my boss asked me to log into a coworker’s email to delete a cruel message

A reader writes:

As background, I work for a company with fewer than 10 employees. We all have similar passwords to access both email and the programs we use on a daily basis — think something like the company name followed by our initials. Since it’s such a small group, we each essentially have everyone else’s password. It’s not unheard of for someone to log in to a coworker’s account if they’re out sick or need assistance while traveling, but it’s rare and has always been at the request of the account-holder. (And, FYI, this system was set up by our outsourced IT company, and as much as I hate shared passwords, that’s not the issue I’m writing about.)

A few days ago, the owner/manager of the company, “Fergus,” sent an email out discussing shortcomings of my most junior (in duties, not in age) coworker, “Jane.” He mentioned several specific issues and asked those of us who worked with her to let him know what concerns we had so he’d be fully informed when he sat down to talk with Jane. He ended the email in an uncharacteristically harsh manner, saying something along the lines of, “Jane is a disappointment so far and appears to be a waste of the time and resources we dedicated to training her.” Though he’d intended to send the email only to the two of us who work directly with her, he sent it to the whole office — including Jane.

I serve as the office manager, and as soon as Fergus realized that Jane was on the email he told me to log into her account and delete the message before she saw it. She had the day off, so it’s unlikely she’d have seen it before coming in the next morning. While I have issues with the general idea of accessing someone else’s email to delete messages, in this case it was both a direct request from the owner and, to my mind, the kindest option for Jane, who would have been mortified and hurt see what he’d said. I deleted the email from Jane’s account, and Fergus sent a message to everyone else who had been on the original email telling them that the outsourced IT company had recalled the message, and to please not mention it to Jane as he planned sit down and discuss her performance with her privately.

So, there are a few things here that I’m unsure about. One is the ethics of deleting messages from someone else’s account — not to sabotage or exclude them, but to spare their feelings. Do the good intentions do anything to mitigate the extreme ickiness of accessing a coworker’s email without their knowledge or consent? I’m also a bit torn about Fergus telling everyone else that the IT company had magicked the email away. It’s not totally believable — they usually take hours/days to respond to requests, not minutes — and part of me feels like he should be up-front. But I also understand that the others might panic if they thought Fergus was accessing their emails on the sly. And since I’m the one who actually did it, I worry that if there is any blowback, I’ll be caught up in it. Am I just caught up in small company drama, or are the legitimate concerns here?

You’re caught up in small company drama and there are legitimate concerns here.

Frankly, the biggest concern to me is that Fergus is sending emails saying that an employee is a waste of time. Even if his email had gone only to the people he intended to send it to, that’s a crappy thing to put in an email. There’s no need to be gratuitously nasty about an employee — ever, but especially in writing and especially to her coworkers. It would have been perfectly sufficient for him just to say, “I’d like your input about Jane’s work so far, so that I can incorporate it into feedback I’ll be giving her later this week.” He even could have added, “Please be candid — I know that there have been some problems and I want to make sure that I have a full view of where we are.”

So I’m curious to know how Fergus’s people-management skills are in general. Was this a one-time flub, or is he typically this unkind? If it was a fluke, then fine — but I wonder if it’s part of a pattern.

As for having you remove the email from Jane’s account … yeah, that’s not great. But I agree with you that it’s justifiable since the alternative was letting Jane see an inappropriate and frankly cruel message about her. It’s hard to imagine someone continuing to be comfortable at work after seeing that message went to all of their coworkers. So, icky and uncomfortable, but I have to reluctantly say that it’s better than the alternative.

The part about Fergus telling everyone that the outsourced IT company had recalled the message is just weird, because presumably people are going to see that the message remains in their in-boxes and will know that it’s not true. It also could potentially create problems in the future, if someone else sends an email accidentally and figures that they can just have the IT company recall it.

Plus, handling things that way denied Fergus the ability to address the mess he created head-on, which he really should do. Right now, everyone in your company except Jane has received an awful message about Jane, and Fergus is just … ignoring that? It would be better for him to address what happened (not via email) and say something like, “I’ve made a mistake. I intended to send this to two people who work closely with Jane, and I’m mortified that it happened. No one deserves to have that kind of message about them sent to all their coworkers. When someone is having difficulties, it should be a private matter, and so I’m asking you all to do your best to put this out of your mind so that Jane isn’t at the disadvantage of her coworkers being privy to this kind of discussion. I’ve learned a lesson about not using email this way in the future, and I want to apologize to all of you that it happened.”

And y’all need to get an IT company that believes in real passwords. (Which should be basically any other IT company on the planet.)

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 166 comments… read them below }

  1. Leatherwings*

    Ugh. If I worked for Fergus the Ass, and got the email about Jane, I’d wonder what kind of emails he was writing about me. Not good management.

    1. SuttonK*

      Yeah I agree. That would make me question a lot of things. I’m sorry for the position you got put in OP, that’s terrible.

      1. EddieSherbert*

        I would absolutely think he’s talking about me behind my back (or will the second I mess up)

    2. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I once saw, on a public, shared calendar, an invitation to a meeting. The topic was, “Discuss AvonLady’s performance issues.” If I saw it, anyone could have seen it. When my boss came to me– before this scheduled meeting– to tell me what a great job I’d been doing, I thanked him and then pointed out how humiliating it was to see that on a shared calendar and how I would appreciate it if the meeting’s title would be changed. He apologized, but it had clearly never occurred to him that this would be an issue. I knew he wasn’t the one who set up the meeting, but I should have realized right then just how screwed up that place was.

      Long story short: management that doesn’t avoid things that are THIS obvious (or, worse, thinks they don’t matter, or they’re good for teaching a lesson or some other such bs) is management from which you should run away if you can. And tell Jane so she can run with you.

      1. NW Mossy*

        This is such a common snafu, and one that I’ve seen even very tech-savvy people make. I’ve seen people inadvertently disclose sensitive meeting titles by setting their otherwise private calendar to display details to others, having it show up as a booked meeting for a shared conference room, and by having an admin who doesn’t use locked print when printing out their boss’s schedule.

        My personal best practice is that any time I need to schedule a meeting about a topic that’s confidential or sensitive, I make the title generic and neutral (“Check in” is a favorite) and then follow up with a separate email just to the attendees letting them know the substance.

    3. Fortitude Jones*

      Yeah, same here. If it was a one time thing, I’d be side-eyeing the hell out of him, but if he’s a consistently crap manager (and person – who in the world would think that was an appropriate message to send in the workplace?!) and this is par for the course, that would probably make me start looking to see what else was out there.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      If I received an email like this, it would make me feel slightly paranoid and would undermine my confidence in my boss. But I think what I find most puzzling is that after making this super bad mistake, Fergus kept piling on with additional lies and bad decisions.

      Is it normal for him to deal with personally embarrassing situations in this way? This may have been a one-off experience, but ‘m struggling to understand why his first reaction (as a manager/boss) was to try to cover up a mistake that clearly cannot be covered up, as opposed to doing damage control.

    5. OP*

      I don’t want to excuse Fergus, because it was really bad, but it’s also totally uncharacteristic. Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t think he’s talking crap about each of us behind our backs. That said, it does make me more careful about what I say around the office an in my emails, especially about him.

  2. Jacquelyn*

    I don’t know, I’m still worried that this will get back to Jane since all of her co-workers are privy to the email (and as it is still in their inboxes, one of them could easily show it to her). If that does end up happening, I think Jane will figure out quickly that someone logged into her email to delete it.

    Man, whether she finds out or not, I feel really bad for Jane.

