my boss sends scolding emails to all of us — and then tells me I shouldn’t take them personally

A reader writes:

My boss and grandboss have a habit of sending out group emails to our team of five with vague directives and complaints. Messages are sent to everyone like, “We had a bad week last week and productivity needs to improve,” or “If you’re not producing your expected targets, you should not expect to be granted schedule flexibility (like coming in a few minutes late, leaving a few mins early, etc.).” This has sometimes happened in meetings too — the managers will discuss lagging productivity or issues at a general level without addressing anyone individually.

The thing is, I AM producing my expected targets. I work for a niche publication and crank out articles regularly. I’ve been given good feedback by my boss and grandboss in yearly and mid-year reviews and was recently given a promotion. And the kicker — whenever I’ve tried to address these emails with my boss and grandboss, assuming that I should be taking these as seriously as anyone else, I get brushed off. “We’re not worried about you,” “don’t take these ‘rally the troops’ emails personally,” etc.

I’ve talked to my boss once about how I don’t love being on blanket emails that don’t necessarily apply to me and tried to push for individual check-ins. But my boss has mentally checked out (he wants to move back to his hometown in a year and a half and step down) and my grandboss likes to simultaneously micromanage and appear hands-off. Is this just a quirk of management I have to deal with? And if so, when I’m on the receiving end of these vague emails, should I mostly assume I’m not part of the problem and continue on, business as usual? Is there something more I can do or am I overreacting and treating this as more problematic than it is?

It’s tremendously bad management to send chastising emails that sound like they’re addressing everyone but really only apply to some people. The people the messages do apply to will often miss the message, not realizing they’re the ones being addressed. And the people like you who they don’t apply to are likely to wonder if they’re doing something wrong … and if you’re told “we’re not worried about you,” then there’s a risk that eventually an email will go out that does apply to you and you won’t realize that.

The way to deliver a message that only applies to some people in a group is to talk to those people one-on-one. One-on-one conversations are one of the most key foundations of management, so it’s alarming that your boss is refusing to have them.

So, no, you’re not overreacting or treating this as more problematic than it is. It’s a problem!

But it also sounds like you’ve tried to address it and your boss doesn’t care and isn’t changing anything, so you’re probably stuck with it. Given that, the best response is probably to do your own analysis of the situation when you get these emails. Know that your boss manages by email list, and so you’re going to receive messages that have nothing to do with you. If you get a group email saying, “if you’re doing X…” and you know you’re not doing X, you can safely ignore it.

That said, some of these emails sound harder to interpret. For example, “We had a bad week last week and productivity needs to improve” — with something like that, it’s not as clear that it does/doesn’t apply to you as something like “stop running in the hallways” would be. Does it mean you need to ramp up what you’re doing? Or are you supposed to know he’s not talking to you?

Frankly, that’s a question it could be interesting to pose to your boss, pointing out that you don’t want to ignore these group emails entirely because there could be a time when they do apply to you. But if he’s unhelpful (which sounds likely), you could try saying, “Okay, I’m going to take you at your word that I can ignore these emails. But that means that if you ever do need me doing something differently, I’ll need you to tell me directly, one-on-one. Can we decide that’s the plan, so that I’m not always worrying about whether these messages mean I’m doing something wrong?”

This isn’t an ideal solution, in part because I don’t trust your boss to follow through on that agreement, but it’s likely the best option you have when you’re working for a manager who wants to manage people as a group.

{ 145 comments… read them below }

  1. Allison

    Group nastygrams like this, where the offenders are known but everyone is being addressed, are ineffective because the “good” people will second guess themselves and wonder if they’re the problem, and the “bad” people will ignore it completely, not doing a thing to change their behavior. LW’s manager needs to be more direct with the actual offenders. And then, if necessary, send out a warning to the group that starts with “I’ve already had one-on-one conversations with the most recent offenders, but I want everyone to know that going forward . . . .” and lay down the law for everyone, so that anyone who might’ve noticed the behavior and thought “well if they’re getting away with it, maybe I could do it too” will know that no, going forward there will be consequences for it. It also assures the people working hard and following the rules that the rule-breakers and slackers are being dealt with.

    1. ThatGirl

      Thankfully in my current environment this rarely happens, but last year my department’s head sent out a semi-nastygram basically chastising people for spending too much time on their phones/social media etc with a side of “if you don’t have enough to do please let us know and we’ll find you some work”.

      And on the one hand I can understand that appearances are important and we don’t want to *look* like we’re slacking off, but on the other hand, if the real issue is that work is not getting done … then maybe address that with the problem folks and not make 30 people feel guilty for occasionally checking facebook while eating lunch at their desk.

      1. Liz

        I hate this! My company has always has this type of knee jerk reaction; rather than addressing the offenders, they punish everyone, and have taken away “perks” because of the actions of a small group vs. addressing it with those who did the offending. It drives many of us crazy, but the company also operates under the “that’s the way we’ve always done things” mindset.

