought to the workloads and priorities of others. Understand that you are human and it’s okay to have limits to what you can do.

    Small victories count. Mean people suck. Go get ’em!

    Reply
    1. Jillociraptor

      “That being said, mentally crumple that email up and toss it like Jordan into the nearest recycling can.”

      Love.

      Reply
  22. Chriama

    I wouldn’t even volunteer to ask the person to contact Fergus. I would just say “I got this list from Lucinda. I don’t know why he was included if he already submitted his paperwork, but if you or he check in with her I’m sure she’ll be able to help you.” Basically, stay out of it entirely. It’s not your fault she was rude, but you don’t need to subject yourself to her voluntarily.

    Reply
  23. Apollo Warbucks

    I wouldn’t let the email mothe you, it’s not a big deal.

    For next time maybe add the line

    “If you have submitted the paper work in the last X days please disregard this email”

    Reply
  24. AW

    This is my first professional job and my first experience ever struggling at work, and I can’t find a way to compartmentalize my feelings.

    Do you have access to an EAP program though your employer or perhaps access to counseling services at your school? You might benefit from having some help working through all the new stress you’re under. The professor is a huge jerk but the stress from having an entry-level job suddenly gain non-entry-level responsibilities* may be affecting your ability to roll with the punches.

    *This is hugely unfair. I’d ask if you at least got a raise or new title out of this but I think I already know the answer.

    Reply
  25. Skye

    A professor once said made very rude and condescending comments to me–how I was a low level employee and likely to make mistakes. I was upholding a dean’s policy and and I calmly told her that and kept my own emotions out of it. Now, I did talk to my boss about it because I was very upset and I’m glad I did, because I was assured that this faculty member speaks to everyone in a belittling way when she does not get her way. The last few times I have talked to her she has been very nice, possibly because she took her case to the Dean and was told the policy from someone with real power.
    From this experience I am trying my best to let arrogant faculty comments roll off my back. I like most faculty, but some of them are very isolated in their fields and think little of anything or anybody else.

    Reply
  26. Ultraviolet

    I can definitely understand feeling bad about this email! Think of it this way though: the criticism is probably not intended for you personally, but for the whole group of organizers that ended up sending emails the professor thinks are wrong. I mean, that group includes you, but the professor probably isn’t thinking, “Jane is so unprofessional for not double checking the list they sent her.” She’s thinking, “They’re so unprofessional for not getting the list right and then sending emails based on that.” But even if I’m wrong about this, remember everyone else is right that this professor is not a good authority on professionalism in email!

    I would respond, “Thanks for letting us know that there may be an error in our records. I’ve asked Lucinda at the Teapot Event office to double check Fergus’s paperwork.” You could append to that, “(Unfortunately I don’t have access to the paperwork records myself.)” but I’m kind of inclined not to. You and the office hosting the event are acting as a team here, and it doesn’t really seem appropriate to try to explain to the professor how labor is divided on that team and how that might have resulted in errors.

    A tempting response would be, “Thanks for letting us know there may be an error in our records. I’ve forwarded your email to Lucinda at the Teapot event office so she can look into it.” But it’s really not worth it.

    Reply
  27. Lauren

    Send the most professional response you can, but be aware that many (hopefully, not most) faculty at universities are rude and nasty to staff. They think they are above humanity and that staff are just shit on the roadway. This is very common, at least in California’s higher ed. So don’t expect an apology, don’t expect even an answer. They are routinely rude and accuse before they think (based on my extensive experience).

    Reply
    1. LAI

      I’ve worked in California higher ed for 10 years and I have to disagree here. I posted my own story below about an encounter with a rude professor but that was an anomaly. In my experience, the majority of professors are polite, professional and just trying to do the best they can like everyone else is. I have worked with a large number of professors who were extremely appreciative of the work that staff do.

      Now, when it comes to answering email, I will admit that university faculty are significantly worse than probably anyone at replying. Basically, if you don’t get a reply within 24 hours, don’t expect one.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        It’s probably true that most professors are quite nice. Because that’s true of any group.

        But what’s also true is that negative interactions will have a far bigger impact that positive ones. And the true jerks will do it over and over and over again.

        Reply
          1. So Very Anonymous

            Some of them are untenured. Sometimes the people on the low end of the totem pole need, for whatever reason, to make sure you know that you’re even lower and that you are there to serve them. Not all of them. But the ones that do this do make themselves known.

            Reply
  28. ElleKat

    I agree with all who say NOT to take it personally.
    Being in similar situations often, what I generally do is forward the email to those that are receiving the paperwork and cc the faculty member.
    The message would be something along the lines:

    Dear Faculty Member,
    Thank you for following up to ensure the student’s paperwork is complete. I’m copying in Vera in XXX department. She can verify that the paperwork is complete.

    This will take you out of the middle and put her in touch with the people in the know.

    Don’t let these types of emails bother you. Often times the sender is frustrated about other issues and their response was venting their frustration and had very little to do with your email/work/professionalism.
    Actually, if you’re in a very large institution – they probably won’t remember your name a week from now.