    1. Kate*

      I’d be placing a mental bet with myself that this gets printed out by at least one co-worker who doesn’t particularly like Jane and “left” somewhere visible… Fergus should get the IT team to actually recall and delete the message if possible (fun fact – at my work you can only recall unread messages, so sometimes the function doesn’t work at all!)

      1. Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys*

        I think I would leave it if I liked her and I wasn’t the OP. I understand the OP’s actions and don’t disagree with her deleting the email. I wouldn’t expect a coworker to lose their job for insubordination and would understand the kindness in the action. However, if I were in Jane’s shoes, I’d rather know why everyone suddenly stops talking when I walk into the room. I’d also take it straight to the unemployment office. Jane would be able to win UI benefits in most states with that in hand. Makes for a pretty intolerable workplace/constructive discharge.

        1. A Bug!*

          Yeah, I think there are plenty of reasons rooted in kindness for telling Jane about the e-mail. It’s likely Jane’s going to find out about the e-mail, whether the messenger’s intentions are good or bad.

          OP’s in a no-win situation. What a crappy boss.

      2. Vicki*

        At LastCo we used to get this sort of email “Jane has recalled message “To All re: HR flub”.

        Most of us had never bothered with more than a cursory glance at the original, but now, of course, we’d all rush to our inboxes to find it. Recalling a message only recalls it from the main server. If it’s been read & downloaded/filed to a desktop, it’s not necessarily going to just disappear.

        Better to stick with “never commit to writing anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read on the front page of the NYT.”

    2. BowTiesAreCool*

      I was thinking that someone will probably (accidentally or not) hit “reply all”, and Jane’s email address is on the distribution list…

      1. Jean*

        I can totally see that happening. (And I love your screen name, although David will always be my doctor!)

        1. SebbyGrrl*

          Peter is quickly overtaking David in my book.
          But these days I really see all of the ‘post-modern’ Doctors as excellent in their own way.
          The relationship between Amy & Matt Smith’s Doctor always gives me goose bumps.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      There’s literally no way this won’t get back to Jane (i.e., she’s definitely going to see it). I’m really appalled, and I can’t imagine how i would feel if I saw an email like that from my boss.

    4. OP*

      OP here – it’s been a few weeks since the incident, and I’m reasonable sure that Jane doesn’t know. The few of us who see her regularly would never share it with her, and the guys offsite have their own drama. Some of them have never met Jane in person, so have no real reason to want to either hurt her feelings or spill the “juicy gossip.” It was a huge deal (for a small company) when it happened, but new small company drama is always rolling in. I think the others have largely moved on.

      But yes, if Jane does see it at some point, it won’t be hard for her to figure out what happened. I have my fingers crossed that it doesn’t come to that.

  3. Observer*

    Yes, to everything Allison said.

    And 1000x over on your it company. Best practice is that people set their own passwords, and no one has them. And, yes there should be someone with master access for emergencies, but that person should have two passwords – one with the “master access” and one with the normal access that she uses on a regular basis.

    1. hiptobesquare*

      Generally speaking, IT doesn’t even have the passwords, just the ability to re-set them. It’s much more secure that way. Of course, this depends on your system, the program, blah blah :)

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Or wouldn’t they just remote into their machine to work on something and not even need a password?

        1. hiptobesquare*

          Depends on your system, but that is usually a completely separate thing. But no, IT usually doesn’t need a password to get in.

          I guess I just more meant that there usually are system admins who have the ability to change passwords, as opposed to their being a master password list – especially since most companies require passwords to change ever 60-90 days.

          1. anonderella*

            My boss recently had me go from employee to employee, including contacting via phone all our field guys, and collect their computer passwords. I am the receptionist at my company, and am not usually asked to collect, much less view, such sensitive information, but she had me walking from desk to desk and *writing* them down. I have a non-secured list of scans of all this information on my computer drive as well, which I was told to create.
            This, even though our system also forces us to change passwords every 60-90 days, and most people flat out told me that they changed theirs the moment they gave it to me. I was not indicated to ask anyone how long until they had to change passwords, and it is doubtful anyone would know until they are notified, shortly before it expires. There is no suggestion or protocol to keep me or my boss informed when employees do change passwords.

            Basically, my boss thinks she has a “master password list”, when she had me collect this information – LAST JULY.
            I don’t care, because I have my password written down and taped to the underside of something on my desk – which I know you’re not supposed to do, but I will relish the day when my boss calls me up because she realizes she doesn’t have my password, and I can tell her where she can find it (“up your ass, ya coot.” haaa, jk)

    2. rubyrose*

      I found myself wondering if Fergus instructed the IT company to set up the passwords in the manner they did, instead of IT saying this is how it needed to be done. I’m having a really hard time believing that any system in the last 10 years would be so primitive about password issues. And I’m having a hard time believing that any IT company would be so stupid. Which does beg some questions. How old is this system? Does Fergus have some type of “in” with this company that they would agree to such a stupid request?

      1. Whats In A Name*

        I was thinking along the same lines. Not that he had them set them up that way necessarily, but that the company set everyone up with a temporary password meant to be change, only that message never was conveyed.

        Sometimes when I sign up for a service I get a temporary password that they encourage you to change so no one can discover it, so I could see some version of this happening.

      2. Misc*

        Well, they might have set up the defaults that way, without intending them to be permanent/public, and nobody asked them to be changed/there’s no easy way for individual users to set their own.

      3. The Cosmic Avenger*

        Yes to all this. If you’re using Outlook you can specify people as “delegates” who basically have full access to your email, but you don’t share a password and the original account holder can control delegate access. If you give someone your password, they basically could lock you out of your account at any time. And I *think* there’s an audit trail for delegate activity, although I’ve never used that myself.

        tl;dr version: that’s a lazy and dangerous (and therefore boneheaded) IT policy.

    3. OP*

      Yeah, the password thing drives me nuts. Generally speaking it’s a great place to work (though I know you wouldn’t think so from my letter!), but the password situation is truly mind-boggling. I don’t know if this is something Fergus set up or the IT people, but could easily believe either. But since no one else seems to mind, I haven’t chosen to make it a Big Deal. I just make sure that I am really careful about what I send from my work account, just in case.

      1. fishy*

        Personally, I think it kind of is a Big Deal. That’s terrible security!

        If you want to bring it up in a way that doesn’t make it sound like you don’t trust the other people in your office not to read your email, maybe you could point out that using such obvious passwords would make it easy for people OUTSIDE of your company to break into your accounts.

  4. EA*

    The whole thing just makes me feel uncomfortable ethically. Like you have him asking you to delete the email, then his lying about it to cover himself, not to mention the boundary violating of everyone knowing she isn’t performing well.

    I just… Can’t see this coming from an org that is run well, or honestly from someone who treats people well.

    1. Collarbone High*

      I’m wondering why Fergus didn’t delete the email himself, if everyone knows everyone else’s password. I don’t like that he dragged the LW into his dirty work.

      1. Zona the Great*

        I was thinking the exact same thing. “Oh I could never live with myself for invading someone’s account without permission. But it sounds like you’re willing to, boss. I assume Jane’s account has the same pattern as the rest of us.” and then let him decide to be a scumbag. I honestly think the best thing for Jane would be to see the message. It’s gross and I’d rather know about it if it were me. Similar to a boyfriend badmouthing me behind my back. I’d like to know so I can bail.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I had the same question. But I also think it goes back to his decision to choose the most convoluted way to deal with a mistake (by lying and covering things up), which seem to indicate really poor judgment and a lack of common kindness/decency.

      3. EA*

        So I would assume it is because she is the office manager and he is the owner. She is in admin role- which her boss probably sees as the one who cleans up stuff like this.

