I shared a complaint about a coworker with her manager — and then she shared my complaint with that person

A reader writes:

I forwarded a voicemail to a VP of my company (I’m not her direct report) as she is the supervisor of another employee who often is very, very delayed in responding to things. The voicemail was basically complaining about this employee who is delayed, so I mentioned in the forward that this is not the first time this happened and implied that something should be done about it. But then she forwarded the message, including my own portion, directly to that employee.

Can or should I do anything regarding, what I think, is a completely inappropriate action by the VP?

Well, you can politely point out to her that you didn’t intend for your portion of the message to be shared with the employee, by saying something like, “Yikes, I didn’t mean for my portion of that message to be shared with Jane!”

That might get the point across — but you can’t really take her to task for it, since you didn’t ask her not to share it, and if you don’t specify that a colleague can’t do that, you should assume that they might. After all, that’s often the easiest way for managers to raise issues with employees — by being able to share that they’re hearing complaints (in this case, about the fact that you were seeing a pattern beyond that particular incident) — so if you don’t want them to, you should be clear about that.

It’s true that managers should get into the general habit of checking whether potentially sensitive things can be shared before forwarding anything. (For example, I’ll often just say something like, “Is it okay with I share this with Cecil?” before sharing.) But it’s also not outrageous that a manager might share a work-related communication with an employee — which brings us back to you needing to be clear from the start if that’s not okay for them to do.

There are some cases where I think managers should just assume messages aren’t meant to be shared — like if you’d sounded really frustrated or spoken about Jane in a way that was obvious you didn’t intend for her ears. But if your messages was just dry and factual, well, it’s pretty reasonable for a manager to want to share that and to expect to be able to.

Regardless, in the future, I’d preface things that you don’t want shared with something like, “Please don’t share this part of the message with Jane,” or “I’m writing this less diplomatically than I would if I were writing for Jane’s eyes — let me know if you need me to turn this into something sharable,” or so forth.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Dawn*

    I don’t necessarily think it’s “inappropriate” more than it’s probably not the greatest management tactic. I can see the VP sending along the voicemails to the person in question and going “hey what’s the deal with this” without realizing the potential for fallout/bad feelings/he-said she-said.

    Also, in my experience it’s always always ALWAYS better to have these kinds of conversations in person and not commit anything to writing/recording unless it’s necessary, for reasons seen here. Things get taken out of context quite frequently when they’re reduced to a few lines of text or a little bit of audio.

    1. The IT Manager*

      +1 Alison’s advice is spot on. Think about it. You forwarded someone else’s VM. The VP did the same to you. Unless you asked the VP not to forward it or you got really inappropriate, he’s just basically doing the same thing you did. I understand you are probably feeling embaressed, LW, but I think you’re being too harsh on the VP.

    2. catsAreCool*

      “it’s always always ALWAYS better to have these kinds of conversations in person and not commit anything to writing/recording unless it’s necessary, for reasons seen here.” This!

  2. sunny-dee*

    One thought — did you ask the person who made the original voicemail if it was okay to forward it? If not, then it may be for the same reason the VP didn’t ask you. Like, it could be an easy and effective way to present the problem to the person and there was nothing terrible (like bad words or a harsh tone) in the message itself.

  3. Ashley K.*

    Personally, I write every single email I send from my company account as if anyone in the company were going to read it. Anything that can’t be diplomatically communicated in text belongs in a live conversation, not email.

    It’s not always possible to speak in person, of course, which leads me back to rules of email #1: If you send it, it’s possible anyone will see it.

    1. AMG*

      This one. Things get around at my company like I’ve never seen. Not that they are bad or inappropriate, but things that were intended for a smaller, interdepartmental audience can find their way to a very large audience quickly. I always assume my emails are going out to God-knows-where.

    2. Coffee, Please*

      Agreed! I have written an email to my boss regarding a different department which was then forwarded to that department manager. I was surprised and a bit embarrassed. My boss assured me that what I had written was factual and professional. She said that that is generally her first step in dealing with these kind of issues.

      Now I just assume that anything I record or write will be shared with those I am talking about.

    3. KimmieSue*

      Ashley K. – I’m learning this myself! I have an extremely informal relationship with most of my internal customers/colleagues.

    4. Hannah*

      Came to say this. The idea of saying “I didn’t polish this so please don’t share it with the person” is fine in theory but it counts on the other person to have tact or not to make mistakes. I would always assume the worst and polish any email I sent, with the assumption that it could wind up being forwarded to pretty much anyone.

      1. jag*

        I can trust my manager to do not share something if I ask her – but I have to give her the heads up. She doesn’t have time to check every little thing.

        Also, only being “diplomatic” in writing is a good way to not be able to have clear discussions via email. Maybe that’ll work in a small office with everyone in the same time zone, but in a global organization, even a not very big one, that’s a handicap.

    5. Jamie*

      This. I can sometimes express more candid frustration or say things less delicately to others in person when discussing issues, but in email nothing that would bother me if read in court or by the people involved.