        1. Iron Chef Boyardee

          “My company has always has this type of knee jerk reaction; rather than addressing the offenders, they punish everyone, and have taken away “perks” because of the actions of a small group vs. addressing it with those who did the offending.”

          Oof. This triggers a memory from childhood. One day at summer camp, the counselors announced that they had planned to take us out for ice cream at the end of the day, but because some of the kids in the group were misbehaving they decided nobody was going to get any ice cream.

          I was one of the “good” kids who was therefore being punished for something I didn’t do. Looking back on it now I wish I had the balls and the smarts to stand up and say “Well, if you’re punishing us for something we didn’t do, we might as well do the crime anyway!” and encourage the other “good” kids to start misbehaving.

          Of course, who knows if the counselors really were going to take us for ice cream, or if they were just playing head games.

      2. Ginger

        I’m in HR and I recently had one of the biggest work-related arguments ever with a department head over this issue. She and her two supervisors were annoyed with the amount of personal cell phone usage in their department, so she wanted me to send out the email to the whole company reminding them of the policy. I refused and said they should address it directly with those who were doing it. It turned into a big thing and I had to get my boss and then our grandboss involved. They agreed with me, and she was pissed, still barely speaks to me.

    2. CoveredInBees

      Additionally, if the emails are generalized then they don’t end up applying to anything or, worse, at the wrong times. It’s like an email version of vaguebooking.

    3. WellRed

      Seriously! Even if you were failing miserably these are nasty and punitive, and bad micromanagement.

    4. Yvette

      ““I’ve already had one-on-one conversations with the most recent offenders, but I want everyone to know that going forward…” I like that, it removes the second guessing on behalf of the good people.

      1. Lucy

        Yes, I think that’s great. It’s both “if we’ve spoken to you, know that we really mean it” and “if we haven’t spoken to you, you’re doing fine, but make sure it stays that way because it matters”.

      2. Kendra

        I like that script, too. The only valid reason I can think of to send out a group email like this is to make sure everyone in the office is on the same page regarding a particular policy (particularly if it’s a change from the way you’ve done things in the past), and has it in writing to refer back to later. Even then, it’s still a good idea to touch base with everybody face-to-face, to make sure they actually read it, and understood it the way you meant it.

    5. Eillah

      Exactly, assuming thoughtfulness in someone who has up to that point *not* shown it is counterproductive (and just…. bad management).

    6. Nanani

      I’ve seen a version of this where a higher up person feels the need to weigh in, make themselves heard, be seen DOING SOMETHING, or whatever, and send out a vague “Things need to change” group email.

      And then it will turn out that the actual problem is being dealt with in suitable detail by the managers below the sender, with the actual person who needs to change.

      So the group email just causes good performers to worry (especially if they don’t know about the actual fix) and makes grandboss feels like they did a thing at the cost of that worry.

    7. Close Bracket

      the “good” people will second guess themselves and wonder if they’re the problem, and the “bad” people will ignore it completely, not doing a thing to change their behavior.

      Extended Dunning-Kruger: Bad people are too bad to know they are bad; good people are good enough to worry about being bad. :)

    8. hamstergirl

      My boss is horrible for this, except she’ll do it in company meetings and say “now I’m not calling anyone out” or “I’m not referring to anyone specifically” – except that she always clearly is, and that person or people always look SUPREMELY uncomfortable because why not make a ridiculous blanket statement also a big show of someone’s mistake or misunderstanding?

    9. NotAnotherManager!

      This is exactly why this sort of mass email/group shaming is one of my very least management techniques. It’s offputting to your high performers and will not solve the problems you’re seeking to address, usually because the problems don’t think it’s addressed to them.

      My spouse’s boss is awful about this, and it irritates me every time he tells me about it. There are four people on the team, and, if 2-3 of them are not doing the thing in the email, go to the one person who’s the problem directly. (The real problem is that this particular manager doesn’t like it when people are mad at her or don’t like them, and the person who is the real problem is kind of a sexist asshole whose approval she’s constantly vying for. She seems to think that his technical competence is more important than his teamwork skills.)

      I had a persistent problem last year with people not turning in a weekly, legally-required administrative thing on time. Because it started out wide-spread, I did three things. A full-group email with a friendly policy refresher based on a number of questions I’d received lately (a few offenders immediately course corrected), followed by a BCC if-you’re-receiving-this-you’re-late email (dropped a few more off the list), and then direct, personalized communication to the two to three that continued to be routinely late reiterating expectations, reminding them it was a performance reviewed expectation, explaining the downstream implications of their persistent tardiness, and the consequences for continued issues.

      1. JM in England

        Sounds like an excellent idea!

        When redundancies were announced at OldJob, a similar technique was used. If you got message A, you were safe, if message B then you had been selected….

