my staff are sending too many personal emails to each other during the day

A reader writes:

I have a couple of employees who are using their time and company resources during work to communicate with each other and sending personal emails to one another during work hours. What is the best way to address this without alienating them? It seems to be ongoing throughout the day and is affecting their work.

Well, coworkers emailing each other during the work day is pretty normal, even when it’s not strictly work-related. That in and of itself isn’t a real problem.

If it’s excessive to the point that it’s affecting their work, that’s an issue — but in that case, the issue is their work and their productivity, not the fact that they’re emailing each other.

So, focus on that. Be direct with each person involved that you’re concerned that you’re not seeing the quality or quantity of work that you’d like to be seeing. As part of that conversation, you can certainly mention something like, “I’ve noticed that you spend a lot of time emailing with Imogen and Fergus during the day, and that might be part of the problem. Can you pull back on that and see if it helps?” But again, that shouldn’t be the main thrust of the message — the main message is “I’m seeing issues X and Y in your work, so let’s figure out how to solve them.”

The reason that you should focus on that and not the emailing itself is because ultimately it’s the work that matters. If they stopped the emailing but nothing changed about their work, you’d still have concerns, right? And if they were performing at a high level, you presumably wouldn’t care if they’re doing some chatting at the same time.

Some managers hear that and think, “Well, it’s knowing about all this emailing that makes me think that they’re not using their time well — if they have time for so much emailing, don’t they have time to be more productive as well?” And that’s not a crazy line of thought — but even then, the answer isn’t “make them stop emailing.” If you’re concerned that they have large swaths of time that they’re not using well, address that. It’s fine to say something like, “Hey, I’ve noticed you’re spending a lot of time chatting with Imogen and Fergus, and I want to be transparent with you that it’s made me wonder if we could be using your time better.”

You might hear a response that changes your thinking — for instance, that they’re chatting with each other while they wait for some process to finish running and that there’s nothing especially productive they can do with that time. You might hear that the emailing is happening while they’re eating lunch at their desks. Or, maybe not — maybe you’ll hear that they didn’t really realize how much time they were spending on it. Either way, it’s a useful conversation to have so that you’re all on the same page and you’re not worrying about something that they don’t realize is causing concern.

{ 103 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    Out of curiosity, how do you know who they’re emailing? Are you looking over their shoulders? Or reading their emails? Either one, while allowable, seems unnecessarily nosy when the real issue is productivity.

    Socialization on its own isn’t a bad thing – in fact its great for teams to bond. My team chats and laughs a lot through the day – they’re also really tight knit, each lunch together, and work exceptionally well together. Its one of their strengths so I don’t really tell them to quit the merry-making and get back to work, unless they’re behind on projects.

    1. MaryMary*

      Agreed. While most people realize on some level that their work email isn’t private, your employees are going to be defensive and feel like their privacy has been intruded on, even if you are managing a legitimate performance issue. It will make a difficult conversation even more volatile if you begin the conversation by talking about the amount they email each other. Alison’s advice is great: focus on the performance/productivity issue, not the emailing.

    2. Joey*

      If it’s affecting performance it would be perfectly reasonable to see if you can find out why. Why are you so quick to assume the op just likes to hover over shoulders for no apparent reason?

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        It’s a reasonable question to ask how the OP would know, though. Without standing over the shoulders of my staff, I don’t know how I would know that it was excessively personal emails impacting performance.

        1. Joey*

          Well if I was concerned about someone’s performance I might check on them unannounced if I suspected they weren’t managing their time effectively. And if theyre minimizing windows or putting down their iPhone everytime I walk in I might ask what they’re working on. What would be wrong with that?

          1. Katie the Fed*

            Yes, but there’s a level of detail between “I notice you minimize windows when I walk up” or “I notice you spend a lot of time on your phone” and knowing the precise kinds of shenanigans that are going on.

      2. De Minimis*

        I think it’s just odd to be concerned about e-mail between co-workers. It seems more unreasonable and controlling than it would be if the OP was just worried about employee internet time in general.