      4. OP*

        I should have clarified in my letter, but Fergus had left for the day at that point, so he couldn’t access emails himself. He called me at the office and asked me to handle it.

        I’d like to think that if he had been in the office with me I would have told him to do it himself, but…he’s the owner, and was clearly pretty frustrated that day. It’s cowardly, but I don’t know that I could have told him to do it himself if he had been able.

  5. NK*

    Setting aside the management issues, it was always my understanding that email is basically company property, and the company can handle it as they wish – including accessing employees accounts and reading and deleting emails (assuming they’re not deleting to hide illegal activity). So while it may feel a little icky to other employees that the owner could log into their email, their expectation – even without weak passwords – should be that their work email is not private and they shouldn’t be sending emails they would not want the owner to see.

    1. Emilia Bedelia*

      But in this case, you really can’t “set aside the management issues”. I know that my work email isn’t private, and I conduct myself accordingly. But knowing that someone COULD look at my email, if they really wanted to, is really different from knowing that my manager will log into my email, with no business-critical reason, to delete emails to cover up their poor people management skills. That’s a totally different situation.

      1. NK*

        If this was a common occurrence, sure. But while I don’t think the owner handled the whole thing all that well, I’m sort of sympathetic to this being a large blunder – sending off an email in frustration, and then to the wrong people to boot. The OP said he was being uncharacteristically harsh, so I’m taking that at face value. While I think it’s poor practice to go into people’s emails willy-nilly (even if you have the authority to do so), I don’t see the issue with doing it in this situation. The fact that everyone else saw it and how he handled that is a separate issue, IMO.

        1. Artemesia*

          The boss could have deleted it himself; involving another employee in this is another example of his poor management. If the OP can log in and delete, the boss could have quickly done the same and in fact could have done the same with the other mailboxes that received it in error.

          1. OP*

            I just mentioned this above, and should have in my letter – but Fergus was out of the office and called me to delete the email. He couldn’t access it from offsite. I don’t know if that mitigates the larger issues, but he wasn’t trying to pass the buck – I’m sure he saw it as an IT/tech thing, and I handle IT/tech things when he’s not around.

        2. AD*

          I think that’s missing the point that Alison made, that harsh comments about an employee should be kept out of written communications and certainly Fergus could have and should have used more tactful language in soliciting feedback about Jane.

          The moral of this story isn’t just “your company owns your emails”. That’s a given, and certainly isn’t the issue in this case as it was the company owner himself who sent the offending email.

          1. NK*

            I don’t know that it’s a given, because the OP stated it as one of the issues she was concerned about. My point, which I didn’t clearly state, was that the OP shouldn’t be concerned about her role in deleting the email. It was a legitimate request made from the owner to her as the office manager. There will be lots of discussion about the owner’s role in this, but I feel that OP is in the clear.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I think it’s totally ok for OP to be concerned about deleting the emails, even though I agree that OP did no wrong in this specific situation (particularly since Fergus is her boss, and ultimately, he calls the shots). But I hear you, NK, and I agree that OP should not internalize any blame for Fergus’ bad behavior, although I think it would be reasonable for coworkers to wonder why Fergus enlisted OP in his bad behavior instead of dealing with it himself. This is ethically yucky, even if it’s not completely verboten.

              The fact that email accounts are company property doesn’t mean that all workers should have the expectation that someone will log into their account for the purpose of deleting emails. Having a work culture that supports logging into people’s accounts to mess with their emails can be gaslight-y/crazy-making. I don’t think you’re making that argument, but I think your comments could be (mistakenly) construed that way.

              1. AD*

                The fact that email accounts are company property doesn’t mean that all workers should have the expectation that someone will log into their account for the purpose of deleting emails

                Exactly. The subterfuge here is extremely icky.

              2. NK*

                Oh, accessing emails for the purpose of manipulating/gaslighting is definitely not OK! Thank you for pointing out that my comments could be read that way, because that certainly was not my intention.

                I think the key here is that an email was deleted that was both never intended for Jane, and never received by her. If Jane had read the email and then it mysteriously disappeared, or if it was a different situation where she was expected to have read it and it was deleted prior to her being able to do so, I would not have condoned that at all.

                I do stand by my feeling that in this particular situation, the deletion of the email was OK ethically, both by the owner and the OP. I’m not condoning the fact that it was written in the first place, nor the owner’s subsequent actions. But the deleting of an email that was never intended for Jane, was never read by her, and could only serve to hurt her is something I think the OP doesn’t need to feel bad about.

            2. Tuckerman*

              I see where you’re coming from. But usually there is some sort of protocol for accessing an employee’s account, right? The boss might be violating an internal policy. I think typically someone higher up on the chain of command would do this (and also, actually document the incident and not try to hide it). Employee email may contain personal or confidential information, for example, communication about medical leave or disability accommodations. So ideally the person accessing the email account would already be in the know about those types of things.

              1. OP*

                OP here- there is no internal policy he violated, an no-one higher-up to which I could appeal. Fergus is the manager and the owner of the company. Like many small business, I think, we fly a little bit by the seat of our pants, and don’t have a lot of written policies for anything outside of finance/payroll.

                None of this is great, of course, but there are literally 4 of us in the main office. We don’t need a lot of policies that larger organizations do…but then you hit something like this and wish you had them in place…

            3. Misc*

              It’s not just the access, it’s the obfuscation/unreliability of communication. You have to do whatever your boss says, but you’d still expect your boss not to lie about what they told you to do, even if they’re technically ‘allowed’ to do that.

              1. Misc*

                Or… I guess it’s more like Boss tells A to tell B to do stuff, then lies to B about whether they said that. Ok, fine, there might be a good work reason, but mostly it’s going to be a really bad thing to do.

    2. Mike B.*

      Yeah. There isn’t an ethical issue for the OP at play; it’s the manager’s prerogative to access/delete Jane’s email or instruct others to do so, and it spared her some humiliation.

      As for the management issue, Fergus didn’t handle this at all well, but OP describes the message as “uncharacteristically harsh,” so perhaps this was an anomalous situation and he’ll resolve to be more careful and more diplomatic. It’s a frightening experience to send someone something they shouldn’t see, and people don’t always recover their composure well enough to address it gracefully.

      1. LBK*

        I don’t know if it’s an ethical issue for the OP to have done it at her boss’s command, per se, but there’s certainly an element of not wanting to be involved in something that has icky connotations. I’m not sure what type of quandary that is exactly as I agree it’s not necessarily an ethical one. Dramatic, maybe? Just not wanting to have any part in something that could cause drama?

    3. Joseph*

      Legally, yes. And it’s a good general practice to assume that anything you do on a work computer OR your work wifi can (and is!) being monitored by your company. In fact, most companies usually have either an explicit “technology policy” or a section in the employee handbook which you sign and explicitly agree that the company can monitor everything.
      That said, going in and manually deleting someone’s email is a still an odd and invasive way to handle things.

    4. Hannah*

      I agree, no one should expect that they “own” their work emails, and that is especially true with this company’s weak password scheme. So I don’t think the OP needs to worry about having removed the email. It is scandalous that the manager sent the email to begin with, lied about it being recalled, and it’s also questionable the he didn’t do his own dirty work and delete it himself. It’s also pretty scandalous not to have secure passwords in this day and age. But the OP didn’t do anything scandalous.

    5. Someone*

      I might own the gaslights in my house, but that doesn’t mean there are no concerns if I dim them and then lie to my spouse, saying that never happened and they must be insane.