    10. Massmatt

      It’s even worse when this is done in a meeting. I had a call center job years ago, schedule adherence was a big deal (understandably so), but OMG so much time wasted by one manager in particular who spent much of every team meeting talking about how we need to come in on time. I was scrupulous about adherence, yet I had to spend all this time listening to this grade-school lecture. An email I can scan and quickly see “ok, this one is bs, doesn’t apply to me, delete”, in a meeting I am captive to the dumbest common denominator. If there are people not coming in on time, give them verbal and then written warnings, and if they don’t shape up, fire them!

      The LW’s case is terrible in that there is nothing really actionable. “We had a bad week, you all need to do better”—what is anyone actually supposed to DO with that? This is not “rallying the troops”, if anything it’s the opposite.

      IMO the managers suck and are unlikely to change.

  2. LSP

    Do you think a big reason the work world ends up with so many managers who don’t really want to manage, is because that’s seen as the only path to advancement? If so, how do we get out of that collective mindset? It sounds like OP’s manager and grandboss both fall into the category of managers who dislike the work of management.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius

      Yes, but not in all cases. Top heavy management was one of the reasons Microsoft was failing 10-15 years ago. I still don’t understand how there were more managers than lower level employees on big projects but it happened.

      1. TootsNY

        pressure to promote, I think.

        I know some people believe that promotions should come with time served, and not with a business reason for having someone in the role.

        1. AKchic

          Pressure to promote and (I am guessing) wage caps. I was wage capped at my last place. They finally capped me because they realized I was making more as a seemingly low-level (they billed it as “entry level”, but it wasn’t) administrative “assistant” position than the actual line staff that met with clients every day doing what brought in the money. Granted, I’d been there for nearly a decade, but I didn’t have any college education and we were dealing with state and federal budgetary issues… they were hard-pressed to justify continuing any kind of wage increases for me.
          Add in the other issues I was having (bad manager, negative coworker, overworked, burned out, the pay really was low for everything I was doing) and it really did make sense for me to leave when a job was offered that paid me so much better, the benefits are amazing and truly is a lot less to do.
          As a bonus – no more ridiculous emails (because of course I got those passive aggressive group emails at least 3x a day).

          1. Allison

            Right. As long as I’m in my current role, my salary only goes up something ridiculous like 1-2% for annual adjustment. If my higher-ups wanted to give me a bigger raise than that and actually have it approved, they’d need to give me a new title, and that means either making me a manager, or figuring out how to change my role so they can add “senior” to it.

      2. Artemesia

        There is a move within software development to have promotion for individual contributors as well as management. I know a couple of people who chose that path and are very well rewarded; it is a very healthy sign. 50 years ago when I taught high school, it used to bug me that some of the most effective teachers became vice principals where their whole job was discipline of students which many of them were also not that great with. To take a great chem teacher and put him in administration because that was the only path upwards in the career is a shocking waste of talent.

      3. PollyQ

        I’ve worked at places like that, or nearly so. I call it “Management Torte”: one layer of cake with nine layers of frosting.

    2. Jedi Squirrel

      Also, some people are so averse to conflict that they will do anything to avoid it. Conflicts are inevitable, and managing them appropriately is part of being a manager. And if people you manage are underperforming, you can manage that without it becoming a big conflict.

      And some people just aren’t comfortable in one-on-one situations, which means they probably aren’t cut out for management. Like Allison said, they’re a foundation of effective management.

      1. MusicWithRocksInIt

        Yup. There was a big group email at my work awhile ago about not taking super long lunches. We all knew it was about one girl on the team. She directly asked our boss if it was about her – and he so badly didn’t want to have a direct conversation about it that he re-directed the conversation and then she spent the rest of the week telling us all she had asked and it wasn’t about her (it was so very about her). So the person who was causing problems felt that her super long lunches were ok, and a really sweet lady on the team became super paranoid that her occasional lunches out were forbidden.

      2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin

        That’s my first thought here as well. Boss & grandboss are averse to conflict and are taking the cowardly way out.

    3. L.S. Cooper

      I think some people don’t realize that management is a skill, and that being good at doing the work doesn’t mean you’d be good at being a leader.

      1. ThatGirl

        Yep, back in my newspaper days I had a boss who was a great copy editor, but a lousy manager; she played favorites and desperately wanted to be sucked up to.

      2. BRR

        I think this is a huge thing. Management isn’t always thought of as a skill like writing, programming, etc. I also think it’s not always reviewed as a skill either. The best way for a manager’s manager to be able to give feedback would be to know how the person is managing but the manager’s manager isn’t going to likely see a lot of managing in action or get accurate information from the person’s direct reports.

        Another thought (sorry, I have a lot of pent up thoughts after a bad job), direct reports can also not think of managing as a thing. One of my former coworkers who lowest rung on the org chart adamantly thought once you’re trained you should rarely if ever have to meet with your manager. Their grandboss had to step in temporarily as their manager and the grandboss was an on manager but had a big challenge managing the person because the person had no concept of management (there was a huge gap about the concept of management at the employer so it couldn’t even be clearly spelled out what management meant because that was too direct and “rude”).