    1. Nerd Girl*

      I wonder if she had an HR rep bully her way onto all of the employees computers to read their email. ;)

    2. danr*

      It could be from general conversations where the teams is talking about emails and the manager realizes that she hasn’t gotten any.

  2. AnotherAnon*

    At my former job, my boss had very strict written policies about no personal computer use during the workday – no computer games, no Youtube, no sports sites, no blogs, internet browsing that wasn’t work-related, no Facebook or other social media, etc. At this workplace, we were expected to furnish our own laptops as well (which we were allowed to take home at the end of the day). Most of us complied in general (though there certainly ways of getting around this – feed readers allowed me to still read AAM and other blogs!). In general, though, she didn’t enforce this policy for people whose productivity wasn’t a problem. But, for a few people who weren’t productive and were blatantly violating this policy, she actually had their ethernet connection terminated and instructed them to not bring their laptops to work anymore (they instead had to use 1-2 shared computers in a separate room, which wasn’t the end of the world since most of our work was not done on computers, but still…).

    1. TL -*

      My workplace is BYOL (except for me, because of space reasons and the work I do) and I would hate, hate, hate being told I can’t visit a website on my own personal computer.

      1. Gene*

        It may be your computer, but it’s the company’s connection and bandwidth. Now, if you’re using your own OTA data plan, your argument wins.

        1. Anonsie*

          It’s just so infantilizing to make policies like this on the grounds that “it’s our stuff we make the rules.” That’s just arbitrary policy making and all it’s going to do is breed discontent.

          When I take a break at work, I want to read the news and my regular blogs (ahem). If I was told that I wasn’t allowed to do this even on my unpaid lunch break on the grounds that it’s their computer/connection/building in which I’m sitting/whathaveyou, that really feels like playground logic coming in where it doesn’t belong. What’s the constructive purpose of not giving people leeway on their breaks? Especially when it’s quite literally your own time if you’re not paid for them.

          1. ThursdaysGeek*

            We’re blocked from a lot of sites (youtube, facebook, web email), and not just while we’re working. And it’s not because we’re little kids that can’t be trusted, it’s because it makes security much more manageable. Since they provide the computers and it’s their business that is being safeguarded, why is that a problem?

            1. De Minimis*

              Even a lot of government agencies allow employees to do some level of personal web browsing on their own time…..though I’ve heard others are more strict.

              For us most social media is blocked, along with most message boards and anything with “blog” in the URL. A lot of the time, though, what determines if a site is allowed or not has more to do with its URL and formatting. YouTube I think used to be blocked but works some of the time now, although I.T. has advised us that streaming media is against policy.

              There is not a lot of logic that goes into it, I clicked on a news story the other day that was blocked because it had something to do with an incident at a Hooters restaurant. The word “hooters” triggered the web blocker as “adult material.” And by typing it I’ve probably made this page off limits for me from now on….

              1. Kelly L.*

                I had a friend who had a few co-workers wasting a lot of time during the day in chat. So they blocked all kinds of sites just because they had a chat feature. There were legitimate things they needed to do web searches for, and they were stuck doing them on Bing* because all the other search engines had been blocked.

                And the thing was, it was only a handful of employees, and they were related. So it was a situation that might well have been fixable by talking to the particular people.

                *Disclaimer: I have no idea whether Bing has a search engine now This was a while back.

              2. Anonsie*

                Where I work they don’t filter for content, but they don’t allow streaming or games. Which is fine by me (although every time they say “we don’t have the bandwidth for that” I feel like I just jumped out of Jumanji. What year is it?!?!) but the games filter also blocks sites talking about games, which means I can’t ever read reviews on IGN or Mashable or whatever. Which is a little annoying but it’s not like it’s a god-given right for me to be able to read literally anything I want at lunch, so *shrug*. I vastly prefer disallowed content being blocked to a blanket “no personal use” policy.

                1. Windchime*

                  Having limited bandwith is a true thing, and it doesn’t mean it’s 1989 in the server room. We have several fiber connections, but we also have hundreds of employees and if they are all trying to stream video, it means that internal traffic is blocked and physicians can’t access the medical record of the patient they are trying to see.

