cc’ing supervisors when you email your coworkers

A reader writes:

I work in a professional school within a very large private university. Our campus is home to several schools, and a number of facility-type departments (IT, buildings & grounds, etc.) are shared between the different schools.

A colleague of mine had been trying repeatedly to contact one of these departments to set up a time-sensitive training for some new employees without receiving a response. The requests were sent a departmental email address rather than an individual, and this department is notorious for being difficult to get the attention of. He turned to me for help as I deal with this department more frequently. I did what I usually do to ensure a quick reply–I CC’ed my colleague, his boss, my boss, and my boss’ assistant. You see, my boss and my colleague’s boss are high-level administrators within our school (second only to the dean), and a complaint about non-responsiveness would be taken very seriously from them.

I received a response almost instantly–a response that only included myself and my colleague–so I know they aren’t appreciative of my passive-aggressive threats. Frankly, this is the only way I can get this department’s attention, so I don’t feel too bad about doing it. But I am curious as to what you think. Am I being out of line even though I feel I have no other choice? Is this better or worse than including that department’s overseer on the email (their manager receives the emails sent to the departmental email, so he already knows about this behavior)? Are there situations where this is more acceptable?

Well, it is passive-aggressive and won’t win you any friends. It basically says, “I don’t trust you to be able to do your job on your own, so I’m pulling in other people from the get-go to make sure that you feel a whip cracking over you.  P.S. You’re lazy and possibly incompetent.”

Of course, you don’t trust them to do their job otherwise, because they’ve shown you that you shouldn’t. But I’m curious about why you don’t just address the problem directly. A department that’s unresponsive is a pretty big problem, and it’s one that’s worth addressing in a real, substantive way. (That won’t necessarily win you any friends either, but it’s still a better approach.)

Go over there and talk to the people causing the problem:  “Hey, Joe, we’re finding when we send emails about X or Y, we often don’t hear back from you guys, which keeps us from being able to do Z. What can we do differently so that we’re able to get the answers we need?”

(By the way, “what can we do differently?” is polite code for “you need to do something differently.” It works in all kinds of situations. Try it!)

If the problem continues after that, then you need to alert your boss. Say something like this: “We routinely have a lot of trouble getting any response from Department X. We’ve talked to them about it but it hasn’t solved the problem. In fact, I find they only respond when I cc you. I don’t want to rely on that as a means of getting things done, so I wonder if it would make sense for you to talk to (Department X’s manager) and see if there’s a way to get more responsiveness from them.”

If your boss is any good, she’ll deal with this from there. If she’s not any good and thus doesn’t deal with it, then at that point your only remaining choice is indeed to cc the people who will ensure that you get what you need. But try these other options first.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. Under Stand*

    I have no problem with this policy. I routinely CC my supervisors of situations they need to be aware of. As I see it, you are doing no different. You have no control over that department, however you can make it clear to your boss that you did contact them so that when you cannot progress, you can say ” I contacted YYY on DDD date, and cc’ed you on the email, and they have not responded”. It is called CYA.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It depends on what the situation is. Your manager doesn’t need to be aware of every single request you make or piece of work you do, so routinely cc’ing her would be odd. Cc’ing her occasionally, where she really does want to be in the loop, makes sense. If you’re doing it to “prove” to your boss that you’re taking certain steps, that’s pretty dysfunctional (either of you or the boss who makes you feel that’s required).

      1. Under Stand*

        But, and here is why I do it, if you are requesting that they other department stop what they are working on to work on your problem, it is respectful of the employee over there to CC his boss. Then his boss knows that you have asked for say a software tool to be fixed. If She decides that employee should make you wait, that is their departments right. But if you just ask the employee, he may decide to drop everything to fix your problem and then when the tool he was developing is not ready, his boss is blindsided because she did not know he just spent half a day fixing code for you. Now as to your boss knowing, again it is to let them know of a roadblock. If the tool is not fixed, then your deadline may need to change. Now of course I am not talking about CCing them on you wanting to go to lunch with the other person, but when it is work related and it may effect production, it is best to keep them in the loop.
        And I absolutely agree that if you are going to cc for when something is wrong, you definitely cc with attaboy’s.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I see what you’re saying, but I’d argue that it’s that person’s responsibility to determine when their manager does or doesn’t need to be in the loop. By doing it for them, you might be sending signals that you don’t intend to send!

