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.

{ 72 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. Jo

    I apologise for heading off topic, but is anyone else really struggling with AAM as a site at the mo? It has been killing my PC for a while with steady messages about a script running slow and then having to restart the browser. I thought it was my PC, but just got a brand new one and same issue! I can only browse on a tablet right now. Fair enough if just me! :)

    1. IT Kat

      I’ve browsed on two different computers and my iPhone, no issues (except the mobile ad issues a while back but those seem to have been corrected).

      What web browser are you using? That may be the problem more than the computer or the website…

      1. Jo

        I’m using Firefox (with ad blockers, although they are not doing much here!) but have also tried IE and chrome. Tablet uses Safari with less struggle. Seems it’s not just me though, I’ll stick with the tablet for now! Thanks :)

        1. ConstructionHR

          Firefox user here, no issues.

          Have you changed out the winter air out of your computer?

    2. Kelly L.

      Yeah, I think the current crop of ads are a little too high-tech for my version of my browser of my version of Flash or something like that. It’ll be slow, slow, slooooowwww until finally the ad just gives up and crashes, and then the rest of the page goes back to normal speed.

      1. Margali

        That’s exactly what was happening for me on Firefox. Doesn’t seem to be an issue on Chrome.

    3. dawbs

      yup, and the ad at the top right will re-load it’s annoying video and I’ll be whisked from comment #497 back up to the top of the page, and lose my place.

      (happens both on chrome and firefox)

    4. HigherEd Admin

      Yes! I’ve been having this problem off and on for a few weeks. I read AAM on Firefox on my work PC, which admittedly needs some updates (I don’t have permission to update it myself), so that may be the issue for me.

    5. GigglyPuff

      Yes, the video ads seem to make everything run slower. And I’ve been getting Shockwave Flash crashes in Chrome multiple times a day on the site. I did go in and disable it in Chrome…but forgot that at work we’re not able to save browser preferences, so each day gets reset. :p

    6. The IT Manager

      Yes. The ads got bad again. For me its only noticeable on my work computer, but an ad or ads will want to open as a local site and I get 10 or 20 security warning boxes asking me if I will allow it. Sometimes I just give up trying to read AAM.

      It’s not noticeable from my personal devices probably because they have less security setting.

    7. cv

      Yes! My computer is old and creaky so it’s always tough to diagnose problems, but this site has been making my browser (Chrome) seize up and sometimes outright crash off and on lately.

      1. Jo

        Thanks everyone. Seems a decent group of us are struggling, but not a universal problem. I’m not computer savvy enough to be able to talk settings (not competently anyway), but as long as I know it’s not just me I’ll at least feel better about it!

    8. CAA

      Yes, it’s the ads. I emailed Alison about it because the problems were mostly the video ads that don’t actually link to anything. I finally gave up after a couple of weeks and downloaded adblock plus to solve it.

    9. Ask a Manager Post author

      Questions for everyone who’s having this issue:

      – Is anyone having it in a browser other than Firefox?

      – Are you using the latest version of whatever browser you’re using?

      1. Jo

        I’m using Firefox 37.0.2, and a similar prob in IE version 11.0.9600.17728. Hope that helps! :)

      2. Eva G.

        I’m only having the issue in Firefox (37.0.2) though admittedly I haven’t tried more than once or twice in another browser (Chrome).

      3. Evan Þ

        I’m periodically having it with the latest version of Internet Explorer. It seems less serious than what Jo’s reporting, though – it only happens occasionally and usually goes away after restarting the browser.

      4. JR

        I’ve found that AAM has been slowing down my browser a lot lately, but I’ve also found that problems seem to be correlated with number of comments, so I’ve been assuming that the ads aren’t the issue.

      5. Ollie

        I’m having the issue in Chrome, version 42.0.2311.90. I get a notification that Shockwave has crashed, and that freezes my entire browser.

        I also notice a lot of the ads are still autoplaying with sound. I’ve had to turn AdBlock back on :(

      6. CAA

        It happens in Chrome, IE 11, Firefox on various computers and networks. All are the latest versions.

      7. whisperingsunbeams

        I’m using Chrome 42.0.2311.90 and it’s so slow. Not to load but to scroll down or comment.

    10. Lurker ._.

      The video ads were slowing down the site for me too (using Firefox), but then I went to the Add-ons Manager and changed Shockwave Flash to “Ask to Activate” (as opposed to “Always Activate”). This disabled the videos and no more slow downs! Your mileage may vary. :)

    11. teclatwig

      On my Samsung tablet, the default browser crashed over and over yesterday, then on Chrome as well. It has behaved on Chrome today.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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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