    6. Ashley K.*

      I should add that this goes for recorded conversation of any kind – including voicemail!

    7. Fee*

      And don’t just assume it will stay within your company either!

      I used to write responses to colleagues explaining how they could solve a problem for a customer – which I discovered some people would then just forward on directly to that customer, third-person references and all. Thank God there was nothing rude or controversial in them, but my tone and language would be different when emailing a customer, plus I’d have explained things in a way that makes more sense for someone not actually working in the company. I was pretty shocked that people thought nothing of it.

  4. Bend & Snap*

    Stuff gets forwarded in my company all the time–sensitive or not, calling someone out or not. I never, ever assume something I send is going to stay private. It’s a good rule of thumb.

  5. Artemesia*

    I don’t understand people like this VP. I worked for a college Dean who would ask me about potential alternatives to dealing with an unusual request by a student. The first time, I gave a couple of options explaining that they violated norms of the organization and so it would have to be a high priority to go that way and it might have larger consequences — he sent the whole message to the student i.e. all that ‘backstage’ stuff. I was very careful after that to never get creative when he wanted a solution to a problem.

    1. Kelly L.*

      This is a peeve of mine too. It’s resulted in me, instead, turning into the peeve from a few days ago, when I send the super-diplomatic email to somebody and then show up at their desk a minute later with the whole story.

      1. Artemesia*

        Yes I learned when working for Mr. No Judgment Big Shot to always do this in person — sending a note that I have some options then talk to him. He blythely shared highly personal communications and forwarded stuff routinely that clearly was not meant for any eyes but his.

    2. jag*

      “I don’t understand people like this VP. ”

      He’s super busy and doesn’t have time to second-guess this.

  6. puddin*

    This sounds like lazy management to me. Rather than having a conversation about the issue with the employee in question, just forward the message and hope the employee changes.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wouldn’t assume that. They may have had a conversation, but she forwarded the message for context and to explain how she knew about it.

      1. puddin*

        I meant the manager discussing the delay of work with that late work employee, not the OP. Sorry I was not clear.

        1. sunny-dee*

          Well, it may not be lazy at all. Part of my job is taking customer feedback and trying to come up with ways to address their issues. Sometimes, I can tell a team that we need to do X to address Y, but sometimes it’s just useful to forward an email or survey result or support case and illustrate the problems a customer was having. It’s like a snapshot.

          It could well be that the VP wanted to show that the behavior was having a real affect and to discuss the problem in that frame.

          1. Beezus*

            Yes. Hearing about a problem in the voice (literally this time!) of the person affected by the problem can have a different impact than hearing about it from a manager or customer-facing person, and it can be a nice punctuation point to underscore a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          No, that’s what I meant too. The manager very well may have talked with the late work employee but shared the message to provide context.

            1. fposte*

              I am Bob’s boss. You forward me a voicemail containing a complaint that Bob’s a slacker and dropped basketballs, soccer balls, and baseballs. I send this to Bob and say “Bob, please come to talk to me about this issue at 2.” And then Bob and I talk.

              Forwarding the email is *a* response but it isn’t necessarily the only response.

  7. Colette*

    Forwarding the message doesn’t seem out of line to me. Yes, it would have been nice if she’d given the OP a heads up first, but it’s more likely to result in an improvement than saying “I’m hearing complaints that you’re not responding quickly enough” without any context about what the complaints are and who they are coming from. (When the statement is too general, it’s hard to come up with a specific solution.) If the message had been heated or personal, she shouldn’t have forwarded it, but I don’t see an issue with forwarding a factual message.

  8. NickelandDime*

    I don’t like people that do this – just forward voicemails and emails without any thought as to whether that should be done, or addressed some other way.

    As a result, I make it a point to never do this.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Likewise to both of these.
        Speak as if the whole company is listening and write as if the whole company is reading.

        I have worked for companies where saying, “I need pens”, has caused me more problems and headaches than I want to describe here. I had to learn to monitor every. single. thing. I say.
        It’s too bad, I could have done a lot more work if I was not so worried about getting through the next five minutes.

  9. nm*

    Our phone system only forwards the voicemails, not the messages you add. Could be a simple mistake!

    1. TCO*

      I was wondering this, too–could it be that the VP didn’t realize/remember she was forwarding OP’s remarks. A lot of people don’t use their voicemail much these days and might not realize how those more obscure features work. The end result remains the same, but it might help OP be less upset to consider that the problem may have arisen from ignorance, not disrespect or bad management.

  10. voyager1*

    If you forward or send it, you pretty much own it. I think what the VP did was pretty lazy but sending a VM like that comes off as a little lazy too. I get people do it usually because they are tired X has happened by Bob for the 17th time. But still it is a little lazy. I like what the poster above said about writing emails that will be read by anyone. It is good advice.

  11. Professional Merchandiser*

    I used to have a boss that would do that; forward a message (even one marked private) if you had a complaint about anyone, and THEN would forward THEIR (usually) angry response back to you. Luckily, she wasn’t my boss for long.

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