    Reply
  29. super anon

    Ugh – this is tough. I work at a university and there can be a large divide between the faculty and the staff. the majority of the faculty are respectful and professional, but some can be pretty rude and dismissive of staff members. It can be hard too because you have to be very nice to faculty – even when they’re being rude toward you.

    I email a lot of large mailings to staff, faculty and students. Depending on the content of the email I put a disclaimer at the bottom to ask if they are no longer the contact person for their unit to please forward it to the appropriate person and to email me to remove their name from my list. If I am emailing students about missing documents, etc I usually put at the bottom a line that says if they have sent the documentation or believe they have been sent the email in error to please contact me. It acknowledges upfront that miscommunication can happen, and shows that I will be proactive about fixing it.

    Reply
  30. VolunteerCoordinatorinNOVA

    Sometimes people are rude, sometimes they don’t realize how they come across and sometimes people just don’t care and it can suck when you’re someone is very aware of others feelings. The only thing you can really control is how you allow yourself to feel (which is easier to say than do!). I have an anxiety disorder and I know when my stress is really bad, these types of situations will stay in my brain forever. Like literally waking up in the middle of the night in a panic about it (and often it’s something so dumb that the other person wouldn’t give it a second thought). It seems like you’re pretty stressed with all that’s happening at your job so maybe this email and how you’re feeling about it can be a reminder that you need to make sure you take care of yourself and you stress level. Sending lots of good, positive thoughts your way!

    Reply
  31. Christian Troy

    You’ve received some good advice already and it sounds like there are some good helpful tips in how to respond to something like this. I ran into a faculty member who was constantly annoyed with me when it came to following up with requests and I just stopped taking it personally.

    Reply
  32. Former so called secretary

    Regular reader going anon here.

    I used to work at a very dysfunctional and corrupt farmers market/cooperative. We rented out buildings on our property, mostly to wholesalers. These wholesalers operated during the same hours as the market, right next to it, selling the same items for less. Two of these business owners were married to board members and received clear favoritism, including breaking their leases with no consequences, adhereing to different rules than the other tenants, and more. There were many, many other issues. When my immediate boss left he told me to get out too, and I should have listened.

    One day, one of these women came into the office angry that I, in charge of the market’s Facebook page, hadn’t liked her business’s page. (I probably should have, but beside the point.) She was irate and pointing and screaming. “You’re a little b****, you’re just a secretary,” etc, etc. This in front of the board president, who, side note, had hit on me about a year prior. He literally looked at the floor and said nothing. I did not defend myself or yell back, but he still said later that he “didn’t want to get in the middle of a cat fight.” I was fired shortly thereafter, no doubt because she made it happen.

    It still haunts me. I still take it personally. I know her behavior speaks volumes about her, and not me. I know that market I truly cared about and wanted to succeed is no longer my concern. And I just keep reminding myself of these things.

    You just have to keep telling yourself what Alison said – it really, really is a testamount to who this person is, and not who you are or your work ethic. Do take the emotion out of it and be matter of fact and professional. Absolutely convey that you do not have access to that information, because they won’t know that otherwise. But do not apologize. You have nothing to apologize for.

    That being said, I would start looking for another job. That environment you described does not sound healthy and I suspect you have much more stress headed your way.

    Reply
    1. The Strand

      Alison had great advice about that to the OP. Don’t let that ghastly woman take up any more space in your head, evict her!

      It says so much about her, and about the coop, not about you.

      Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      What a hell hole of a job.

      The real truth of the matter is that NO one should have to work under conditions like that.
      But, it happens anyway.
      A person like this can take up space in our brains years later because we felt a loss of power.
      Which, yeah, you did lose your power there for the moment. But you got your power back and moved on. One way to prove it to yourself is to figure out what you would say if that happened to you this week. You’d handle it a lot differently, right? And another way to kick her out of your head is to think about how many other difficult situations you have handled with finesse and people have even congratulated you for handling it well.

      I am sorry this happened to you. It should not have happened.

      Reply
  33. LAI

    I also work at a university and had a very similar situation happen when I was new. I was given a list of names and told to send out a template email. I got a reply from one professor basically saying that I didn’t have the authority to tell her what to do and that my email was “impertinent”. This happened 10 years ago and I still remember how awful I felt after getting that email. I didn’t even write the language in the email, and the same thing was being sent to dozens of faculty members every semester! Eventually I realized that, just like Alison said, her rude reply said more about the professor than it did about me. It did make me more aware of when to be tactful and how to navigate communications with people in positions of higher power though.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      Maybe the thing to do is share emails like that with someone who’s guaranteed to laugh out loud at them

      Reply
    2. Deanna

      Shame on you, you impertinent young upstart you! Report to my office immediately so that I may whack your knuckles with my ruler.

      Reply
  34. TootsNYC

    I wonder if there’s some other sort of powerful, deep emotional response eing triggered here (even if only in a mild way).

    What about shame–the kind of shame that abuse victims feel? The shame that says, “I should have been powerful enough to prevent this from happening to me”?