      3. fposte

        Yup. I found AAM because I needed to figure out how to do it and there were no regularized guidelines. For people like me, this blog has done a massive service in mentally mapping out what management can and should be so that I don’t have to make a WAG every time I’m faced with a management decision.

        1. probably actually a hobbit

          I started reading AAM for this exact reason, too! You get forced to manage and no one makes sure you have any skill at it at ALL before doing so

        2. Jadelyn

          I found AAM in a similar way. I’m not a people-manager at the moment, but I’m in HR, and I was fairly new in HR at the time when a manager came to me and asked for suggestions and advice on a performance issue with one of her staff. The last time I’d managed staff was in a retail environment so…very different world, and I wasn’t sure how to advise. So I started researching, found this place, and it’s been a lifesaver so many times!

        3. Quinalla

          Same here, I was being called on to manage and had been give no training for it (folks would help me with specific problems when I asked and we do some random training occasionally on the topic of the moment, but yeah). You would think this would not be, but in my industry it seems to be the norm for management. You are promoted and likely HR trained to not break the law, but that is about it! Some folks might have an MBA, but most do not, and it isn’t like an MBA necessarily makes you a good manager.

          Thank goodness for this website!

      4. Zombeyonce

        This is the entire US military. If you want to stay in long enough to get a decent retirement, you have to get promoted to a “management” role (like a chief in the Navy), otherwise you are discharged after a certain number of years. This means that you either lose people that are excellent at their often very technical jobs to aging out, or you promote them to a position that’s completely different from what they’ve ever done (talhat they will likely fail at) and still lose their skill in that technical job.

        It’s a terrible system and leads to really ineffective management and more unhappy workers because their bosses have no idea how to manage.

      5. NW Mossy

        Interestingly, the reverse can also be true. I’m currently observing a situation where someone who was fairly middling as an individual contributor has gotten promoted to management, and it’s a MUCH better fit for her skills. This scenario sometimes gets derided as failing upward, but it’s a real thing that some people are better at guiding others to do the work than they are at doing it themselves.

        1. Meg

          That’s me. I’m not that great at an individual contributor level in software development. Don’t get me wrong, I have the skills and talent, I do it in my spare time at home on personal projects, but I have a habit of biting off more than I can personally deliver. I’m slow, too.

          But as a lead, I’m more in the decision-making and arguing points to influence other decision makers kind of role where I can easily fill in as an individual contributor as well. I’m great at managing the workload of the individual contributors as their lead. I’m great at helping them over a hurdle, or reviewing their work, or whatever they need to succeed.

      6. NotAnotherManager!

        I think that this is basically it. Some people are great as individual contributors and the only route offered to advancement is management. And a lot of organizations do not invest in providing management training to new managers either.

    4. Qwerty

      My experience is that people often want to become managers because they want to lead the project or have more say in the technical- or design- decisions of the team/product/company. They don’t realize how much of the job is people-managing and often aren’t prepared for all of the issues that come with that.

      1. Human Sloth

        This exactly. I have a fear of managing people overall, but I can run a project well. My department doesn’t see the necessity of a ‘leader’ role as a career booster.

      2. Zombeyonce

        This is why I enjoy the “lead” portion of my role. I can lead people and processes without having to deal with all that pesky HR paperwork and conversations about someone’s professional development.

    5. Antilles

      Sure, that’s definitely part of it. People who have no interest in managing end up forced into it because that’s the only way you can advance in your career.
      But the other part of it is that there’s usually a huge lack of training when it comes to new managers. In most companies, the skills that get you promoted to manager are totally different from the ones required to actuall be a manager. To get promoted from Engineer to Engineering Manager, you show technical accuracy, proficiency in design software, technical judgment, etc. But when you’re actually the Engineering Manager, the most critical skills are non-technical – handling people, talking with clients, addressing problems, coordination with other departments, juggling budgets, evaluating interviewees, and so forth. So there’s a knowledge gap that comes immediately when you’re in charge of managing…but most companies’ training program for new managers is somewhere between “non-existent” and “perfunctory”.

    6. AnotherAlison

      Besides being potentially “only path to advancement”, it may often be the only path that keeps you from doing one thing for 40 years and burning out. Never mind that many places I have worked won’t let you stay in a technical role for your entire career. You’ll get laid off when you make too much. (A 20 year level 6 is all we need, not a 40 year level 6.)

      I really don’t know what we’re all supposed to do with our careers for 40 years, and I’m not sure it was a problem previously faced in bulk by other generations. I started my professional job when I was 21 and have worked in the field almost 20 years already (with advancement). My mother is 66 and retiring in a few months, and will have worked at her job a very long 33. Even so, she didn’t start working full time till she was 33. My grandparents were able to work a while and collect pensions, so they did not have to claw the ladder for 40 years. I feel like I’ve got 10 years left in me to do this career, even with advancement. I know I’m drifting with this comment, but I don’t think we can fault people for working in roles that aren’t the best fit when there are only so many directions one can go.