          1. Under Stand*

            I guess it really has to do with the atmosphere of the company and the personalities of the people involved. The biggest chew outs I have gotten have been from tool programmers when I email them without sending a cc to their manager. Because then they have to explain to him why they will not have some other tool written because they were fixing problems with our toys errr tools. (Yes, I work in the part of the company that has top priority on tools. If I call my programmer with an issue, he usually has to drop what he is working on to fix my tool. And his boss wants to know because with a dozen people in our team, we can keep him pretty busy fixing stuff as we find new ways to make it not work right),

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yeah, makes sense that different office cultures might have their own norms. I think it’s weird that you got chewed out for that though — why don’t they just forward your email to their manager with an “FYI.” Odd.

              1. Under Stand*

                No, it was his manager. He did not like not knowing we had pulled his programmer to work on our issues. My manager was laughing about it, thought it was funny. My manager got a call from his manager fussing about our guys having no respect for him, yada yada yada. My manager just emailed me and said “I hear you got YYY mad again, forward your email to him so that he will stop fussing”

    2. Anonymous*

      In this situation, CYA is a pretty jerky move. People that work together should, at the very least, try to work out issues before escalating them. CYA’s like this can create negative opinion even when there really isn’t a problem…sometimes when it is actually the sender who is the problem.

      The person should have done exactly as the writer suggests and taken a moment to talk to that department before making a move like this.

  2. Wilton Businessman*

    By cc’ing me, you’ve now made it my problem. If it’s really my problem I will deal with it, but I certainly don’t appreciate being cc’ed on every message you write just so you go to the head of their queue.

    I trust other managers can prioritize projects for their people the way I prioritize our projects. If that means I am on the bottom of their pile I can live with that. That might mean I as a manager have to speak to the other manager to sync our priorities, but I manage my stuff not theirs.

    I certainly wouldn’t want my people shifting their priorities just because I am on the cc list of somebody’s message.

  3. Dave*

    It is a horrid way to get along with coworkers who you need help from. E-mail is horrible if it’s the only mode of communication used.

    Agreeing with AAM about walking over and talking it out in person. In addition:

    1) Do you send multiple emails to this address every day? Unless it’s specifically your job to do so (customer service interfacing between customers and managers who approve refunds for instance), more than 1 per day is probably too many.
    2) Are the emails overly verbose, or professional and short and to-the-point?
    3) Are the emails too vague (My computer isn’t working, please fix) or contain a useful amount of background information
    4) Have you gotten to know these people above and beyond pure work (but not too far)? Stop by for a brief (3 minute or so) pleasant non-work conversation every once in awhile. Bring a fruit plate and leave it with their department.

    1. Jamie*

      I have to respectfully disagree with a couple of points you are making here:

      We don’t have the information to determine how many emails is too much. You should do what’s necessary for the situation. Sometimes daily communication is appropriate, sometimes more sometimes less.

      I also agree that in a perfect world people write succinct and perfect emails. In the real world some people are too verbose, and some are too vague. That’s annoying, but it doesn’t give anyone an excuse of not responding. If I could only respond to emails that I felt were well written I would have a lot more free time.

      #4 baffles me. Why on earth should this be necessary? I know the theory about building relationships with co-workers, and that’s fine…but you shouldn’t have to have any kind of chatty relationship in order for people to respond to work requests.

      I hate workplace cultures where you have to rely on favors or social connections to do your job.

      I don’t want people to answer my work related emails because they like me, or I brought them food…just do it because it’s your job and if you don’t I’ll make it your bosses problem.

      1. class factotum*

        Yes, but the reality is if you make it a habit to bake brownies for the IT guys, they will be more eager to help when necessary. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

        Besides, everyone likes to be appreciated. Sure, it’s their job to do this work, but life is nicer when people say “please” and “thank you” and “well done!” even for things that are required.

        1. Jamie*

          Most IT people (and some of us are women) help people because it’s our jobs and we do so in order of the importance of the problem to the business.

          If you work with people, in any department, who are better co-workers and more responsive because you bribe them with food or are nice to them…that’s not okay.