      Reading emails is very different from modifying them. For example, suppose someone did something illegal and I sent an email protesting that, partly as a CYA, and then they logged onto my account and deleted it. Way out of line.

  6. Me2*

    If everyone knows the passwords to everyone else, couldn’t the owner have deleted the email from everyone else’s computer too? Not sure why Fergus had to involve OP at all.

    1. NK*

      I assumed it was during work hours, and the only reason Jane didn’t see the email was that she was off that day. So there wouldn’t have been time to delete it from everyone else’s account. Not sure why OP was involved though.

    2. TootsNYC*

      Maybe he felt it would be better if he didn’t also end up seeing Jane’s other emails?

      That having a “neutral third party” make a surgical removal would lessen the impact, and prevent a “you hate me and you’re snooping in my email in order to get rid of me” accusation? That the OP wouldn’t have any reason to be accused of going beyond this surgical act?

      1. zora*

        meh, I think that’s giving Fergus a lot of credit for thinking that doesn’t seem to be exhibited in the letter.

        I am thinking more laziness, he’s used to asking other people to do tasks for him.

          1. anonderella*

            I see this argument made a lot on this site, and while I understand its point, its logic seems to not consider those who do have lazy or incompetent bosses – and does slightly smack of authoritarianism, as if all bosses are held so high above their employees as to not have to consider when their own mistakes are … mistakes.
            I know there is danger in applying anecdotal data to broad situations, but it is a basic way to integrate information into patterns, for the point of making better-informed decisions. No one wants to wait until they’re being taken advantage of to have to start avoiding being taken advantage of; for me, and for zora, this pulls at strings we’ve adapted to sense patterns for boss laziness – something that, through our own personal reasoning, we’ve evolved to need to sense.

            So no, no one is saying that the boss is for *sure* a lazy guy. But, we know from this story that he will play fast and loose with his remarks when frustrated, rightly or not, and will lie and sneak around employees to get his way, which might not ring of the most egregious work-crimes, but is certainly an aspect of my boss I’d like to know about before deciding to work for him, or continuing to work for him. The fact that he panicked and drew another, lower-level associate into his mess to clean it up for him also speaks to how he will split-react to [potentially life-changing events for an employee!]. At worst, it was cruel; at best, it was thoughtless and should be addressed with sincerity and humility – and offering Jane the best reference he can provide. I’m sure if he digs **real deep**, he can think of something nice to say, and if not, this situation and/or that boss has more serious issues for letting this get to this point.

          2. zora*

            Um, I think you’re jumping to a conclusion from my comment. I’m not at all saying that all delegation is laziness. In this specific case, he knows he’s doing something kind of weird, otherwise he wouldn’t be trying to cover the whole thing up. So, if he had done it himself there would have been less coverups to deal with, but instead he asked someone else to do it. That specific instance seems like more laziness than some complicated work around to make him less culpable.

            But as the OP said below, it was actually because Fergus had already left for the day and couldn’t do it himself from offsite.

    3. OP*

      Everyone else had read the email – Jane only missed it because she was out. The rest of us would definitely have noticed if such a crazy email suddenly disappeared from our inboxes.

      Also, Fergus had left for the day when he realized the email went to Jane, so he called me at the office to delete it – he couldn’t access the emails. I should have mentioned that in the letter – I hadn’t realized how many people would see him asking me to handle it as being problematic, or more problematic than just the idea of deleting it.

      1. zora*

        I don’t think it makes it more or less problematic. I think people are just speculating, because it seems weird that when you are doing something shady, you would add additional layers of tangled webs for yourself do deal with. So, people are like “huh, why would he do this that and the other thing? This is so crazy!”

        Don’t worry about leaving that out, it’s not super crucial to the issue, people sometimes in the comments are just thinking out loud. It doesn’t really change the core fact that this was icky of him to do, to both you and to Jane, but none of it is your fault.

  7. AMG*

    I wonder if there should be a plan to mitigate what happens when someone tells Jane about the email. They shouldn’t, but you should assume that someone very well could.

  8. TootsNYC*

    I once, in the heat of anger in the middle of the night, left an angry message for a guy who had gone home without telling me or anyone else, and ALSO without passing off to us the project he’d just finished. Like, literally, he completely finished his part, set it on his desk, and left–without telling the person who was waiting to do the step after him, or me (who was watching over the whole thing).

    I was SO pissed. And he’d been just sort of dropping the ball in general, so there was a cumulative annoyance.
    I left him a voicemail.

    The next morning, I raced to the office to delete it before he got in–we didn’t have passwords when accessing voicemail from our phones, so I went into his voicemail and just deleted it (it was the only message, I was certain).

    I then went and fessed up to his boss what I’d done with the voicemail (I also registered a saner, fairer version of my complaint)–I was justifiably angry, but he didn’t deserve to get that blast first thing in the morning, and I was grateful to have the chance to second-guess myself, and stop myself from doing something unfair and hurtful.

    I think it’s good that the boss is going to actually talk to Jane. And I do think it’s OK for a manager to “manage” an email inbox, even retroactively.
    It’s the company’s email; it’s not the U.S. Postal service (where it would actually be illegal to remove mail from someone’s mailbox).

    1. hbc*

      It feels a little different in this case because it went to everyone else, but I still think the email deletion was the right-est of all the things that Fergus did in this mess. There’s a decent chance that Jane will avoid the full force of the email without warning or context, either because word of the email never gets to her (unlikely, I know), Fergus talks with her about performance issues before she reads the email (therefore making it less shocking), and/or someone tells her in general about the email (therefore not seeing the harsh tone and language.)

      So yeah, I think both you and Fergus may have benefited by deleting the message, it was also the best of bad options for the near-recipient.

    2. Mel*

      I’ve been on the other side from someone in your position on this, granted the facts were different in that I didn’t drop the ball like your guy did.

      Late night messages help your employees understand the type of person sending these messages and help them understand if they want to work in a certain environment. Honestly, I now know that I do not like working for people that send off emails at 2AM because these people tend not to control their anger and act very unprofessionally.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        Heh. I worked for a woman once who was this way. She’d come into the office around 8 or 9, spend the entire day socializing, and then finally around 3 or 4 go into her office and start working. So we got a lot of those late night/early morning emails and voice mails.

        After Christmas once, my co-worker came back from taking a few days off and was listening to his messages. I heard him start to splutter and curse — very unusual for him as he was a pretty even tempered guy. He had me listen to 2 voice mails from our boss. The first one was a ranting tirade: “I told you that the only thing you needed to get done before you left on vacation was the revenue analysis, and it isn’t complete! We need to have a serious talk about your ambitions and your desire to work for this company when you get back because this is completely unacceptable!” It went on and on like that for 2 minutes, until she was cut off mid-sentence by the voice mail system. Then 5 minutes later was another message. “Oh. Never mind. I found it.”

        He was so pissed — and rightfully so — but we did laugh and laugh about it. It was a perfect example of how unhinged and irrational she was.

        1. Venus Supreme*

          Bosses who pull the “we need to evaluate your ambitions and your desire to work for this company” card when they’re angry makes my blood boil. OldBoss at ToxicJob pulled that ish on me quite often. Ugh.

  9. Artemesia*

    No way this is not getting to Jane. If this were your good friend, wouldn’t you show her? Fergus has a big mess to clean up and it doesn’t look like he is up to the task. I would not worry about the deletion over much. If Jane actually came to the OP about it, she could just indicate that the boss was mortified and directed her to delete it AND that she needed to take this matter up with the boss. Horror show, this.

    1. the_scientist*

      Seriously, if Fergus truly believes this isn’t going to get back to Jane somehow, I’ve got some ocean-front property in Wyoming to sell him.