      1. That Girl From Quinn's House

        And a lot of places have narrow experience prerequisites for hires, so it’s hard to make lateral moves into other directions.

      2. Jessica

        I agree with you so much, AnotherAlison. And there’s tremendous variety in when people enter (or cycle in and out of) a career path, AND when they leave. Lots of people are retiring after 30 years, but what about the people who are going to need to work for 50 years (or more) because we have no hope of being able to retire?

    7. Lora

      Definitely. Sun used to have a technical advancement track in addition to the regular management track. I’d love it if more companies did that.

      But, another big part is that most companies do not offer management training. Don’t get me wrong, many DO offer it, but the vast majority don’t – or, they promote the person and only get around to offering them training several months to a year in. And then it’s mostly about how to use the HR software and do the budget in SAP, not about conflict resolution and soft skills development. Or it’s seen as an optional “if you want to do this, it would help you develop” thing that is taken as a suggestion rather than a “you must do this as part of your new role or so help us we will fire you.”

    8. Kendra

      I think there’s also a (false) assumption that if you’re really good at doing a thing, you’d also be good at leading a team of people who do that thing. Which, when you really think about it, is completely ridiculous: “let’s make sure our highest performer can no longer use whatever skill it is we’re promoting them for, because we’ve given them a whole bunch of tasks that have nothing to do with that skill (managing the department’s budget, mediating fights over who stole whose lunch from the office fridge, etc.), but which will eat up every hour of every day, and then some.”

      It makes a lot more sense to me to hire someone who’s good at management to do that part, whether they’re necessarily the best at whatever your company/department does or not (they should have a solid understanding of it – you can’t manage someone effectively if you have no idea what their job entails! – but managing is often a totally separate skillset).

    9. MCMonkeyBean

      My current company has a great document that lays out internal career paths and what they expect of you to get promoted into a role–and it has a split after like level 3 between “manager” and “individual contributor.” I’ve always really appreciated that.

  3. Murphy

    Ugh. I can relate. I’ve said this here before, but in a previous job, management would send blanket emails to our department saying things like “don’t do X” or “if you’re doing Y don’t forget to do it this way.” These emails were sent directly in response to someone doing those things, and usually no one spoke to that person directly. Occasionally these emails stemmed from complaints from another department and their interpretation of events wasn’t even accurate. It was really demoralizing. The defense was “well if one person did X, everyone may need a reminder” but when it’s in lieu of managing employees on an individual basis, it really not good practice.

    1. doreen

      There are indeed times when everyone might need a reminder – but it’s not when one person does X. It’s when a high enough proportion of the employees are doing X that it’s a widespread practice and you just may not be seeing it from the others because the circumstances haven’t been right. To use the OPs example, lets say 3 or 4 of the group of five expect schedule flexibility even when they are not hitting their targets. It could be that the others understand that flexibility is contingent on hitting targets – or it could just be that they have never needed flexibility at a time when they didn’t meet their targets.

      1. Murphy

        Exactly!

        It was often one person did it one time. We’d have fun speculating on who was the person who did X until that person had their next shift and we could ask them.

  4. Jerk Store

    “And the people they do apply to will often miss the message, not realizing they’re the ones being addressed.”

    And, empirically, some offenders who *do* know they are doing something being addressed in an email will decide to keep doing it until they “caught” or confronted personally. (“Yeah, I’m one of the people who wears ripped jeans on Casual Days, but I haven’t been written up, so . . .”)

    1. Marthooh

      “…and it looks like I’m not the only one doing it, so it can’t be that big a deal.”

      1. londonedit

        ‘…and yeah my jeans are ripped, but they’re not *nearly* as ripped as Fergus’s, I bet they really mean Fergus when they’re talking about ripped jeans…’

      2. Washi

        “But my jeans aren’t ripped, they’re professionally torn. No one told us that torn jeans were unacceptable! You should make that more clear in orientation.”

  5. Shark Whisperer

    The petty part of me would want to reply to every vague email with “Are you talking about me or not?” just to drive home the point that these types of emails are super ineffective.

    1. Princess prissypants

      Yep.

      Alternatives include,

      “Confirming that I can ignore this email.”
      “Please let me know if this applies to me.”
      “I have not X, so I will be ignoring this directive, per our meeting on Y.”
      “I was doing X before our conversation, but since our meeting on Y I have been doing Z instead, so I think this doesn’t apply to me?”

      etc….

    2. Mara

      I actually don’t think this solution is petty. I think replying to every one of these emails with a simple “does this apply to me?” is direct and to the point. Or a very concerned, “Wow, this sounds terrible. How can I help?”

  6. EPLawyer

    UGH — the mass email when only some people are the problem. This LITERALLY just came up this week for me. Was going to post on the open thread.

    A board of a non-profit I am on has a problem with one of our non-profit member’s communication with others shall we say. We had a board meeting about what to do. SURE ENOUGH, one of the suggestions was to send an email to the entire non-profit membership detailing how we expect people to communicate. I said that was not a good idea because 1) we would have to word it so vaguely to avoid outing the ONE person who is the problem that the person whose behavior we are trying to change will not get what needs to change and 2) might even think it doesn’t apply to her because she doesn’t see anything wrong with her communication style.