          I’m not saying it’s wrong to be nice or bake…it’s a lovely gesture. And yes, if your car needs to be shoveled out or you have a flat tire you will probably get more assistance then I would – who isn’t as solicitous. That’s fine – but if it is a necessary part of making sure people respond to you on work issues – wow.

          I wasn’t going to respond again – but I am kind of sensitive to the urban myth that IT people disperse help and knowledge based on their personal whims…it’s a pervasive sentiment and it’s wrong. I’ve yet to see an overstaffed IT department, so the only way that makes sense is either they are withholding help unless they like you, or they are moving you to the head of the queue over more urgent matters because they like you.

          Either way those people should be replaced with people who know how to triage.

          1. BC*

            I could give a crap WHY a member of another department is helping me. They’re helping me. I’m getting what I want. And if it helps to get me what I want by bringing in brownies and/or being friendly to otherwise difficult people, then so be it. The bottom line is, I’M GETTING WHAT I NEED.

            You should try it, Jamie.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think Jamie’s point is that it shouldn’t take that in order to get people to be responsive (not that it’s not an effective strategy when you’re on the receiving end of unresponsiveness). She’s right about that — if that’s the only or best way to get what you need from a colleague, there’s a problem that’s worth addressing at a higher level. But I don’t think she’s disputing that that method works if you choose to use it.

              1. BC*

                Yeah, it shouldn’t. But this is the real world, in which people respond more often to baked goods, apparently. Who cares? It’s not my issue to take to a higher level. I have a job to do, and info I need to do it. If an Entenmann’s cake is going to make that info come to me faster, so be it. If the employee is that shitty, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time, anyway….

        2. jmkenrick*

          I’m with Jamie on this one. I would be annoyed if someone came over to my desk instead of sending me an e-mail. I don’t need fruit plates to get my job done…and if you do need to bake brownies to get what you want done in a timely manner, your office has serious problems that need to be addressed. (Unless you’re a dessert catering company, I guess.)

          Also – at many big companies, that isn’t feasible. I work in San Francisco. I can’t just swing by the desks of my colleagues in London – it’s even difficult to schedule a call with the time differences. Bottom line is, people need to be responsive to e-mails.

          1. Esra*

            I completely agree. Emails are easy to track and refer back to and don’t interrupt tasks. Coming over to my desk and asking for something to be done usually ends with me asking: “Would you mind sending me that in an email?”

  4. Jamie*

    I see nothing wrong with cc’ing the powers that be on the second (or later) requests for information.

    You are trying to do your job, people who need excessive follow up slow down the efficiency of everything. CC’ing the supervisors makes it their problem in that they need to address why the lack of responsiveness of their people is causing bottlenecks.

  5. lizzie*

    I’m a huge fan of cc’ing when it’s relevant. But if you only cc for negative emails, that’s what comes off as passive aggressive to me. I try to keep my boss in on all communication between me and clients she should know of and all communication between me and coworkers that she should be aware of. When I first started, I wasn’t following that policy and I wound up having to explain situations and backtrack through email to explain sticky situations in communication. I think it’s a good policy all around to cc on things that are relevant, but like I said…when you only do it for tricky, snitchy situations, that says “I don’t trust you.”

    1. Jamie*

      Good point. I always cc on positive feedback – if something was awesome enough for me to compliment their supervisor should know, too.

      For the negative stuff I see it as an escalation. I have never done it on the first request, or even second…and I won’t do it if it’s trivial.

      But if someone’s lack of response is bottle-necking a task for which I’m accountable what’s the alternative? I’m not going to look incompetent for missing a deadline and I’m certainly not going to waste time chasing people down.

      If you don’t want a cc’ed email it’s easy to avoid – respond.

        1. Jamie*

          I agree that frequent occurrences need to be addressed head-on – because something that needs to change to increase productivity.

          I was just referring to the crisis mode of trying to get something done, people need to do that they have to to get a response. Once the smoke clears dealing with the root cause is next on the agenda.

  6. JT*

    Lizzie and Jamie make great points.

    Note, the OP said “professional school within a very large private university.” Making them pay attention with gifts of fruit? Really?