                  Here is an example (that I love using, because– Seahawks!): When the Seahawks won the Big Game earlier this year, there was a victory parade in downtown Seattle. Many, many employees pulled up the news sites where the parade was being streamed live, and IT finally had to shut down access to the three big newssites here in town; otherwise, work couldn’t be done and that’s really what we are all here for.

                  I surf and read my blogs periodically throughout the day. But there is no reason for me (or anyone else) to be chewing up bandwith on our personal social media sites from our workstations. There are a couple of computers in the lunchroom that are completely unblocked and people often use those on their breaks for personal stuff.

                2. hayling*

                  Wouldn’t blocking streaming mean that you couldn’t watch training videos, recorded webinars, etc?

                3. Cath in Canada*

                  My organisations’s split over two sites a few blocks apart, and we use more bandwidth sending data back and forth than the University of British Columbia a few miles away uses on their whole (HUGE) campus. Bandwidth is a genuine problem here – streaming isn’t actually blocked but it’s highly discouraged. When we were all watching the Olympic hockey earlier this year our data transfer apparently slowed to a crawl!

                4. Anonsie*

                  We have a lot of approved training videos, recorded meetings, etc that are inside the company network.

                5. De Minimis*

                  For our agency, games are one of the things that are absolutely forbidden, similar to adult material.

                  The content filter isn’t as strict about it, although it has something about “entertainment” that sometimes triggers the web blocker. Some of the book oriented sites will set it off, as well as some articles/sites regarding TV [even Wikipedia articles covering certain shows will set it off] Yet there appears to be absolutely no restriction on or, which you would think would be prime candidates for blocking.

              3. MaryMary*

                When I worked at OldJob, all social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr…) were blocked, as well as other sites that used a lot of bandwidth, like YouTube. Then our PR and Communication people had a big campaign where they wanted us to add all those little social media buttons to our email signature. We had to tell that no one was adding the buttons because we looked stupid on the occasions when a client did comment on an article or video we posted, and we couldn’t look at the content ourselves. Magically, one day we could all access social media, and there was a renewed push to publicize our content.

              4. Koko*

                Yes, this is one of my minor peeves with my employer. They have net nanny software installed that blocks us from visiting certain websites, even when we’re using our laptops at home on our personal internet connection. I get that it’s for security purposes so I don’t make a stink, but what bugs me about it is how crappy the filter is at actually distinguishing harmless content from harmful content. The “Savage Love” sex and dating advice column is blocked under category “Adult: Explicit/Sexual Content” and while he speaks in frank terms about sex, it’s hardly pornography and The Stranger’s website is not exactly a den of Trojan viruses the way a porn site would be. Most of the meme-hosting sites and things like are also blocked as “Adult: Explicit/Sexual Content” probably because one meme or one video scandalized someone at some point.

        2. jordanjay29*

          I find that argument difficult to fathom when one considers the positive side-effects on morale (and thus a boost to productivity) that can occur when employees are able to do a bit of surfing/streaming at work. There are certainly legitimate security concerns for some employers, but the ones mainly concerned about productivity are probably taking an overly-aggressive approach to this. Finding other ways to reduce time wasting and improve productivity would be more useful than a blanket policy against personal ‘net usage.

          For me, my current employer disallows streaming media while we’re connected to our clients’ VPN. That’s probably a prudent decision more than productive, as the VPN is located in another state and makes for a slow connection as is. What makes it worse is that the work is done on remote computers over the VPN, so any hiccup in the network makes the mouse/keyboard lag and productivity literally falls from not being able to control the computers. Most personal and ‘fun’ websites are blocked via the client’s VPN, too, so the stipulation is probably more of the clients’ than my employer’s.

      2. AnotherAnon*

        Yeah, it was sometimes difficult for me to resist the urge to see if there were updates on things I was following online, but in a way, the no-personal-use policy improved my ability to focus on my work and be productive. If something online that was non-work-related was really important, I would probably remember it later and check it after work. (There were other very authoritarian things about this job/this boss that I didn’t like, but I actually didn’t really mind the computer policy.)