    I prevailed. The board president is going to talk directly to the person 1:1 about what the problem is, why this is a problem and what we expect going forward. Amazing what you can learn from AAM.

  7. Anon anony

    My boss did this, but only said it to me. He would say that I was making X mistakes, how I would receive a review that would not meet expectations, etc. It was to the point where I was afraid that I would get fired, so I found another job and gave my notice. The kicker? Boss was actually surprised when I gave my notice!! There are now 3-4 people doing my old job!

    1. ???

      That’s… not this situation. Your boss gave you individual feedback that was presumably tailored to your performance (or at least his impression of it). The LWs boss gives generalized feedback that isn’t specific to her.

    2. Sam B

      That’s really not the same at all. Your boss was talking directly to you about problems with your work, which is good management. It’s a totally different situation. The problem here is that they are NOT doing that.

    3. Environmental Compliance

      That is a very different situation to what was written in the letter.

      Letter: vague group email
      Your situation: one on one warnings
      Letter: conflict-avoidant management
      Your situation: potentially management that dealt with conflict/confrontation, potentially management that pushed too much towards conflict, hard to say with little details

  8. MuseumChick

    First, ” my grandboss likes to simultaneously micromanage and appear hands-off” These, IMO, are the WORST kinds of managers.

    Second, in a fair world you could Reply-All, “Hi Grandboss, regarding the last email, do you me X or Y? From the records I’m keeping I thought I was on target but this email indicates otherwise. What metrics are we using to measure our target goals?” Basically just asking a lot of questions to underscore how vague and stupid it is.

    But this is the real world and you should do as Alison says.

    1. MOAS

      holy cow that is my grandboss. OMG. Micromanager, but “off hands” so basically, my direct boss is the bad guy to everyone else.

    2. Catsaber

      My former boss was like that – hands-off most of the time until he dropped the ball on something (which was frequent) and he would scramble to get it done by micromanaging the team. Drove me NUTS! And he desperately wanted to be “the cool boss” and beloved by all, so he wouldn’t address real management problems.

    3. Mockingjay

      I call this type the “Reactive” Boss. Reactive Boss doesn’t manage, they function in crisis mode. They don’t set work expectations and they don’t hold individuals accountable for performance. When something blows up, they panic, blame everyone, and come down with a heavyhanded, micromanaging process that NEVER solves the underlying issue.

  9. Anon16

    Is there any chance they have spoken to the people who are having those problems and if they haven’t spoken to you, you can assume it’s not about you? Maybe they’re just thinking, “you know who you are” when they send out those blanket emails.

    1. Antilles

      I guess there’s a chance, but it’d be pretty rare. Most times, when a manager sends a mass email to address one person’s individual problem, it’s because the manager is super conflict-avoidant (and/or too ‘nice’*). The manager very well might believe “you know who you are”, but in far too many cases, that message is totally missed by the intended recipient.
      *’Nice’ in quotes, because it’s actually meaner to let someone fail repeatedly rather than just addressing the problem so it can get fixed.

    2. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems

      I have to disagree that the offender will figure out it’s about them in mass emails. My grandboss does this (only thing I dislike about my job, the rest is really awesome, which also makes me very fortunate), and reading her emails you always know that it’s about just one or two people, and the rest of the team of 15 total people are looking at the latest rant. I always think – just go talk to that person, don’t bug us all!

      (Yes, annoyed more than normal because we got three of these emails last night during my four hour shift……….)

  10. Peaches

    My boss does this exact same thing. He sends scathing emails to our salespeople about not meeting goals, threatening to pull privileges. I’m not a salesperson, but am in the email group that these emails go to. Thus, they never apply to me. However, I always think, “man, if I were a salesperson, these emails would REALLY make me mad.” I’ve heard one of the salespeople say to my boss multiple times, “I actually am meeting x and y goals, that’s a pretty harsh email to loop me in on.” He uses the same line that your boss does – “that didn’t apply to you.”

    The funny thing is that I know personally that most of these emails only apply to 1 or 2 out of our 7 sales people. One person will fall short on their teapot painting net sales for the month, but all 7 salespeople will receive the email.

  11. MOAS

    This is really interesting. I think I may have read this topic before on this forum though I can’t recall right now.

    However, I’m wondering if the manager isn’t speaking to the “offending” employees privately, and then relaying the general message in larger meetings?

    We kind of had this situation where we had a few difficult employees a while back. Anything they did — be rude to a client, break company rules etc — management was directed to only generally address the incidents in our weekly group meetings, rather than individually with the person. So, instead of “Kevin, you said this and that to a client.” it was more like “everyone, remember ot be nice to the clients.” Something along the lines. It was done this way so that the employees couldn’t claim we were harassing them. However, at that point in time, the conversation to address the larger pattern and lay out consequences had already been done months ago and the employees would be let go “one day”, so UM & HR felt this was a good idea.