    1. Long Time Admin*

      I think those commenters think that the OP is a woman. Frankly, I’m surprised this bunch didn’t suggest that OP bake brownies for the slackers.

        1. BC*

          Same here. It’s the gesture. Brownies, candy, a “thank you” email, whatever. The point is the same. I take the time to express appreciation, and it always yields positive results. Call it bribing, call it insincerity, call it whatever. But it gets me the info that I need, when I need it. So the gestures are totally worth it.

    2. AvonLady*

      Longtime reader here, but first time commenter (and mostly because of the fruit plate suggestion). I don’t mean to pile on, but just want to give some context as I work in what sounds like a similar setting (large private university).

      Depending on how large the OP’s university is, the bureaucracy involved in that setting can be enormous. In my case, any of the shared departments they describe (IT, buildings & grounds) have entirely separate offices in different parts of campus. It’s not as simple as just walking up a floor to visit their department.

      On top of that, the bureaucracy is often set up for a reason, i.e., they don’t WANT you stopping by the office and delivering requests in person, which is why they have the departmental email in the first place (to say nothing of the fact that you might not even know who the appropriate contact person is). That doesn’t absolve them from not responding in a timely fashion, but I know in my office, I would be much better off going to my supervisor than circumnavigating the accepted protocol.

      All that being said, I would never CC *their* supervisors on an email to resolve an issue. That’s just cold.

  7. Christine*

    Another great thread that I could write a novel about! lol. I have dealt with slow or non-responsiveness in just about every job, especially in my current volunteer assignment with a state agency.

    Question though – what if I email only Jane with my questions, then Jane replies with a “cc” to Jim, the division director to whom Jane reports? (not real names)

    @Dave – Great post and excellent points to keep in mind.

  8. Juniper*

    Ah, yes, the “cc tattle”!

    I usually give it one or two rounds of non-responsiveness, then if there’s still no headway it becomes necessary.

    1. Marie*

      It’s not tattling – if a co-worker does not respond, then the situation needs to be rectified, which often entails informing supervisors of the non-responsiveness. C’est la vie.

  9. GeekChic*

    Bribing me with stuff (food or otherwise) makes me think that the person doing the bribing is asking me to do something against policy or is asking me to treat them “better” than everyone else. It definitely doesn’t make me feel more positive toward the person or their requests.

    I do my job because IT’S MY JOB – not because I’m bribed. Suggesting otherwise tends to tick me off.

    1. Jamie*

      Beautifully put.

      I think that’s what bothers me about the practice. It’s not that it doesn’t work with some people, I’m sure it does, but it’s the inherent implication that the order in which I attend to things is arbitrary. The inference that my queue is based on anything other than priority based on the business is insulting.

  10. Letter Writer*

    Hi all, I’m the original letter writer! Thank you for all of your comments (and thanks of course to AAM for posting my question)!

    A few responses/clarifications.

    One, AvonLady, it sounds like your university is similar to mine. We have multiple campuses and probably a thousand employees (if not more, and that’s not even counting our teaching hospital, etc.). And while I’m sure no one really meant it this way, it’s a little insulting to suggest I should take my own personal time outside of work to bake brownies for someone who won’t give me the time of day while we’re on the clock. I also feel like that’s a way to get preferential treatment, not to get someone to do the job they are being paid to do.

    Also, I wanted to clarify that I’m not looking to be bumped to the head of the line or anything (as many have noted, departments that serve multiple constituencies have many priorities). I’m looking for a response, even if that response is “this will take several weeks as we are busy with more pressing matters.”

    And a final update – I sent my original question in 10 days ago, and we are still trying to get this done!

    Thanks again, everyone, for your comments.

    1. BC*

      Again, the brownies example is just that – an EXAMPLE. No one is suggesting you all get in touch with your inner Betty Crockers and whip up some treats every time you need info from another department.

      For those of you who don’t need this particular type of “incentive” – good for you for doing your job and being so responsive. But those of you who find the idea of going out of your way to do something nice for someone who is seemingly non-responsive, or hostile, or generally a pain in the ass to work with – you’re missing the point. Of COURSE you’re taking time out of your day to do it. That’s the point. Of COURSE it’s not necessary. That’s the point. And you know what? It works 99% of the time.