        I think we often fall into the tendency of being easily distracted and seeking instant gratification with how we use our laptops and phones these days. At the same time I was working at this job, I was also pursuing a graduate degree, and I would go to my classes with just a pencil, notebook, and lecture printouts, prepared to focus 100% on the lecture. I would invariably see a number of my classmates spending the majority of the lecture time on their phones texting, on their laptops browsing Facebook, on ESPN, on retail websites, etc. It’s hard to resist the temptation when it’s right there and you aren’t used to not letting yourself do those things!

        1. Molly*

          I’m very prone to goofing off; given a little free time, I WILL fall into an internet link spiral and not come up for hours. I know it’s been a problem for me in the past. I was actually really up front with my manager about it during the interview process, because I wanted her to know that for me it’s a symptom of not enough work to do — not a symptom of putting off work that needs doing. I like to feel a certain amount of pressure in my job – just enough, not too much. Too little, and I figure it’s time to check out movie reviews.

          I probably wouldn’t have risked that under different circumstances, though. This was an internal promotion interview, and I already had a strong reputation as a go-getter in the company. Now, if I have internet time, I send my boss a link to anything interesting I find… and in response, she sends me more work to do. :)

          1. jordanjay29*

            “Now, if I have internet time, I send my boss a link to anything interesting I find… and in response, she sends me more work to do. :)”

            Do anything you can to keep that boss, she’s a winner. I love seeing people who know how to manage rather than those who just think they do.

  3. Jubilance*

    This strikes me as a manager who is focused on the wrong thing – if your team’s productivity isn’t suffering, why do you care that they are emailing each other? And how do you even know this?

    Do you want to regulate every aspect of your team’s workday or do you want a happy, productive team? Cause something like this would be a huge turnoff to me, if my manager came to me with this. As long as I’m getting my work done, this shouldn’t matter.

    1. Jeanne*

      I agree with you. To me this sounds like a micromanager. They want to control every second. If the work is getting done, this is a really, really small price to pay for happy employees. Happy employees can even be more productive because they like working there. Focusing on this will alienate people. You will lose good performers.

      Of course if no work is getting done then take the advice about talking to them.

      1. Anna*

        But as I thought about it more, I wondered if she had something to compare it to. Does she have the information like “It used to take you X number of days to complete this report, but I’ve noticed the last two you’ve filed have taken you Y number of days.” Because when you say she does THINK it’s being affected, that might be a perception thing (which is important) but it would be better if she could give concrete examples.

        1. Anonsie*

          Yeah, or it could be a general assumption. I’ve had managers whose perception of “impacting work” was not entirely in line with what you might expect. In a massive cataloging project I had a colleague who made one mistake (misclassifying one object as a different similar kind of object) and the manager saw it during her extensive re-checking later that day. It was the first issue we’d had in months and thousands of records. She was so furious, every single person on the team got an individual lecture about work ethic and the offending party was immediately reassigned.

          1. Anna*

            And that is a ridiculous reaction, especially for a project with that many components. Chances are really good there are tens (probably hundreds) of misclassifications she DID NOT see, so is the screw up on her for not seeing it or the employee for making it? And really, there is no way to avoid those sorts of errors. Scientific research has seen this countless times simply because of the massive amount of samples being catalogued. So, in this, your manager sucks.

      2. LawBee*

        My first thought on this letter was “did the OP notice a decline in work product and then realize there was a lot of intra-office personal email he doesn’t approve of, or did the OP notice a lot of intra-office personal email he doesn’t approve of, and then see a decline in work product?”

        Basically, some people are heads-down, churn through the workday, don’t talk to me people. Some people need little breaks through out the day. I do a TON of boring reading and doc review, and yeah – I need my little breaks throughout the day to give my brain a rest. If I didn’t have this, I’d be wandering the halls, reading a book (which would be a LOT more of a time-suck), hanging out with the smokers outside, you name it. At least the email thing is something that can be unobtrusive.