    So, I agree with Alison’s advice that it’s not great. but sometimes that’s all that can be done, which sucks.

    1. That Girl From Quinn's House

      Yes, this is how most places I’ve worked did things. You had to send a mass email out to the group/have a group meeting and then speak individually to the offending employee if they did not change their behavior in response to the email/meeting.

      The idea was, you were giving the employee a chance to change their behavior, and also that way you could establish that rules were enforced fairly, so when you are having your 1:1 with the offending employee later, and they say, “But why do I have to do X when everyone else gets to do Y?” you can say, “Everyone else has to do X too, see we sent an email,” and then the employee can’t complain they are being treated unfairly. Even if X is something patently obvious (don’t hang up on a customer) and Y is a rare exception to the rule (Karen hung up on a customer to call 911 because Grandboss was having a heart attack.)

      I do not agree with this method of management but it is often expected.

      1. PersephoneUnderground

        I don’t know that that gives the employee a chance to change their behavior, though, because they don’t necessarily know the email is about them (see: the entire letter about figuring that part out) so it doesn’t really give them a chance. Especially for vague things or qualitative things. Seems to me it’s trying too hard to protect the company with outward displays of “fairness” for when they expect to let the person go, and not trying hard enough to actually improve performance with real feedback. I know you weren’t defending it, but it bears repeating that even the reasons they give for it are flimsy.

        Don’t let “oh someone could sue” override common sense, like the old belief that if you apologized in a possible legal dispute it was admitting guilt- that was wrong and studies show it was actually counterproductive because getting no apology at all made people angry and much *more* likely to sue, mostly to try to force an apology, and an apology isn’t actually considered evidence of guilt in most cases (per my lawyer mother). Like in the movie On Account of Sex, RBG’s client mostly agrees to let her take his case (about being denied a tax credit he claimed) because he doesn’t like the government calling him a cheat – if it were about the money only he wouldn’t have gone through with it.

        Back to the point- it’s not really a chance to improve if you don’t know you did anything wrong to begin with.

        1. MOAS

          Trust me, I kept saying it doesn’t matter if they can sue. Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of say over this.
          In my situation, the employees had been talked to many times about their behavior but there was no improvement. UM & HR were still reluctant to let them go. Ultimately they were, but there was a lot of stress that was unnecessary.

        2. That Girl From Quinn's House

          You’re assuming the managers doing this have the power to manage any other way. If it’s the established disciplinary procedure in your company, then you’re pretty much stuck following it.

      2. MOAS

        Yup, to me this was just one of a larger issue. I’m not totally opposed to this method on its own, but just the fact that the employees were kept for so long that after a certain amount of time it was pointless to have 1-on-1s is grating to me.

    2. AnyNon

      There was a question on here that was along the lines of: “we got an email asking us to cut costs and I feel like I’m the only one taking it seriously” (but I can’t find it now), was it that one?

  12. LGC

    Man, Alison, you just printed LW5 in the short answers this morning so I WOULDN’T go out and leave this letter on my boss’s desk, didn’t you?

    (This is where I air my general grievances about how my job LOVES the mass announcement. Our current topic of discussion – aside from minimum wage – is hygiene.)

    1. hamstergirl

      Ah yes the blanket hygiene announcement – a staple summer event at any dysfunctional workplace.

      I get that it’s an awkward convo to have at the best of times, but you’re doing someone no favours if you don’t tell them that they smell.

      1. LGC

        Oh we’ve done both! I might have an interesting Friday post.

        Admittedly, in my job’s case, it might have needed to be a mass announcement.

      2. Kendra

        I had a former boss at the public library I work in who would follow some homeless patrons (and anyone else who didn’t meet her scent standards) around the building, spraying Lysol behind them as they went. As a result, I have a really negative gut reaction to one of my staff complaining to me about somebody’s smell (“WHY are you sniffing the patrons???”). But I also know that it’s generally MUCH kinder to just have a matter-of-fact, private conversation about it with the person involved, than to mutter about it behind their back.

        In some ways it’s up there with telling someone their fly is open: if you’re cool about it, it’s less embarrassing for both of you, and you’re usually saving them from other people who will be a lot less nice about it.

  13. MsMaryMary

    Oh man. My department’s current leadership is big on this. I’ve brought up to them that the vague emails to the entire department are not particularly effective, but they insist they need to make a general announcement and then they’ll follow up with individuals. I doubt the second part is happening with any regularity. Last week, they sent an email our regarding email etiquette, mainly aimed at one person who uses a lot of emojis in her email. The general email about communicating professionally had several typos in it, and the emoji queen continues to send smiley emails.

    Apropos of this morning’s post, I am very tempted to print out or email this post to leadership. But I won’t.

  14. Kayla

    I have this same problem at work and have suggested that it doesn’t work well and is demotovating to the non offenders.