      And for that 1% of the time when it doesn’t work? Then you email the employee and cc his/her manager.

  11. Lina*

    Sometimes a quick phone call can do wonders. Right after emailing the department call and say, ‘I have emailed you, please respond…’.

    You only need to call a few times to get them to understand that you need a response to every email promptly!

    1. Mike C.*

      That’s a great way to have your priorities moved to the back of line!

      You really think that if they don’t have time to email you back right away they’ll have time to run to the phone for a little chat about the item that just appeared in their mailbox? Do you think you’re that important that you can make a coworker drop whatever it is that they are doing so they can pick up the phone and talk to you?

      What a great way to become known as the idiot that has to confirm every email with a phone call.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I agree. I worked with someone who used to do this and I finally told him plainly, “Please stop calling me after you send an email. Pick one communication method and assume that it will work.” (And if it doesn’t work, then you change methods, but you don’t use two at once.)

        1. Lina*

          I’m talking about a response to OP’s situation when she has sent many, many emails with no response. Send one last email and call on the phone. This is a ‘hail mary’ move, not common practice.

          I think people misunderstood what I was suggesting, sorry. I don’t like being annoying either…

      2. Jamie*

        I agree with Mike – calling or stopping by to tell someone that you just emailed them has to be in the top five of annoying co-worker behavior.

        When this happens to me I explain to them the function of email…that when they send it to me I actually receive it and can read everything they just wrote…it’s amazing.

        My favorite? Calling or stopping by to tell me you sent me an email, but it’s not urgent so whenever I can get to it is fine. Well – talk about a waste of an interruption.

  12. Anonymous*

    Yeah, that’s the most annoying thing in the world. I know you emailed me. Give me a chance to actually read the email and respond. That kind of behavior is sure to make me *not* respond….

    1. Lina*

      But you are someone who responds to emails. This department has someone/some people who either don’t understand or don’t respect emails.

      This happens a lot in the workplace. Some people don’t respond to emails but will answer your question on the phone or in person. You just need to know what’s the best way to communicate with the person.

  13. Anon.*

    In this particular case, OP stated “colleague of mine had been trying REPEATEDLY to contact one of these departments to set up a TIME-SENSITIVE TRAINING for some NEW EMPLOYEES.

    Key words in the OP’s email:

    Yeh, I’m not stopping by with brownies and kissing ass. I’m cc’ing whoever will get the dept in question to respond – like they are supposed to – in a timely matter.

  14. I let it go*

    Here is what struck me first off about this situation. The person trying to set up the, yes, time sensitive, training, sent it to a department email address. That means it’s a generic email address. It sounds like THAT department might not have a designated person to watch and monitor that department (generic) email account on a daily basis.
    As someone who used to manage a corporate email box, I would sometimes call to follow up on missing info, only to learn the person sent it to my PERSONAL email account. Monitoring more than one email address really is time consuming and challenging.
    I’m not sure if the OP finally got a response by cc’ing bosses and supervisors, so much as by emailing as SPECIFIC PERSON. I think that that will almost always result in a more timely response than by emailing a department/generic address.
    The problem will never go away, because it is not your job to ensure that someone in the other department daily monitors and checks the department email account. So one possible solution in the future may be to ask for the NAME of a specific person to contact in regards to setting up the training.
    If you do go the route of cc’ing supervisor’s, I would mention that “I’ve sent several emails (dated, x, y,z) to the department mailbox without response. To whom should I be sending my future correspondence on this topic?”

  15. Cassie*

    I’ve ran into the same problem just recently (I also work at a university, in an admin position). A neighboring dept is hosting a function, and they are using one of our meeting rooms. We don’t have wi-fi in the room (needed for the event), so I’ve asked an IT person in the neighbor dept to help set up the wireless router (the guy did this for us previously, for another one of their events).

    I sent an email to this guy back in August. No response. I sent a follow-up a couple of weeks later. Still nothing. Just early this week, I sent another email (copying one of the profs in that dept) – still nothing. That prof asked me how the arrangements were going – I told him the truth, that I hadn’t been able to get a response from the IT guy. The prof said he would ask the IT guy directly.