      1. Collarbone High*

        All it takes is someone hitting “reply all” (and someone ALWAYS hits “reply all”).

    2. Important Moi*

      Agree with Artemesia, Jane will know. Hopefully Fergus can clean this up.

      Further, Jane is not her good friend. Jane is a colleague…big difference. That’s Okay.

      I personally don’t like the conflation of friendship and colleague. Situations like this make it obvious what is a colleague relationship and what is a friend relationship.

    3. OP*

      Actually, in the couple of weeks since I wrote this, not only has it NOT gotten to Jane, but the whole thing has, to some degree, blown over. Honestly, I think everyone in the office feels badly for Jane and somewhat embarrassed for Fergus (who was an ass here, no doubt, but is generally a nice guy. We were all pretty shocked that he was so unkind, that’s not his MO at all.) I really though there would be more to happen, but I was wrong.

      Since it’s a small group, we all tacitly agreed to drop it, and have moved on to other small company drama, like whether or not it’s fair to have holiday cookies in the office when someone is on a diet, and whose four-month-old yogurt is in the fridge.

  10. AnotherLibrarian*

    One thing I think you also need to consider is how this looks to other coworkers. I would be horrified to see that sort of language in an email from my manager about a colleague. I don’t care how bad someone is at their job. Treating people with respect is super critical to a functional work environment.

    1. TootsNYC*

      well, that damage is already done. But you’re right–this absolutely is something Fergus should have kept in mind.

  11. hiptobesquare*

    FWIW, I work in IT, and recalling messages only works if the person hasn’t opened it, and then not all the time – and ONLY on certain types of configurations. It’s not a hard and fast system.

    Also, there is ZERO need for passwords at this place if everyone knows them anyway. This could be a security nightmare.

    1. Naomi*

      Apart from everyone at the company knowing all the passwords, and the damage that could be done by, say, a disgruntled former employee, having everyone’s passwords in a standard format makes them really easily guessable by an outsider–so yeah, that defeats the whole point of passwords! This is so silly that I’m wondering if there was a miscommunication with the IT company, where those passwords were intended to be temporary and immediately changed by the account holders.

      1. Student*

        There are lots of IT companies that are bad at what they actually do, but good at selling their services to managers with no technical savvy (or the lowest bidder).

        At one company I worked at many years ago, we had a new business manager with no tech knowledge set up a new business system to control all the company’s money in accounts. The new business manager bypassed the company tech department and had some student intern set up the whole thing. The day the system goes live, business manager sends out an announcement email about the system to a commonly-used email list for big announcements. The list includes the entire company, several important people at major competitiors, and several outside stakeholders. The announcement email had details about how to log into your new business account – including the user names and passwords for every single person’s account.

        I confirmed that I was actually able to log into, say, the CEO’s account with the info given. I laughed for a while – the crazy laugh, not the happy laugh – then cried internally a bit, tried to mobilize an emergency response to the debacle, and started cleaning up my resume.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        It’s also totally possible that Fergus instructed the IT company to create this password system.

    2. Jenbug*

      I’m wondering why Fergus DIDN’T try to recall the message. It would have then disappeared from Jane’s inbox since she wasn’t there and anyone else who hadn’t read it yet. He could have followed up with a generic email to everyone saying “I apologize that an email was sent in error. It has been recalled and if you did see it, please keep the contents confidential.” That would have been way less shady.

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        Because the OP says anything they contact IT about typically takes days/weeks. And, as hiptobesquare points out, only works sometimes, even under all the correct circumstances.

        1. Kyrielle*

          But in most systems, it shouldn’t require contacting IT. I can recall a message that I send, from my email program, any time I want.

          To be fair, it depends on the client you’re using and your knowledge of it.

          OP: did you empty the trash? Because my deleted email just goes into Deleted Items and it’s also possible Jane could find it there, if you didn’t make sure it got cleared out of there also. (She’d have no reason to look, of course – until/unless she heard something about the email. Or accidentally deleted something she meant to keep and went to fish it out.)

          1. PK*

            I know in Outlook there is some capability in the client to recover some deleted messages from the server even after they leave the Deleted Items folder as well.

          2. Fleur*

            We use Outlook at my work place, and people frequently recall messages to fix attachments, typos, etc. Every single time, if my client is open, I get a notification of recall. And if my client was closed at the time of recall, I’d get an inbox with both the original message and the recall message.

            I wouldn’t count on the recall function to be discreet since it’s so heavily client based. I think it’s really meant for more innocuous mistakes.

    3. Joseph*

      There are also ways for an end user to set up his Outlook so that not only does it not successfully recall, but actually informs you that John Smith tried to recall the message. Which kind of guarantees that I’m going to read it even more closely – particularly if (as is common!), you then re-send the message with the typo fixed or a different version of the PDF you attached or whatever.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I had an account that did this. I didn’t set it up that way, but it was configured to make it impossible to actually recall a message (and it told you if someone tried to recall it). I never understood why there was a recall function if the settings were configured to disallow it.

        And yes, it always made me want to go back and read the recalled message.

    4. OP*

      Well, Jane hadn’t opened it, so I guess that’s okay? Or do you mean it only works if NO ONE on the email opened it?

      And yes as to the security stuff. It’s a circus, but not one I have any say in. Right now I grin and bear and wait for the day I have enough influence to do something to change it. Sigh.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        OP, I don’t know if this is the right time/place to say this, but I really love that you’ve followed up and clarified so many of these irksome details—thank you!

        1. OP*

          You’re welcome! It’s funny what seems really important to include when you’re writing the letter versus what Alison and the commenters pick up on :)

  12. LadyPhoenix*

    Yeah, Fergus is waving enough red flags than an bullfighter.

    He has no people skills, dishonest, and invasive. I dunno if I would want to work with bim for very long.

  13. Pebbles*

    I am wondering if the email is truly gone from Jane’s account? OP, you said you deleted the email (from her Inbox), but then it goes to the Deleted folder. Was it removed from there or did you do a hard delete from the Inbox? If not, it’s still possible for her to find it, and besides the natural hurt she will be feeling from reading it will also come questions as to how it would have got there.

    1. Oh no, not again*

      If there’s an archive, it may be impossible to delete. I called IT once to get them to delete an email out of my archives because it contained credit card info that someone had sent. They could not delete the email. Whether that was because it would be impossible or because they aren’t allowed to is beyond me.

      1. Pebbles*

        Not sure about removing it from the archives, but you knew of the email and to go ask about it. Jane would (hopefully) not know of the email and wouldn’t accidentally stumble across it in the archives, but she might find it if it’s still in her account somewhere. In any case, there’s still evidence of the email floating around the office in her coworker’s inboxes, which if one of them accidentally hits “Reply All” to tell the manager their thoughts on Jane…

    2. OP*

      I deleted it from the “trash” folder as well – luckily I remembered to do so! It’s possible that there’s an archive copy somewhere, but Jane isn’t very technically savvy, and I doubt she could find it without someone helping her. Since so far, no one has mentioned anything about the message to her (which is sort of surprising, but a huge relief), I don’t think she’d have a reason to go looking.

  14. Jessesgirl72*

    It’s good for everyone to know/remember that any email you send or receive at work belongs to the company, who has the right, and sometimes the legal obligation, to monitor your email and do anything (legal) they want with it, at any time.

    Fergus is an ass, and made so many bad decisions there, BUT it’s in everyone’s best interest to remember that the company should be monitoring your email in some way, and that nothing you use work email for is confidential.