    I fell in love with Carolyn Hax when I read one of her early columns that brought up this idea.
    A guy had gone on a trip w/ friends, friends went to a strip club, guy didn’t want to participate so he sat at the back w/ a beer waiting. One of the dancers came to do a lap dance, he said no, she ignored him, did the lap dance, tease dance, etc. He felt horribly guilty, told his girlfriend who said ‘no need to feel guilty,’ but he couldn’t shake it.
    Carolyn’s point was: This guy was reacting much as a sexual-abuse survivor does. It was the shame of not being powerful enough to protect himself that was making this last so long.

    So for our OP, she’s been attacked, essentially, and she knows that she really has no power to prevent it OR to successfully retaliate. She just has to take it. And maybe the reason this is clinging so hard is that part of her wants her to strike out, strike back, be unassailable.

    I have discovered that this is indeed at play sometimes for me.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      I was going to say something along the same vein that the story resonates on different levels with OP therefore she can’t shake it off.

      Just looking at what you say here OP, a remark like this could serve as a reminder that you feel overwhelmed and you are pretty sure you do not know what you are doing because of being new. Temporarily, you are a fish out of water and along comes Professor Jerk to remind you “hey you are a fish out of water and we all can see that!”

      You wanted to know how to get Professor Jerk out of your head. One thing to do is look around, what can you do TODAY to help yourself feel more acclimated to your position? I like lists. Contact lists, lists of who to go to for what info, to do lists, and so on. I like to make a list at night before I go home. That way I feel more comfortable when I start the next day.

      And another thing you can do is realize that the human mind goes over the same thing again and again when it is TIRED. Make sure you are getting enough rest each night, not skipping meals and hydrating well. These three things will help your body cope with the physical symptoms of stress and in turn it will help to ease your mind/thoughts. You will find it easier to shake off a negative image such as Professor Jerk.

      You are temporarily new. In a while you will become “established”. If you stay at the job long enough you will become “long term/old”. Newness is just temporary.

      Reply
  35. AtomicCowgirl

    This reminds me of a temp position I held a long time ago when I had moved to another state. I filled in for a legal secretary in a corporate tax law department, and the head lawyer was such a miserable person to work for that his regular secretary had gone on medical leave from the stress. Whenever he blamed me for mistakes that were actually his, which was a frequent occurrence, rather than react, I would just apologize and redo the work. It wasn’t worth stressing out about, from my perspective. Eventually I was able to understand that he actually knew what he was doing, but just had horrid people skills. When my six month assignment was over he begged me to stay on, as his former secretary decided not to come back. He just needed someone who didn’t react to his bad behavior. I didn’t mind doing it as a temporary position, but was in no way eager to sign up for it long term.

    In business you’re always going to have people who act rudely and unprofessionally. Politically there is very little percentage in pointing out their behavior or trying to correct their assumptions, unless you are in a situation where someone is trying to make you look bad and you have to cover your patootie. It is easier said than done, but you need to play the long game and work on thickening your skin a bit. It isn’t worth it to let something like that affect how you feel.

    You can choose how to react to other people; it isn’t always necessary or wise to believe everything they say or assume about your actions or your intentions.

    Reply
  36. Prismatic Professional

    Hi OP,

    I just wanted to say, I have had this exact reaction before. You have my sympathy and jedi hugs if you want them. In my specific case, if I had not been so stressed out and allergy-ridden, I would not have taken this email seriously at all. It was just too much on top of the stress I already had. Plus it meant I had _yet another_ task on my plate that hadn’t been there before and this person dared to make more work for me and how dare they think I was unprofessional? For me, it played into my depression and jerk-brain talk. I don’t know how helpful it is, but just acknowledging that it was my jerk-brain talking and that depression is a lying liar that lies, really helped me.

    We all have jerk-brain moments and being under a great deal of stress can make those moments happen more and it sucks. I’ll follow this post up with two of my favorite smile-inducing videos (both 6 seconds). Because bouncing lambs fix many things.

    I hope work life gets better soon and your jerk-brain can go be a jerk somewhere else!

    Reply
  37. Chickaletta

    I received a similar email last year for making a similar mistake. It took a few days to get over, but I still remember it. (Something for people who write those types of emails to consider: they’re just creating a bad reputation for themselves, not solving the problem). Consider it a piece of good information: now you know more about that person, how they handle conflict, and how they relate to others. You actually know more about them than they know about you. But take the high road and write it off and move on.

    Reply
  38. Jess

    When I worked in academia this is how almost all of the professors treated the staff. It’s a huge part of why I left; I could not tolerate being spoken to that way.

    Reply
  39. Deanna

    OP, it’s hard not to take that email personally because the professor made it personal. But really, it’s just a criticism of the system that is in place for reporting student paperwork and not you. I would say something like, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Unfortunately I do not have access to the list of who has submitted paperwork and who has not. I’m forwarding your comments to the hosting office and to the director in the hopes that we can make our future communications more accurate.”

    And then I would forward it to those people with the message, “Is there any way that I can gain access to the list so that I can double-check whether the students have submitted their paperwork?”

    Reply
  40. LF

    In my experience, usually the least professional people are the most likely to call others out for being “unprofessional.”

    It’s sort of like etiquette. It’s one thing to make a social faux pas that isn’t exactly the right etiquette. It’s the height of rudeness, and far worse, to call someone out for the mistake.