    So a couple of days go by, the prof sends an email to the IT guy (and cc’s me) to please get back to me on the request. Then on Friday, another IT guy emails me back and says to ask campus IT to do it. The tone was essentially – it’s not our problem, you deal with it yourself.

    I’m not going to try to bribe the IT people – I guess I will just have to try to set up the network myself (something that would take them about 5 minutes, but hopefully will only take me a couple of days at most – that’s what Google is for!). Campus IT can’t help me because they won’t set up the type of network we need (I asked them the last time).

    I’ll tell the prof what happened and if he reports it back to the IT person’s boss, so be it. This is for an event for THEIR dept, not my own. I’m doing you guys a favor for nothing. And you can’t even respond to the first, second or third email. Come to think of it, it took me a couple of unsuccessful emails for the earlier event and it wasn’t until I notified the prof in that situation, that the IT guy actually got around to helping me. And again, it was for an event in that dept.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Cassie, tell your boss you’re having this problem and ask her to intervene. If I were your boss, I would not be pleased to learn that you spent a huge amount of your own time trying to do this yourself, instead of coming to me for help resolving it!

      1. Cassie*

        Oh, I wish it were that easy! My boss is a professor in my dept. He has no interaction with the other dept (for this event, at least – he knows I’m helping out, but he’s not involved). Furthermore, my boss expects me to get things done (he tends to delegate everything) – I guess it’s because I usually find a way for everything to work out smoothly (if I can’t get the appropriate person to do something, I’ll do it myself). I think I’ve spoiled him!

        I think I will go back to the prof in the other dept and ask him to intervene – since he is in their dept (and it is their dept’s event), he has a vested interest in this event going off without a hitch. Plus, he would be able to go directly to their boss.

  16. Emily*

    I’ve had a manager ask me to CC her on every email I send. Every. Email. I Send. At first, I figured she wanted to be in the loop because I was new, but after a couple of weeks, I checked in to see if she wanted me to keep the CC’ing up to that extent, and she confirmed. I kept following up on the matter periodically for six months (“I don’t want to flood your inbox.” “It’s my job to keep some of this stuff off your desk.” “I think I’ve really gotten the hang of this, but I’ll come to you if I have any questions.”), and she still said, “Just go ahead and CC me; I can always delete the email!” She never went so far as to check my sent mail folder, but if she hadn’t received an email from me in a few hours (perhaps I worked on an independent project, and then walked over to someone’s desk or office to talk about something, not to avoid email but rather to engage in face-to-face contact with my new coworkers, and then maybe I went to lunch, so several hours would go by), she’d remind me about the CCing the next time we spoke. Obviously, this person was a control freak, but I write all this to verify that CCing higher-ups for no apparent reason will drive a wedge between you and your peers. Despite my efforts to make face-to-face contact, both social and work-related, that didn’t have to be documented, I was a complete outcast in that office. Nobody trusted me, and I couldn’t really blame them. I never stood a chance!

  17. Anonymous*

    Speaking about CCing. Is it common practice in management for a boss to have all the employee emails CCed to him/her without the employees knowing? Is that even legal?

      1. Anonymous*

        yeah I found out that my boss is doing that the other day and I am not sure how I feel about that especially since me and my co-workers were not aware of that before.

  18. Receptionista*

    I have a similar problem where I work. I am the receptionist at a large company, and every time a certain coworker emails me something she needs from me (make a folder, a label, etc. ) she cc’s the team leader. If it were a problem that I wasn’t doing my job, I could understand her position. It just shows HER lack of professionalism and petty work habits.

    1. Jamie*

      Is she new? Just playing devil’s advocate, but I always cut new people slack on these kind of things since they tend to carry over habits from previous workplaces…and if they come from a crazy micromanaging place it can take them a while to get used to more reasonable methods.

      It also could be she was spoken to regarding her own follow up and she’s ccing as an FYI so her manager knows she’s doing her job.

      Or she could be totally petty – but there are non-spiteful reasons people do this.

  19. Credit*

    What if I want to take credit for my own work (ideas and suggestions);
    wherein I am facing the situation where someone else takes credit for my work. What if I want to CC as a proof of communication so no-one can deny what they have written when I am asking for my rights..

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