    1. LBK*

      I dunno, this kind of feels like a misapplication of the “company owns your email” principle; it follows the letter of that principle but not the spirit. It’s one thing if you sent or received an email from your work address that your company saw that you didn’t want them to see – then, I agree that you should be reminded that it’s not your own email.

      But to basically say “at any given time you should have no expectation that what you see in your work inbox accurately represents the emails you’ve sent and received from that address, because the company owns it and can do whatever they want on it” creates way too much uncertainty for something that people rely on in order to do their jobs. You shouldn’t have to operate with so little confidence that what you see when you pull up your work email is accurate just because it’s not technically your property.

    2. Alton*

      It may be worth distinguishing, though, between the company owning your email and having the right to access it and your manager having that right. Unless the manager is the owner/CEO, they also have to adhere to any security and IT policies, which may limit who can access accounts. I doubt that’s an issue here, because a company that uses such lax passwords and allows people to let others into their accounts probably doesn’t have very strict policies.

      But at my workplace, it’s drilled into us not to share our passwords with anyone, and if a manager thought there was an issue that necessitated going into an employee’s email, they’d have to go through IT, and IT probably wouldn’t actually give the manager access to the account as a whole. There are a lot of different hierarchies and procedures.

      It depends on the company. The fact that the company, as an entity, has the right to access employees’ email doesn’t automatically mean that they don’t have policies or ethics regarding that, or that it’d be wrong to be disturbed if your manager violated them.

      In this case, the main factor seems to be that the company has created a culture where people know their passwords aren’t secure and that pretty much anyone in the office can access their account.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I’m really glad you raised this distinction, because it does such a great job of articulating why “the company owns your email” principle is a square peg/round hole in this situation.

      2. LBK*

        Yeah, this elaborates on some of what was causing the uneasiness I described above: yes, the company owns your email. But that doesn’t mean that it’s ethical for them to do whatever they want with it.

  15. CBH*

    Fergus handled things wrong and put OP in the hot seat to cover his misdeeds. Let’s say with the right guidance Jane’s performance improves. OP and Jane still need to work together. If this were ever to come out I see a lot of trust issues. I could also see Jane being upset that the whole department knows and in extension that IT was “in” on an issue that really should only been discussed between Jane and her manager.

  16. PK*

    Yea, that email system is ripe for a security issue. I know that’s besides the point but that’s just a nightmare waiting for someone to take advantage of it.

    Ultimately, I agree that while a little icky, it was kinder to remove this from Jane’s box and Fergus really should have addressed the email blunder with everyone else. I think that avoiding talking about it directly is just going to make it easier for other coworkers to tell her.

  17. Laura*

    1. I hope Jane was off for the day because she had interviews set up to move on.
    2. Wouldn’t Fergus have the passwords as well? Why did he want the OP to do the deleting? Is it so he can blame her if Jane finds out and questions him?

    1. RVA Cat*

      Ding ding ding we have a winner!

      Fergus sounds like not only a jerk, but a coward. OP should consider moving on.

    2. OP*

      I should have clarified in the letter – Fergus had left for the day when this went down. He called me to do it because he was on the road and couldn’t access the emails. Which isn’t to say he wouldn’t have asked me if he had been in the office, or that it changes the overall complexion of the issue, but he didn’t ask me to do it just so he wouldn’t get his hands dirty – he literally could not do it himself.

  18. Chickaletta*

    Oooo, it must be small-company-bad-management day. A reminder to us all that just because one has the money and motivation to start a company, does not make a qualified manager make.

  19. Anonymous Educator*

    One other thing to consider, assuming all of these horrible early pieces go according to Fergus’s plans… what happens when an employee talks to the outsourced IT company and says “That was great work you did recalling such-and-such message,” and the IT company says “What? We never did that. In fact, we can’t do that.” That is definitely going to make Fergus look even worse, and the OP won’t be able to stop that, nor will Fergus be able to.

  20. Barney Barnaby*

    “Frankly, the biggest concern to me is that Fergus is sending emails saying that an employee is a waste of time. Even if his email had gone only to the people he intended to send it to, that’s a crappy thing to put in an email. There’s no need to be gratuitously nasty about an employee — ever, but especially in writing and especially to her coworkers.”

    That, and it’s a potential legal nightmare. Emails are discoverable in litigation (and are one of the first things opposing counsel asks for). It’s just stupid to put that kind of thing in an email, let alone an email to the entire office. I’m not an employment attorney, but it seems like an email asking for a list of Jane’s performance problems, not merely an assessment of her performance, could be construed to mean that Fergus is trying to drum up reasons to get rid of her, rather than to accurately assess her performance.

    I’m NOT saying that this even comes close to discrimination, that it was intended to be discriminatory, or even could otherwise be remotely illegal; however, it just seems like Fergus is inviting problems that didn’t have to exist. “Can you please name a time in which you discussed the performance issues of a man with the entire office and called him a disappointment and a waste of time?”

    If you can’t be judicious about what you put into email, and who you send said emails to, out of basic human decency, at least do it out of self-interest. Cheesing off your (potentially departing) employees is stupid.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Eh, I’m not too worried about that element of it. It’s not uncommon when someone is struggling for a manager to make this kind of request to people who work closely with the person, and that isn’t in and of itself a problem.

      1. Barney Barnaby*

        It is needlessly harsh and is asking for one-sided feedback. That might be justified, and it certainly is not a smoking gun in a legal proceeding, but emotionally, it provides an incentive to explore options that might have otherwise not been explored, and frankly, it’s an attorney’s nightmare.

        I’m not an employment attorney, but I am a lawyer who has done a fair amount of litigation, and this is the type of thing that someone defending an action does not want to see. The issue isn’t emailing people who have worked closely with Jane to ask about her performance; it’s soliciting one-sided feedback in a derogatory manner.


        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I still disagree. It’s incredibly common when someone is having performance issues and their coworkers have noted those to ask for more information about those issues. It’s just really, really normal. The issue here is the harsh language that he used in doing it, but not the request itself. (And I bristle at “don’t do this very normal thing because some day somewhere it might help in litigation.” It leads to people being gun-shy when they don’t need to be.)

        2. LBK*

          I think the harsh tone is the issue much more than asking for negative feedback. I can’t see there being concerns about an email along the lines of “I’m planning on having a Come-to-Jesus meeting with Jane this Friday. As someone who’s brought several concerns to me about her performance over the last 6 months, can you write up a quick summary of those issues that I can use as talking points for part of our overall conversation?” That’s also explicitly asking for negative feedback but it’s pretty clearly part of a larger, ongoing history rather than potentially looking like you’re out to get someone.

        3. NW Mossy*

          I’m a bit leery of this argument because it’s something that can scare managers into not giving/soliciting feedback at all or doing a poor job of documenting their coaching/feedback because they’re afraid that they won’t get it exactly right if it ever goes to court.

          That’s actually worse if you’re trying to defend why you terminated someone – the lack of a documented history of giving performance feedback creates a space an ex-employee’s attorney can speculate wildly about ‘the real reason.’ An impolitic email’s not great news, but if it’s one drop in a big bucket of performance feedback, it’s not necessarily going to be a fatal flaw.

    2. CEMgr*

      Very true. Particularly considering the request was not for a neutral assessment, but an explicit and implicit request for negative feedback.

    3. LBK*

      I’ve provided this kind of summary of performance issues for a coworker my manager was trying to fire. He knew generally about the problems he was having because he could see it in periodic QC reviews and when errors got escalated, but he didn’t have the day-to-day relationship I had with her to understand just what was going wrong with her work. He was busy running the department, he didn’t have time to sit and watch her work all day.