    Reply
    1. Mookie

      Yep. “Unprofessional” devoid of context or specific examples is the go-to pejorative for people who’ve run out of ideas but still want to smear their interlocutor with something thick and stinky. It’s meant to be a deathblow but it’s barely a flesh wound and invariably ends up sounding petty to any neutral third-party.

      Reply
  41. lowercase holly

    wow, what a jerk. you send a nice reminder to *help* someone, and that’s the response. i bet she gets customer service reps to do her favors alll the time

    in my own workplace (not that this would fly everywhere), i would have just forwarded that to whoever was in charge of checking the list and continued about my day.

    Reply
  42. Argh!

    We all feel a bit of a sting when someone disagrees with us. Obsessing about something like that is over the line, though. Put it into perspective – it was one of many faculty members, and one error in a big project. Put it behind you. Live and learn. If you can’t do that after a couple of weeks, consider professional help. Most people don’t catastrophize stuff like that.

    Reply
  43. De Minimis

    Thanks for this—I had a harsh e-mail episode last week that nearly ruined my weekend. I’ll keep this advice in mind if [or when] it happens again.

    Reply
  44. Isben Takes Tea

    I got an email questioning the professionalism of one if my emails my first few months on the job (non-academic) and it stung a LOT, especially since it challenged my confidence of what I thought was professional. I eventually realized after months working with this person that it was ALL HER, and she had warped views of professionalism. So, my advice is to check in with other people you trust (what you’ve done here) and repeat the phrase “she owns her own drama” to yourself as often as possible. Good luck!

    Reply
  45. Pokebunny

    Oh, I so feel for the OP. I was also on the receiving end of an email that caused me to obsess and be upset for 2 days after. In that email, I was also scolded and talked down to, but by someone I sort of know — we worked together briefly.

    I wrote a scathing email in response and just let my anger show in the email. Then I saved it as a draft, woke up the next day, re-read it and deleted the draft copy. I feel a bit better writing it down and deleting it. Eventually I replied to her email as politely as I can, but I never apologized. This is key. If you haven’t done anything wrong, do not apologize. In my reply (that I sent, not the angry draft), I pointed out why she got it completely bass ackwards and that “I hope this clears things up”.

    But I was upset for 2 days, and I think that can’t be helped because of my personality.

    Reply
  46. Gabriela

    A similar thing happened to me this week (not from faculty, but from executive admin staff). This would have destroyed me in my first week on the job. Luckily, I know enough about this person and about the office politics that I can chalk it up to sour grapes, but I feel for you. It sounds like you handled it perfectly and probably better than I would have!

    Reply
  47. Universtiy

    LW, I feel for you so much. It can be so hard, trying not to let being berated like that get you down or make you mad. I’ve found that replying the way Alison suggests– showcasing your own professionalism and the absurdity of their behavior– is often the best way to make those feelings more manageable. You can prove to yourself that you ARE good at your job, and also get the rush of knowing the jerk might end up feeling ashamed of their behavior. (The latter part doesn’t work on the worst types of people, but someone lashing out in frustration who’s generally capable of better behavior is gonna feel like a d*ck when they realize how they sounded.)

    Reply
    1. Universtiy

      Ah, sorry! New to commenting, and my phone’s tiny screen is not helping me avoid inappropriate replies. Pokebunny, you handled that situation awesomely– this kind of behavior is so much more obnoxious from people you’ve actually met.

      Reply
      1. Universtiy

        …….or my phone could be utterly deceiving me with each page refresh! Note to self: no mobile commenting.

        Reply
  48. Lizzy

    This post is timely for me since I am dealing with a situation where I was insulted in an email (though I was not the recipient of the original email) and I am trying to not let it get to me. In my situation, I had been dealing with a contract situation with a consultant for a project my boss is managing. He didn’t explain my organization’s long, drawn-out process and was too busy to answer her questions, so I was left to deal with her. I had only been dealing with her for a few days, when out of frustration, she emailed a colleague she had a longstanding history with, basically venting about her contract. She called me called me incompetent and told my colleague I was a bimbo. Let’s just say it really stung and I have been spending all day not letting it get to me.

    Reply
    1. Doriana Gray

      A bimbo? People still use that word unironically?

      I wouldn’t even give that woman a second thought.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        The consultant probably considers herself an expert on incompetence and bimbos. I do believe she could show us how to be UNprofessional, she seems very good at it.

        Reply
  49. Tommy

    When I was younger my mom taught me a trick for when you are trying to get into a lane of traffic and someone will not let you in: find a way to get eye contact, especially opening your window and sticking your head out if you’re on the same side.

    Using this trick, I’ve seen people that were acting like real jerks all of a sudden soften and be polite. Seriously, this trick has a 100% success rate for me!