        OP, I agree with Alison. If the work product is the problem, focus on that. The email thing will probably die down anyway, if your employees have to reset their work focus.

    2. Claire*

      The last line makes it clear OP does think their work is being affected though. Which is why the focus should be on that.

    3. mirror*

      Yes! Just today a co-worker needed to use my computer for a 5 min task so I ask another co-worker about his Thanksgiving plans while I’m waiting and not one minute later Boss walks out in her usual “I hear you talking about non-work related things so I’m going to walk out quickly and with purpose, interrupt your conversation, and tell you to do any random thing so you stop talking.” What did she tell me to do? Help another co-worker pack a box…like, put 5 items in a medium-sized box and tape it up. A 5 year old could do it. There was no way I could help without getting in the way so I just stood there and watched him….

      She does this a lot and it is SO annoying. I’m a high performer in a job with constant turnover (because it’s not a very glamorous or well-paying job). Am I completing everything on time or ahead of schedule, and going above and beyond all the time? Yes? Then relax, lady!

  4. Orangepanda*

    I email with my co-workers a lot! It’s good to keep in mind how quick email is. Some emails only take 30 seconds. So while my co-workers and I have a ton of “back and forth” – it might account for less than 10-15 minutes. And it’s usually done when we are transitioning between clients/projects and we are on email anyway.

  5. ARG*

    Does anyone thing that today’s earlier post and this post could be related?
    *Someone from HR went through my personal email*
    *I just found out that my employees are sending personal emails during company time.*

  6. David Lewis*

    Fantastic answer Alison!

    Focus on your employees’ results, not their methods. Engage in a conversation with them. Show them the way. Enlighten them. If productivity is not an issue, then let it go.

  7. Joey*

    Come on folks, chill on the op. I just don’t see that she’s trying to nitpick personal emails regardless of performance. She said it affects performance which makes it a legit concern. It’s a whole lot easier to address a performance issue when you have a good idea of how time’s being wasted. I suspect that’s why she mentioned it in the first place.

    1. Ms Enthusiasm*

      I agree, I don’t think it is fair to assume the OP is a micromanager. I sit right by a girl who obviously spends a lot of time sending personal emails and instant messages. I don’t hover over her, you can see it from 10 feel away. And it does affect her work. I think it is a touchy subject to try to address with people – I’ve been on the manager side of it. You don’t want to seem nitpicky about emails but sometimes too much is too much.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree — I think people are getting too focused on that and coming down hard on the OP without reason. It’s a short letter; we don’t have a ton of information to go on. But there are plenty of legitimate ways that a manager might realize her staff is spending a lot of time on personal emailing. It’s not villainous to realize that and worry about it.

      Also, it’s easy to say “focus on their work output” as I did in my answer, but it’s not so black and white that she should be criticized for asking the question and worrying about this. There are lots of jobs where it’s not about producing X widgets in Y time, which gives you an easy judge of output. In many jobs, it’s totally reasonable to wonder, “hmmm, what more might she be getting done if she were actually focused on work more than she seems to be?”

      Sometimes I think people drastically underestimate how hard this stuff is to navigate well. It’s easy to criticize from the sidelines, but it’s tough to make these kinds of calls.

      1. Amy*

        Why aren’t these people in the same room talking with each other rather than e-mailing? Is there a rule about no meetings? Is management eavesdropping and butting into things said aloud? Could productivity be improved by revamping organizational structure so people don’t have to e-mail and can get on with things in real-time?

        1. Windchime*

          I think they’re emailing because it’s about personal stuff. We often do that in my room; if I want to say something to someone who sits right next to me that I don’t want the whole room to hear, then I send an email (or an IM if that person has theirs turned on).

          1. De Minimis*

            Email is vastly more efficient most of the time. If you share an office with someone it’s easier to just talk with them, but otherwise I think e-mail is much better.

        2. Nerdling*

          Even sitting in the same massive room as all my local coworkers, there are times when it’s easier/more convenient/quieter to send an IM or an email.