      1. LBK*

        Oh – and also I was the one who had raised a lot of those ongoing issues to him, so it made sense for him to come back to me and basically ask for a consolidated version of all the complaints I’d lodged against her.

  21. Anon for this*

    I worked at a large company with tons of security and all the right password protocol, etc… I was still able to call a system administrator in case of emergency and get messages wiped out of somebody’s email box, but possibly only because I was the head of HR. I don’t think they would have done it for just anybody but my point is that the password issue here is not the gating thing for the way this was handled.
    Once I tried to do it to spare feelings when our normally good guy CEO accidentally copied all on a rant about a co-worker but I was too late and the co-worker saw it. I don’t think their relationship ever recovered from that. Yes, Fergus sounds like an ass. The real question is whether he learned anything from the behavior and knows that copying Jane wasn’t the only problem here.

  22. RVA Cat*

    Honestly I think the kindest thing at this point would be to lay Jane off, with severance and a decent reference. Fergus burned the bridge and needs to own up to it.

    1. Important Moi*

      I think that’s extreme.

      Maybe Jane is will to stay (uncomfortably) employed for awhile as opposed to no job?

      1. PK*

        Better to be laid off with serverance than fired completely. The latter looks like where the boss is heading.

  23. Roscoe*

    I’ll be honest I feel like this was a simple mistake (sending an email to more people than you planned) that blew up way to quickly. In him trying to cover his tracks, he made a decisions which was questionable (although I still think it was the more kind thing).

    I think his biggest issue is the tone he put in the email and the words he chose. But as OP said, it was uncharacteristic for him, so I ‘ll just chalk it up to a one time lapse in judgment, nothing more.

  24. Isben Takes Tea*

    This mess just reminds me of stellar advice a coworker gave me (from experience): Never write an email you wouldn’t want to read aloud in a deposition with the subject sitting across from you.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      x100 – I live by this (for email, texts, Facebook, anything that’s written down!).

      And good thing actually – very frustrating conversation with a client recently and I had to ask my manager to step in… manager forwarded my emailed request to client! It was slightly weird buttttt totally fine because I had been very polite about why manager needed to step in.

  25. Anonymous Educator*

    It’s not unheard of for someone to log in to a coworker’s account if they’re out sick or need assistance while traveling, but it’s rare and has always been at the request of the account-holder.

    I’m guessing, based on the whole disastrous setup that the OP’s company is not open to redoing their workflow, but I would highly recommend… redoing it, even if that’s what this horrible outsourced IT company set up for you.

    1. Unique accounts with unique, hard-to-guess pass phrases.
    2. Never share accounts or pass phrases.
    3. Have a dedicated mailbox for generic things (info@nameofcompany, for example) that several people can access.
    4. Set auto-reply away messages when on vacation that indicate “If you need to reach someone right away, contact my co-worker so-and-so” instead of logging in as the away person.
    5. Set up an actual recall-message system. This can be done in Exchange/Outlook if you have that. If you’re using Google Apps, a fake version of this can be set up (it essentially just delays sending the message, giving you a window to abort the send).

    1. TootsNYC*

      also, encourage people to set up message forwarding for when they go on vacation, if it’s at all applicable.

      And set up a way for people to access their email remotely, so they can log in themselves from out of the office if needed.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        While I agree the latter should be able to be set up, it’s also nice to be able to give people real vacations where they aren’t constantly answering emails.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Oh, I agree–but they’re already not “on vacation,” because they’re being consulted about whether something’s in their in box, and whether their colleague can go in and get it.

  26. Student*

    Work email is just that – work’s email. It’s not your personal email. There’s no privacy right to work email, and you should not assume there is or give the appearance or impression that there is.

    It’s like packages you order for your company, not like private personal mail that arrives in your home mailbox – it belongs to the company and you are merely the custodian, even though your personal name may be on the outside of the delivered package (or the email packet, as the case may be).

    You haven’t done something icky by using work email in a way directed by your manager, in keeping with the company’s best interests. You didn’t abuse work email access privileges for private gain or to the detriment of your overall company. Your manager did something boneheaded that you have no personal role in, except that you were asked to help clean it up.

    It’s actually very bad practice to act as if work email is like personal email, beholden to the same assumptions of privacy. Sure, company IT people and managers are not likely to go on random tours of your inbox, and shouldn’t for a variety of management reasons. However, business emails are subject to the needs and obligations of the business first and foremost. When you leave, if somebody thinks you have important docs in your emails, the business might go through them all to find it. The business might archive all your emails when you leave, because storage space is cheap and lots of managers want them available “just in case”. The business might be subject to a lawsuit or criminal investigation where some or all emails may be collected and sorted through. Crazy or bad managers may use email to go on a witch hunt to justify getting rid of employees they don’t like. Many publicly-funded jobs in the US have FOIA obligations for emails.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      All that is true, but the bad actor in this situation is Fergus. Whether the company owns or does not own an email account isn’t really related to whether a company can/should have a policy of deleting its employees’ work-related (or any other) emails.

    2. LBK*

      That’s kind of tangential to the issue here, though. It’s not like the OP went into the coworker’s inbox and saw something she shouldn’t have seen, and thus it raised the question of expectation of privacy. There’s no privacy concerns here, and the “it’s the company’s email” piece is an afterthought to the main problem, which is Fergus doing this in the first place and them being sloppy in covering his tracks.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        Yeah, I agree work is work and personal is personal, but there wasn’t much in the OP’s question about work email being used for personal purposes.

  27. seejay*

    Outlook has the functionality to “recall back” email that’s sent out by the sender, provided the receiver hasn’t opened it yet, but there’s usually a notification that this has been done, and it’s not foolproof. So yeah, someone could cover their butt by claiming that it was recalled through that method and it’s not too difficult, but it’s still a messy mess to be wading through. Boss is a buttface for doing this in the first place.

    It’s also possible that the company who set up the accounts gave them the easy passwords initially as temporary ones expecting them to do the smart thing and have everyone reset them once they all got settled, not expecting them to keep them as permanent?

  28. HR Pro*

    Can the employees (including Jane) look at their email when they are off? I’m wondering if Jane did in fact see it even though she was off that day. If I were Jane, and I had seen it, I would feel very weird about coming back to work. But I mean weird in the sense that I wouldn’t even be sure if I should tell someone that I’d seen it, especially if I then noticed that it was deleted from my account. I’d certainly start looking for a new job, though.

    1. OP*

      We can, in theory, check emails offsite, but it’s not something any of us do. Jane in particular is hourly and cannot do any part of her job from home – her duties rely on a program she needs to be in the office to access. So while it is vaguely possible, it’s really, really unlikely that she saw it.

  29. JLaw*

    There are just so many things wrong here. Firstly, if my manager (or the owner of the business) had a pattern of sending disparaging e-mails about a colleague (and worse still, circulated the e-mail to multiple people) it would give me a pretty negative opinion of the manager/owner. A person who thinks it’s OK to do that to a colleague could just as easily do that to you. I would be looking for a new job pronto. What’s worrying here is that the owner does not seem apologetic about the way he’s behaved at all.

    I don’t blame the OP. The owner made a request that put the OP in a difficult position and the OP really had little choice but to comply. I think that Jane will find out, though. If the whole office knows then she’ll know soon too. I think it’s really awful for Jane to have the whole office privy to that e-mail and the owner’s negative thoughts about her.