    You might consider actually going to this professor’s office and explaining the situation there. Just like it is easy to be inconsiderate from behind a car window, it is easier to be a jerk over email than face to face.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      I am glad you mentioned this. I have done this a few times and gotten good results. Some people can lash out at faceless names, but when that actual person shows up in their doorway it’s a whole different story. And confronting the rudeness immediately, even though it’s indirect, startles them enough so they do not do it again. If you decide to use this technique at some point OP, you simply go to the person’s office (if possible) or if they happen to stop by, you introduce yourself in a cheerful manner. “Oh I just wanted to introduce myself. We had a bit of a confusing email exchange and I wanted to let you know that the matter is now all set.” Most of the time just be cheerful and oblivious to a problem and they will squirm, OP. You will have delivered a message of “cut the crap”.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        If the OP wanted to try to build a bridge there, even calling up in a cheery manner to follow up can disarm people.

        Reply
      2. Mookie

        Can I just say, you’re really on fire in this particular post. Just very good, astute insights all around. Thank you.

        Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      oooh, driving advice that applies elsewhere in life!

      My favorite, also from my mom, is this: every lane change is a potential accident. So change lanes carefully, and only when necessary.
      I used this in a work way when the outplacement advisor I was given wanted me to revise my resume a 4th time (basically, every time I met with her, she wanted me to change SOMEthing on it). I blew up (a bit) and pointed out that every time I retyped it (before computers, but applies even now, bcs every time you touch the keyboard, it’s a potential type–lane change, get it?), I ran the risk of introducing an error, so no, it was fine and I wasn’t going to change it.
      (that was back in the day of skill-set summaries at the top of the resumé; i remember being skeptical even then; I’d done a little bit of hiring, and I knew that I never read those)

      Reply
  50. SusanIvanova

    My first job was at an extremely tiny company – 6 software devs, 4 support people, a handful of others. It was also very complex and unstable, so customers called up frequently to be talked through the process when something went wrong and it had to be manually reset. One week both the support people, half the devs, and the upper level people went to a conference. A call comes in when I’m the only dev still working, and out of sympathy for the receptionist who was completely lost, I took it even though I don’t normally deal with the resets. Well, I wasn’t much help, and the customer gave up with “I’ll just call back when the smart people are there.”

    That stung, but I knew I was smart, just lacking that particular bit of knowledge. I was more upset at the company for the seriously poor planning that put me in that situation. That company was highly educational in the negative sense – I knew what sort of red flags to look for in future jobs.

    Reply
    1. The Strand

      Wow. I would have given her the “God sent me” speech to that (a little Babylon 5 humor for those of you that don’t know the wonder that is Susan Ivanova).

      How abrupt and awful. You can say “I’ll call back at a better time” without insulting the person on the phone.

      Reply
  51. Lindsey

    I don’t find the email that unreasonable. For all we know, this mistake or similar happens all the time, and the person is sick of erroneous emails, which do look unprofessional if repeated often. This doesn’t mean OP is doing anything wrong or acting unprofessionally, but it can mean the organization as a whole needs to shape up and get better at this. Maybe take this as a sign that you should see if you can get access to see what was submitted, or talk to your supervisor about whether workflow can be improved to avoid erroneous information getting out in these emails.

    Reply
  52. Cassie

    Years ago, I sent out an email to our faculty about a seminar and I got an email reply from a professor critiquing my use of the word “area” instead of “field” when referencing a specific research speciality. I don’t remember the exact wording but his email was something like “We don’t have the XYZ field in our department – it’s the XYZ area. You should ask your boss about the difference”. I was utterly shattered when I got the response (thankfully I was in an office and could cry with the door closed).

    The professor had cc’d the rest of the faculty in his response so I replied all and apologized for the error and noted the correction. Another professor emailed me directly with the definition of area which included the synonym field and wrote “you’re technically correct”. It was that professor’s way of saying “don’t worry about it! That professor is just a curmudgeonly old bat”. That professor’s response made me feel much better.

    I bet the vast majority of faculty either ignored the email or just skimmed it and didn’t even notice the field vs area discussion. Nowadays, I wouldn’t have even responded – it’s a good lesson to learn that not every email requires a response. If that professor needs to point out an error that makes no substantive difference, then go right ahead. Several years later, that same curmudgeonly professor yelled at me for about 30 seconds accusing me of taking over the cubicle that his assistant was supposed to sit in. I let him yell and when he finished, I calmly told him “your assistant’s cubicle is over there”. He looked around and then said “oh! I’m sorry! I thought it was over here.” It was all I could do not to laugh in his face when he was yelling (I was thinking “oh geez, he’s lost and confused”).

    OP – I wouldn’t bother responding to the professor regarding the email. It’ll serve no purpose. If you can, find out what document(s) are missing from the student and email the student (with or without the professor) noting which documents were received and which were not. If it was a mistake and all the documents were received, you can send a simple email to let the student know – “sorry for the error, we have received your documents and no further action is needed”.