  8. HR Manager*

    The OP writes that this is ‘affecting their work’ — it would be helpful to know how. Are they not getting stuff done, by constantly missing deadlines, getting details wrong, or something else? And how do we know that it is the emailing that is the problem.

    There are some people who overdo it. If the reason an employee is submitting something late or riddles with errors because “s/he didn’t have time,” then calling out the excessive personal emails (assuming this is confirmed, and not an assumption) may be the legit thing to do.

    This should be brought up in 1-on-1 situations, when the employee is submitting (or not submitting) the work. I don’t think this should be brought up as a problem with the whole team.

    1. Joey*

      Please. If the op says its affecting work can we trust the op that it is? And certainly excessive personal email isn’t helping the situation which makes it a perfectly reasonable issue to raise as part of a performance problem.

      1. JB*

        Because it’s not uncommon for managers to assume that something is affecting employees’ work when it’s something the manager doesn’t like? I don’t think we should assume the manager is wrong, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the manager know it’s affecting their work or just assumes it. I don’t read the comments here today to be piling on the OP, just questioning whether the OP is right. People have criticized managers in general who have blanket bans without reason, but people haven’t been assuming the OP is one of them.

        1. JB*

          For the record, I agree that we’re sometimes quick to pile on an OP, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.

      2. HR Manager*

        The know “how” part is to offer the best advice – not question whether the manager is right or not. After all – give appropriate, specific feedback when possible, right? I don’t think telling everyone you are emailing too much is helpful, as this will indeed sound micromanaging. I think – you are constantly missing deadlines and it’s not being helped by the 2 hours I see you spending on personal emails, is helpful and more direct.

    2. Allison*

      Agreed. Does “affecting their work” mean what you outlined – work that needs to be done isn’t getting done – or does it simply mean that the employees aren’t heads-down, giving 110%, huffing and puffing, with steam coming out of their ears, every second of the day?

  9. CreationEdge*

    The more an employer limits my ability to use technology communicate with coworkers, the higher my job dissatisfaction. Removing or harshly limiting emails and IMs is a sign of poor management and a lack of trust in employees (that someone felt were trustworthy enough to be a part of the business!)

    If you can’t trust your employees to communicate and/or to be productive, then you’ve got a different fundamental issue with the work environment.

    1. SerfinUSA*

      The more I am micromanaged, the less I will do, and I will actively look for ways to carve out personal time during the workday. If I’m allowed to manage my own time and workload, I often go the extra mile when circumstances call for it, rather than worry more about clockwatching.

      1. Ms Enthusiasm*

        I honestly think that is a crappy attitude to have. I know there are cases when micromanaging can be extreme and horrible. But I think it is wrong to purposely do less work just because you think you are being micromanaged?? I say grown up a little bit. Your boss is in charge so follow their rules (if hopefully they aren’t crazy). Do the best work you can do and that is how you earn trust.

        1. Ellie A.*

          I don’t know; I’m with SerfinUSA on this one. One of the reasons I like my current job so much is because I feel like I’m valued as a professional and my judgement is trusted. In a past job where I was micromanaged, I felt like my supervisor did not trust me and assumed I was a) stupid and b) lazy. Feeling like your boss sees you this way makes you feel that way — at least it did for me. It was less that I was purposefully, spitefully, and intentionally doing less work and goofing off more — it was more that I was demoralized and, as a result, didn’t have the willpower to put any extra oomph or effort into my work. It became a vicious spiral — the more I was micromanaged, the less I did.

          1. Joey*

            I know a lot of managers that think how you react when things don’t go your way the best way to measure a person’s character.

            1. Ellie A.*

              I think there’s a difference between things not going your way and working for a poor manager whose policies promote terrible office morale. I tried my best to keep a positive attitude, but it was difficult. I think struggling under those conditions is pretty normal.

              I also don’t think any of this is a commentary on anybody’s character, manager or employee. I think it’s basic human nature.