    From an IT security point of view. Employees should not be able to access each other’s emails (or IT accounts). They should have their own passwords. The current setup is a disaster waiting to happen. If there was any abuse of an account/e-mail how would you prove that it was the owner of the account who did it, when everyone in the office knows the logon credentials? I would be pretty uncomfortable if my colleagues could access my account/e-mail without there being a paper trail/authorisation. In my workplace, if you need to access someone’s account (and they are not available to grant you delegate access), then you have to complete a form stating the reason access is required and it has to be authorised (and it is only agreed in exceptional circumstances). Colleagues can’t just login to your account/e-mail as and when they please.

  30. OP*

    While you’re not wrong in most of what you say, I do want to clarify that there is no “pattern” of Fergus being disparaging. It was really out of character for him, as he’s usually a great boss/person. Obviously this is not his finest moment, but it is the only time I’ve seen him write something like that and the only time that I know of him accessing emails like this. Certainly there could be a lot of incidents I don’t know about, but this isn’t his usual.

    The idea that we should be more rigorous and thoughtful about accessing coworkers’ accounts is dead on, though.

    1. JLaw*

      The way that your boss reacted though, is a bit of a cause for concern. We’re all human and we can all make mistakes, but it is often how we react to mistakes which is the most telling. I can understand someone writing something in the “heat of the moment” and then later on reflection, regretting it (and expressing that regret), but your boss didn’t seem apologetic about what happened.

      Even if it is true that Jane is not up to scratch, I don’t think any employee deserves to be treated like that. As you’ve said that Fergus’ behaviour was uncharacteristic, hopefully, it was just a one-off.

      1. OP*

        I’m hoping it’s a one-off, too, but it’s definitely made me more aware of how Fergus behaves in general – he’s usually very nice and understanding, but I’m noticing more that when he’s angry – which is rare – he really doesn’t stop to think before he talks/writes/acts. It’s not something that happens frequently enough to make me want to look for another job, but it is helpful to be more aware of it.

    2. seejay*

      I can totally see how a person might be “off” one day and not behaving in a way that you expect, I’ve had coworkers and friends go through weird moments that were really out of character for them and it would catch me off guard, but on the flip side, I had a “friend” that was super nice to the people that were her friends, but a horrible, terrible, awful person to those she disliked. We’re talking about being a genuinely not nice person at all, giving credit to the saying “a nice person who isn’t nice to the waiter isn’t a nice person”. And sure enough, the minute I stood up to her and told her to stop being a terrible person to a friend of mine, she turned a total 180 on me and I became one of the horrible people that she ripped apart and said shitty things about.

      In short, someone who will say absolutely awful things about someone in such a way, behind their back, when they’re *supposed* to be a great person really isn’t that great. Yes, we’re all guilty of not awesome behaviour at times but watch for patterns and also how he treats others and Jane as well. As a boss, he shouldn’t ever be talking about employees that way, even ones he’s having issues with. :/

  31. kbrew*

    Since the company owns the email account, I assume the boss has the right to enter it and change any information in there (just as my company owns my phone and has a right to track the incoming and outgoing information). Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

    On a side note: the boss sounds like a jerk.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      Yes, kbrew – you are wrong.

      Sort of.
      The company CAN track your e-mail; it’s a corporate asset. They can monitor what you do.

      A boss cannot log in under an employee’s ID and impersonate him/her. There are also serious legal complications for a boss changing the contents of e-mails from others that have already been sent. Also forging E-mails by hacking into and using someone else’s account. Even if you’re the boss.

      There are also issues of slander, I’ve seen those, but I’ll leave those ideas up to the lawyers.

  32. Confused Teapot Maker*

    To be perfectly honest, I feel a tad sorry for Fergus on this one. Although what he wrote is, without question, cruel, OP mentioned in the original letter it was uncharacteristic for him (and has mentioned in the comments it wasn’t his usual manner) so I think I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. It feels like he was having an off day, or perhaps had a reason to be on his last straw with Jane, or was tired, or whatever.

    To be frank, I think most people are guilty of snapping every now and again. Fergus was just unfortunate enough to have his ‘snap’ broadcast through a ‘reply all’ snafu, which I think OP handled the best OP could. (Fergus’ behaviour is a tad odd and OTT with the whole recall thing, but again, off day….?). Plus, Fergus is actually intending to talk/has talked to Jane about his concerns and this wasn’t just sending an email around for a gossip session.

    That’s not, of course, to say I think Fergus should have sent an email to this extent. He definitely shouldn’t have done and, if I was OP, I would almost certainly now be worried he wasn’t as nice a person as I had though and perhaps he was saying these things about me too. It’s more to say I can understand the circumstances in which this situation came to be.

  33. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    You’ll remember I once said – “before you play with your smart phone, play it smart.”

    I have been involved in computer security, as part of my duties at several sites, since the late 1970s.

    In those days, I (and others) learned that user-id and password sharing was an absolute NOT. I also learned – contrary to what some have posted here – that there should NEVER be a need to ask someone who is being fired “what’s the password?” because a SMART administration would have at least two – accountable – “super admins”.

    In 1984, I was working for a company that thought all people in a group should use the same password/ID. Two of us – who had come in from the outside – vehemently recommended changing that and were told “Nahh……..”

    Then we had an incident of sabotage under the ID. And although there was a suspected culprit, I could not say it was him – because 16 people in the building at the time were using that ID and password on a single terminal and it could have been any of them.

    I had been involved in e-mail since 1990. I learned that lists are generally a bad thing and to be rarely used, because of incidents such as the one mentioned here. We had a co-worker who was engaging in private, but innocuous conversation about a gynecologic happenstance — intended to be a two-person private convo – but sent to Corp(all). Yep, 700 people learned of the procedure she underwent. In more detail than they wanted to know.

    So before hitting enter – stop, look, listen, and THINK. Anyone using E-mail for this – to discuss an employee’s review or status – is nuts. I’ve been embarrassed a few times myself, but not to any great degree. And issues I wouldn’t want anyone else to see – I wouldn’t e-mail. That’s what the telephone is for.

  34. Just a guy*

    Did the outsource IT company not install the good old Microsoft Exchange? He could’ve easily recalled the message back, even if it was already sent.

  35. Kara Zelle*

    I know I am coming in late to this topic by now, but I wanted to add a couple of things of note since I also work and train in IT.
    In Outlook + Exchange/Office 365 which is one of the most popular mail systems used:
    – end users can recall messages, however, the recall is only truly successful if it hasn’t been read by the recipient and it is unlikely to work reliably if the recipient is outside the organisation (go to your sent folder, open the email you sent, click on the action button, then Recall)
    – end users can also delay e-mails they send by creating a rule for sent items that delays the message by X time before it flies away, which can be neat if you feel that you are prone to do this. It is also an option for an individual e-mail but usually Outlook must be running at the time you set the e-mail to go out.
    – IT can configure meeting rooms to replace the subject, body and remove attachments with just an appointment in your name. This can be done on individual rooms or all (IT: lookup Set-CalendarProcessing).
    – IT can delete e-mails for you if the IT department has high enough permissions on Exchange 2010 or later (IT: lookup Search-Mailbox and the -DeleteContent parameter), subject to archival or retention policies.

    Sadly, I now and then run into businesses where I come to teach an Outlook class and their IT department is not taking advantage of features provided by their server product that could make their end users lives easier, and the end user aren’t aware of the capabilities of the server product and assumes (rightfully) that IT sets it up take full advantage of its capabilities, when that doesn’t happen, or worse – I teach an Exchange class and the IT students seems not at all interested in working with their end users to enable features that could make things easier, or even worse bragging about not enabling this features to make their lives easier or snickering at the end users for not asking for such features, as if the primary goal of the business was quarreling with IT. It is not the rule, but I see enough exceptions.

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