    Reply
  53. St. Lucia

    Wow…this is really interesting! I think this must show a massive cultural disconnect between how faculty and administrative staff communicate in a professional space. I’m a professor, can someone clue me in on why this email is so rude? It’s a little terse, yeah, but I don’t see it as very rude, unprofessional, or out of line. I’m astonished that the person who received it took it personally and I’m also surprised that the person who received it never thought to try to fix the broken process that the faculty was providing feedback about. I could have sent a similar email (although I would have worded it slightly more politely).
    From reading this email, it’s obvious to me that the professor sent the email to “you” (meaning the administrative process that generated the reminder email). The intent of the email from the professor is also obvious–it means “I’m letting you know there is a bug in your process that you should consider checking and fixing, because something appears to be broken.” The professor also suggested a simple fix that might help, which were are told constantly is required for anyone complaining about something-don’t complain unless you can also suggest a solution. The professor also pointed out why it would be worthwhile to fix the broken process–because it is annoying and wastes people’s time. Finally, the professor used as brief and direct language as possible to convey this information. Brief language is more professional from my perspective than the lengthy, flowerly email wording suggested on this site–again, we are constantly told by our department chairs and deans to write only very brief emails and to get quickly to the point.
    Can someone help me out here? How is this communication unbearably rude? Isn’t adminstration always trying to improve? Don’t they want/need feedback about processes that aren’t working properly? Isn’t the whole point of this administrative process to benefit the students? If the students’ information isn’t being correctly/accurately recorded by the administrative process, isn’t that a big problem that needs to be fixed?

    Reply
    1. CheeryO

      It isn’t unbearably rude, but it’s definitely condescending, IMO. I see what you’re saying about the general “you,” but that’s not going to be the first thing that comes to mind when a person reads an email. It reads as “You (personally) messed up, and you are unprofessional because of the way you handled this,” when it wasn’t even OP’s mistake. I like succinct emails as much as the next person, but the scolding tone was totally rude and unnecessary. “[Student] told me that he did submit his paperwork. Can we double-check?” You could even add a, “We need to figure out a way to make sure the list is accurate.” if you really are convinced that a mistake was made.

      Reply
    2. hbc

      Problem #1) She assumed that the student was right rather than suspending judgment. No way did she have enough information to make the call that the mistake was on the OP’s end (personally or as a group). There are ways she could have been sure (such as seeing him post it herself), but we know she didn’t know, because his info *wasn’t* actually submitted.

      Problem #2) Even if there was a problem, she’s assuming that her “solution” is possible, worthwhile, and actually something they need to be told. “Double check, you say? Wow, I never would have thought of that.” Maybe it’s impossible to check to the level that no one would ever get a false warning, or they’d have to spend dozens of man hours just so one person wouldn’t have to spend five minutes confirming their stuff was already in the system.

      Problem #3: If what she wrote can reasonably be taken as a personal insult, she hasn’t written a professional email. Professionals choose their words carefully, and don’t use “you” when they mean “your department.” Professionals are also aware when there’s a power discrepancy and they can’t casually toss off insults like “unprofessional” and let the lower-tier person intuit that they meant well.

      Problem #4: She doesn’t get off the hook for being terse, since one third of her sentences are unnecessary. The last sentence is completely subjective and accomplishes nothing if she’s simply passing on information.

      Here’s the professional version: “My student says he had his submission in several weeks ago. Can you check what went wrong and fix any part of your process that might cause warnings to be sent out incorrectly?” Same directness, but without being insulting, making assumptions, or leaving her with egg on her face when she turns out to be wrong.

      Reply
      1. myswtghst

        Thank you for this response! I’m probably a bit touchy right now because I just dealt with something similar to the OP, but I think your #1 is spot on – immediately using accusatory language (especially in an email, where tone is subject to interpretation) is bad form in my book. In a situation like this, I always find it best to start from a position of “here’s what I know, can you help?” rather than assuming or assigning blame.

        In my similar situation to the OP, I was acting as a go-between for a business partner looking to enroll in a seminar (let’s call him Jerry). After 2-3 emails from the seminar organizer to Jerry (with me and Jerry’s boss Tom copied on each) indicating a response was needed, I finally replied off the email to Jerry and Tom, letting them know I could not approve the enrollment on their behalf, so they would need to respond. I got almost instantaneous replies from both Tom and Jerry complaining that they never received the emails from the seminar organizer, which I know is not true. I had to remind them both that regardless of whether or not they got the emails, they needed to reply ASAP if Jerry wanted to attend. After they finally replied and confirmed enrollment, I got a moderately contrite email from Tom letting me know that, shocker of shockers, they had actually received all the emails and just not read them.

        So while it’s certainly possible that the prof is correct, the student submitted all the forms on time, and the email was in error, it’s also possible that the student’s submission was incomplete / unsuccessful / waylaid by internet pirates. It would be equally succinct to email any of the suggestions in this thread, and would be much more effective in determining the true root cause of the issue while ensuring the student is enrolled.

        Reply
    3. The Strand

      If an email is so brief and to the point that it becomes crude or rude, it needs to be longer. Brief and to the point is not at all necessarily professional, especially if you are sending bad news or criticizing someone.

      Yes, administration is always trying to improve, but you can’t get someone to improve by insulting them (usually – exception: drill instructors in Boot Camp). Particularly if they’re a staff member who did not create or control the process.

      Yes, feedback is helpful, but if you insult someone or are brusque, it’s less likely that the suggestion / concern will be listened to. Particularly if the only communication from a group tends to be negative. Believe me, staff notice when one department complains constantly with insulting language, and another is more conciliatory. Which department’s complaint gets fixed more promptly, because it’s taken more seriously?