            2. PoorDecisions101*

              Depends if you respect your manager and care what they think. Luckily I’ve found better work within a couple of months when I’ve been in these sorts of situations, though it seems like an eternity, and in my opinion (especially after mass exoduses) the ones who remain behind are the poor performers with no options.

        2. Koko*

          It’s also self-sabotaging. You’re going to have other jobs, other managers. Letting one bad manager hamper your performance is only going to hold you back in your career. When you go on a job interview and can only point to good-enough performance without being able to point to the kind of accomplishments that require going above-and-beyond, “My boss was a micromanager so I didn’t feel motivated to work any harder,” isn’t going to impress the interviewer.

          1. Ellie A.*

            I agree with this. It is self-sabotaging. I’m not advocating this kind of behavior; I just think it’s understandable.

          2. SerfinUSA*

            Only I’m way past worrying about a career path and more concerned with bringing home the income my household requires, in a way that causes me the least amount of hassle. I’ve done my time as a bright-eyed company gal, and am deep in state-workerdom for my final push to retirement.

            I have owned successful businesses, managed departments, climbed the corporate ladder, etc. I have a lot of experience and skills in my repertoire now, and don’t need a nanny minding my workplace habits. What I need is to be left alone to do what my employer needs done at an extremely high level of performance. If I’m treated like a naughty child because of a poor manager’s personal issues, there really isn’t any incentive for me to do more than the minimum. It’s a bad ROI for me at this stage in my life.

            Luckily people in my department were asked to give feedback on our managers a few years ago, and luckily that feedback was taken seriously. People who are high performers are now able to work unhindered, and actually have a good level of support from our formerly micromanagey boss. Had that not changed I would have taken my expertise elsewhere rather than continue my passive-aggressive resistance, but I still believe it is silly to give more than you get, especially when dealing with non-family, non-household situations. Living through a few economic downturns teaches good lessons about what can happen when you hook your soul to a company wagon.

        3. Anna*

          The problem with micromanaging is that managers who think it’s the perfect tool tend to find more mistakes (valid or otherwise). When you’re worried that everything you do will be criticized, you’re either going to go over everything with a fine tooth comb, which will naturally decrease output because you’re reviewing work over and over, OR you might just end up doing less work since it doesn’t feel like anything you do matters anyway. Very rarely (in my experience) is this a conscious decision.

    2. Joey*

      Except that’s not the case here. when it’s affecting performance it’s good management to help employees identify how they are being inefficient.

      1. Anna*

        Noooo…You’re using one of the most inefficient management methods out there to point out inefficiency? That seems counterintuitive. Micro management hurts managers too. If you’re sitting on top of your employees, how are you getting your other work done?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t think what Joey is describing is micromanagement. Micromanagement is dictating how every little detail of work be done. This is collaborating with an employee to figure out where problems are.

  10. Scott M*

    Yes, focus on the work instead of the email. I know it’s harder to measure productivity, but that’s part of the job of being a manager.

  11. Michele*

    I agree with Allison. Especially the last paragraph. I had a program that I had to use at my last job that I could literally NOT do anything else while I ran a report. Depending on the day that report could take 2 minutes up to 15 minutes to run. I tried to run it when I left to run get my lunch or knew I could work on something that did not require my computer but there were times where I just had to sit and not do anything. It was so frustrating.

  12. eemmzz*

    I think it’s always good to remember that people cannot be fully productive 100% of the time. These emails are probably welcome mental breaks for these employees and encourages team bonding.

    If you feel that there a genuine performance issue for your team then you need to find the root cause. To be honest with you I doubt the issue is caused by a few emails being exchanged between co-workers on a day to day basis. Before trying to embargo non-work related emails try digging a little deeper into your team’s processes, work load, skill utilization, etc. Are their skills being used effectively? Is work being adequately delegated? Do you have the right tools for the right job? Are the team being motivated enough? I would look at these before blaming emails.