      Of course, students are the purpose of administrative processes; but unless someone proves they are a jerk who wants their system because “it’s mine”, you can assume that they did the best they could for students, with limited budget, time, and access to software.

      What field are you all in, by chance?

      I started writing this before I read hbc’s comment all the way through, which has a perfect email: “Student told me he had trouble submitting the paperwork, and did complete it. Can we resolve the problem with the system here?”

      Reply
    4. College Career Counselor

      Are you serious or just trolling? You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Plus, I can just about guarantee that if the OP had written a similar note to the prof using “you” to mean “faculty in general,” the faculty member would have taken that personally. Just an example: implying that it’s inappropriate for faculty to use the office printer to make hardcopies of their personal email, and it’s impacting the budget for paper. You don’t think the faculty member would have been annoyed and policed the OP’s tone? Or right to make that statement?

      Asking to double-check the names in the future (or inquiring about the specifics of the process) is the professional way to make your point about improving things, not griping about an extra email and baldly calling someone unprofessional. (There’s also a non-zero chance that the student LIED to the professor about having already submitted documents, so think about that before you blast someone.)

      Finally, if you call me unprofessional without cause, you may just find that the next time you need an administrative favor, you won’t get it because favoritism is “unprofessional.”

      Reply
    5. Ultraviolet

      Occasionally people here suggest email wordings that could be described–hyperbolically, but not utterly unreasonably–as lengthy and flowery. But if you’re implying that’s the norm here, I think you have missed a lot of suggestions that are concise and precise.

      The reason the professor’s email (“He already submitted his paperwork. You should check more carefully instead of sending emails. This is really unprofessional.”) comes off as rude is actually because it’s not direct at all and the true intent has to be interpreted from the insults.

      1) The reader is left to guess at the intent of “This is really unprofessional.” You suggest that it might be meant to point out that fixing the broken process is worthwhile because it’s an annoying waste of time. But if the professor were truly being direct, they would say, “You need to fix your list–getting these emails is annoying and a waste of our time.” That’s more precise and clear and also much less rude. As it is, this sentence just sounds like a superfluous insult.

      2) “You should check more carefully instead of sending emails” is, if I understand correctly, an indirect way of saying “You should fix this process so that we don’t get emails.” So if she had just been direct, she would have been able to combine the last two sentences of her email into one. But on the face of it, this sentence just sounds like advice that’s so obvious as to be insulting: your list is inaccurate, have you considered being more careful?

      3) I’d second all of hbc’s explanation too.

      Two more points:

      a) This isn’t actually a situation where it’s helpful to propose a solution along with the complaint, because the professor knows so little about the process. The professor is in a client role here, and for a client it’s appropriate to present a complaint without a suggestion of how to fix it. What does help is being precise about what the problem is and why it bothers you, which I think is why you interpreted the professor’s email as meaning “this is annoying and a waste of our time.”

      b) You’re amazed that OP didn’t try to fix the problem. It sounds like it’s outside the scope of OP’s role to try to fix the list-checking process, since she doesn’t even have access to it. All she could do is alert the organizers to the problem, which she did. And did you see her update that reveals the problem was on the students’ end? It seems like you have interpreted the OP in the least flattering way and the professor in the most flattering way. I think that sort of thing is a big component of the faculty-admin cultural divide.

      Reply
    6. Not So NewReader

      The word “you” is well established as being ambiguous. For purposes of clarity it is best to add more words when using “you” third person plural. That could look like this:
      “you– meaning staff involved with the project-….” A good rule of thumb is to believe that when you use the word you, people think you mean third person SINGULAR. They think you mean them personally.

      It’s fine to let people know there is a bug in the process, but the right thing to do is to check to see if the person you are speaking with has the power to fix it. If they do not have the power to fix it, it is polite to assume they know of the problem and they are working around it as best they can until they get help.

      A suggestion is fine. But if the speaker knows nothing about the process the person uses then the speaker has just made herself look very foolish. (Foolish is an understatement.) If the fix were that simple then it probably would have been done by now.

      One does not need lengthy, flowery language. One does need to give a nod toward the idea they do not know every aspect of the story. A suggestion in question form might convey, “Hey, I am not aware of all the background here, but can we do something like this instead?”

      No administration is not always trying to improve. Does a home owner make constant improvements to her house? NO. It costs money and time. Some improvements are not necessary. It’s messy and it causes confusion which adds to expenses. And there are maintenance tasks that must be done in order to keep what already is in place. There are annual tasks right down to daily tasks. Those must be done no matter what. Likewise with administration for any institution or business. They cannot be making constant improvements, not if they want their organization to survive.

      Yes, they want feedback. But not if you are the 10k person telling them the same thing. Feedback must go to the person who can do something about it, not to any random individual that seems to be captive at the moment.

      College administrators make sure profs get paid, grants come in, maintenance work gets done, everyone has supplies, legal obligations are followed and so on. No, not every activity has direct benefit to the students. Some activities are indirect.