  13. Eva*

    AAM, as a long-time daily reader, I really enjoyed this particular post and would like to suggest adding it to your Best of AAM list if you’re still updating that. I especially like how skillfully you manage to disarm any defensiveness a manager (any manager reading the post, not just the OP) might feel about being called out for focusing too much on the personal emailing itself and how you make it easy for them to instead start thinking about how it’s affecting the employees’ productivity. I feel I’ve learned a lot from you over the years about tactful and yet straightforward communication because of posts like this one. Thank you for that!

  14. anon for this*

    I wish more supervisors focused on productivity, like Alison suggests, and not behaviors. I got dinged in my review last year for spending too much time emailing – work-related necessary emails, no less. I have the highest productivity rate and accuracy rate in the company, and yet my boss focused on this. It really chafed me to hear her say that my output of work was “exceptional” and the best on our team, but that I really needed to spend less time on email.

    Could I be even more productive if I never sent email? Well, sure… and I’d be yet MORE productive if I didn’t stop to eat or go to the bathroom! We are not robots. (and again: WORK. RELATED. EMAILS.)

    1. Joey*

      On the flip side you can always ask “I’m not sure I understand. Is it impacting my work somehow?”

      I’m just saying because many supervisors tend to focus on fixing the symptoms a lot and don’t always step back to grasp whether the juice is worth the squeeze.

      1. Joey*

        And fwiw how you get your job done (behaviors) is frequently just as important at what you get done (performance). Just because you produce doesn’t mean you’re the ideal employee.

        1. Illini02*

          I think that depends on the job and manager. There are some jobs where it really is strictly about perfrmance output. Some jobs, even if they are like that, the manager likes certain behavior. The problem is that the managers ideal way for the job to get done doesn’t always line up with how the employee works best to maximize their performance. I’ve had manage who tried to “help” me improve, although I was already a high performer. Well, doing it their way just just not how I was comfortable, and in trying to do it that way made me worse because I was always second guessing things and just not feeling it. I went back to my way and my results improved as well.

        2. PoorDecisions101*

          Yeah, I probably wouldn’t work well with you.

          Then again I half suspect my managers are less than enthused with me but keep me around because I save the company a lot of money and there would be a big knowledge hole to replace. I do realise if I escalate the desire to get rid of me may be greater than the cash, but I wouldn’t devalue the worth of being useful.

          It may be I’m still terribly disgruntled after our last round of lay offs.

  15. long time reader first time poster*

    I’d be looking for a new job if my boss told me I couldn’t email my colleagues, or that I was emailing them too much. The last place I want to work is a nanny state.

  16. Illini02*

    Add me to the chorus who thinks OP is focusing on the wrong thing here. We don’t know what the job is or how it really affects their output. Sure, I suppose its possible that the workers are just spending all day every day emailing one liners to each other. I think its more likely that the OP has an idea that x amount of emails is too much, because maybe its too much for HER. She is focusing on that behavior, when maybe the real problem is any number of other things. I’d just discuss that their performance is suffering, and work with them to figure out ways to improve it. If you still happen to notice that nothing they are trying is working, and they are still doing “too much” emailing, then bring it up

  17. SuzyQ*

    Thanks for this answer. I once left a job because my manager was obsessed with/jealous of my interest in other aspects of the organization and went out of her way to block me from engaging in any “outside” tasks (seeking to get experience in other areas that could eventually help me in my career) or even conversations. It seemed totally fine for me to chitchat about my weekend with a coworker for 30 minutes, but she considered 30 minutes spent assisting with something that might expand my professional horizons down the line a huge threat and violation. Her conversations with me were never framed as “You need to do XYZ in your existing job duties better/you are neglecting ABC task” (which would have been totally fine and appropriate!) it was “you are NOT allowed to do these other things (unspoken message: or have any ambition beyond this role even though everyone knows there is no future for promotion here.)”

    Focus on what you DO want your employees to do, that is what is important.

  18. Outside*

    This is a perfect example of how valuable getting Alison’s perspective is. Most of us on the ‘managed’ side here are fuming at the ‘micromanagement’ but Alison’s (& Joey’s etc) side tell us how its perceived by the bosses. Good to know, however much we may disagree.

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