      Yes, fixing that computer problem is a necessity. So is fixing that leaky roof in Building C. And so is making sure there are enough employees working in security and so is…. well you get the idea. Find out how many administrators there are, then add up the staff, faculty and students. You will probably find there is one administrator for every X number of people, where X is a surprisingly high number.

      Over all the tone show total lack of awareness of other people’s predicaments/settings. The professor failed to realize she was talking to another human being. If someone came in and spoke to her in that manner she would probably be outraged. It’s never a good idea to use one’s position or power to push around other people. It says a lot about this prof’s character that she felt free to do this.

      Reply
    7. St. Lucia

      No, I’m not “trolling”. I’m senior faculty at a medical school and I also serve in a lot of administrative director roles. I’m just pointing out that, in my work over the years, I have found that there a vast cultural difference in professional expectations especially about the nuances of communication language between the admin/business world and the world inhabited by faculty/physicians, and that this difference is the main problem. I’m a long time reader of AAM because I find this helps me better understand both sides.
      I cannot count the number of times I have had to intervene and “smooth things over” between the groups. The administrators always think the faculty are rude and dismissive, the faculty always think the admins are overly-sensitive and demanding of special treatment. But it’s usually just over a difference in communication style. Most faculty have never worked in a business setting and learned the business norms that the administrators take for granted. Faculty usually have zero knowledge of what administrators do or what their job goals are. Faculty usually also have no information about the heirarchies in administration, nor is this information readily available–thus we never know who is new, who is just a junior admin assist vs. who is the manager, the supervisor. Faculty therefore just give feedback immediately to whoever happens to contact them.
      The training of professors and physicians, which takes decades, involves mostly extremely direct, frequent, and often brutally honest feedback. It’s not rude, nor is it a personal attack–it’s just the traditional way of teaching a very large amount of critical information. Personnel in laboratories and medical practices are also these days strongly encouraged to ignore heirarchies when suggesting improvements, and making improvements is always the top goal. For example, even junior students are encouraged to speak up as much as possible and point out problems they see in research presentations so they can be corrected, everyone from the lowly scrub nurse to the surgeon is empowered to instantly stop a medical procedure if they sense something might be wrong, and the precise wording of the feedback is beside the point. Thus, faculty have been taught to speak up and deliver feedback immediately in all situations without considering the formal wording. It is true that, as everywhere, some faculty are just jerks. But most aren’t–it’s usually just a cultural difference.

      Reply
      1. College Career Counselor

        Thank you for clarifying–this is extremely helpful in understanding the background informing your earlier response. That said, shouldn’t we all try to employ the communication style most appropriate to the culture/situation? While there are undoubtedly exceptions, most medical school faculty probably don’t treat communication with their friends, family, the teller at the bank, the guy making their sandwich, the insurance adjustor, or their child’s school administrator as if the interaction is “just the traditional way of teaching a very large amount of critical information.”

        Not every point of contact requires one to be “brutally honest” on the other person in the conversation to make a point about (purported) superior knowledge. And, while I take your point about junior staff being encouraged to ignore hierarchies in order to promote innovation/improvement, I suspect that is not universally accepted, particularly from someone perceived to be farther down the food chain (judging from the entrenched attitudes and lack of willingness to hear/absorb new information that my allied health field spouse routinely encounters among the medical profession).

        Reply
        1. St lucia

          Yes, it is definitely a problem when faculty and doctors unthinkingly communicate to all others in the same blunt way. We have trouble for example with medical patients and students getting offended at the way the doctor talks to them. Also of course some admin staff end up offended. We are actively working on training the faculty and physicians to communicate more effectively.

          I was not implying that it was perfectly OK….I just wanted to make the point that these differences on communication style are most often only that. If literal insults or curse words are not mentioned, then the blunt, brief, direct, or critical communication is almost never meant to be interpreted as insulting, arrogant, or condescending. Brief language is not the problem by itself, the intent should be what is important. After all, an insult can just as easily be conveyed with flowery “professional” language (illustrated by some people here who suggested that the admin reply to the blunt email by sending a deliberate insult disguised in “professional” language).

          Reply
  54. ShoeRuiner

    Ugh, that sucks. I’m sorry that happened. That’s just the nature of higher-ed, too many huge egos. Roll your eyes and move on, if you can. Don’t bother to respond, it won’t actually help since it’s about her and not you.

    Reply
  55. happymeal

    I worked for a major public university and everyone will confirm that faculty are not nice people. They do not have business prowess (and I worked in the business school….) . They act infallible, but obviously they aren’t. He probably doesn’t even remember sending it.

    Reply
  56. Lorna

    There was a huge divide between staff and faculty when I worked in an HE institution too. I used to write minutes for meetings and one one occasion didn’t put the apologies on (I rarely did; I’d never met anyone with a strict ethic on the importance of them). Anyway; I circulated the minutes to the rest of the meeting and within seconds had a snarky response about “Where are the apologies, I sent them to you *email with apologies attached*. Could you update please” At this point I knew I was leaving the role; my direct manager had never had any issues with my work, and I’d decided this was a silly thing to take issue with. Just like the email the faculty member sent you. Like Alison said, it’s a reflection on her pettiness and unprofessional-ism, not yours.

    Reply

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