    I was told that they had to give everyone the same message to not appear unfair or be sued for discrimination. So many people have told me that the message has to go out to everyone. But, I don’t see how any of that could be true.

    Can someone please help me understand?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      No, that’s not what discrimination is. Discrimination is treating people differently based on their sex, race, religion, disability, national origin, or other protected class.

      Your employer is seriously confused (and poorly run).

    2. Jessen

      I have read some people who are afraid that if they single out someone who’s a member of a minority, they’ll be sued for discrimination – even if they’re singling them out for a completely unrelated business reason. That’s not actually how the law works. But it is something some people think, that any minority member can just cry “discrimination” and get a huge payout.

      1. fposte

        Though that’s just another road that leads to the same “this is bad management” Rome.

        1. MOAS

          Ok so, I am not disagreeing with anything here.. but–and I’m drawing on personal experience of what I’ve seen play out–this does actually happen. Very very rarely I assume, but it does. Fired employee filed a complaint against us for firing them, despite us having solid evidence that there were performance issues. They accused us of being biased b/c we held them to the same work standards as everyone else.

          I am hoping that this is a rare situation. but I can see why the fear is there but i agree with you all, that it shouldn’t prevent management from managing.

          1. anon61

            But you really shouldn’t be afraid of unfounded lawsuits against you. Being sued or having complaints filed against you is just part of doing business, whether it is by customers, current or former employees, neighboring landowners, tenants, landlords, competitors, suppliers, etc. There is no reason to treat any of these groups in some special, walk on eggshell, way because they MIGHT sue you even though they have no case against you. If, as you say, fired employee had no case, and the facts were as you say they are, and your co. had reasonable documentation of that, then the case was most likely dismissed at an early stage of the process. No well run business should be in “fear” of a base-less lawsuit, from anyone. Of course, such suits CAN be filed, by a member of any of these groups, but that is what having legal representation is for. Anyone can sue anyone at anytime for any stupid reason that they can dream up. They can write out the documents, fill out the forms, and, in the first instance, no one can stop them. But that, by itself, is no big deal.

            1. MOAS

              I was just sharing my experience, but yes I agree with you 100%. When it was happening, I did my best to point this out.

            2. NotAnotherManager!

              This is right in theory, but litigation can be protracted, expensive, and public. My last employer was sued for discrimination and the complaint alleged some crazy, flat-out false things, and the lawsuit took a few years to fully resolve (because the former employee lost and then filed an appeal). And all of the associated pleadings are publicly available and associated with the employer. And, even if you win and are awarded fees, you’re not always likely to collect them from an individual. Particularly for a small organization, the associated costs (and stress) can be huge, so the heightened risk aversion is understandable.

              My HR director now pushes us pretty hard to follow best practices so that we’re defensible in all circumstances, but I also work for a larger organization that has some in-house resources to help outside counsel with employment disputes.

              1. MOAS

                Yes, thank you for pointing this out.

                IME, there was also the emotional aspect of it. Once a seed is planted, people can have all sorts of thoughts even if they’re 100% false.

          2. NW Mossy

            I’ve seen this happen too. It’s frustrating as heck to be on the receiving end of a claim of discrimination when you know full well that a firing was driven by performance issues and the culmination of a fair and equitable process, but them’s the breaks.

            I look at it this way: the vast majority of people who are fired for poor performance in a fair system understand and accept the rationale, even though it hurts. A small number will feel hard done by anyway, and you can’t control that. Frankly, they’re sometimes the ones you need to fire the most because the factors that drive them to be unreasonable in this context (inability to take critical feedback being the most obvious and serious) tend to be the same chronic and unresolved ones that fuel their poor performance in the first place.

            Firing someone who’s performing poorly sucks, and sometimes it continues to suck afterwards if they’re litigious. But I’ve seen first-hand how much a team can benefit when someone who’s toxic in this way leaves the organization, and the benefits far exceed the costs of dealing with nuisance claims.

      2. KHB

        In real life, it seems to me, the line between “legitimate business reason” and “unlawful discrimination” can get a whole lot fuzzier than it is in abstract discussions like this. For example, what if the criterion for singling out employees is subjective, so there’s really no way to prove it isn’t discrimination? Or the employer is engaging in widespread but subtle discrimination already (as many people do, implicit bias being what it is), so that singling out a minority employee for negative feedback calls attention to the overall pattern, even if the feedback itself is totally on the up-and-up? Or the workplace is full of individual managers who would blatantly discriminate if they could, and the blanket “you have to treat everyone the same” rule is an attempt to keep a lid on that?

        Definitely, at least some of the above examples fall under the “bad management” umbrella as well, of course.

  15. KHB

    My boss mentioned to me this morning that he’s about to put in motion an interesting plan that sort of splits the difference between group nastygrams that go over people’s heads and one-on-one callouts that might be perceived as picking on people.

    We’ve apparently been having a problem with people making too many mistakes in X category. So he’s going to announce that Camilla and Lavinia, the quality control team for X category, will be scheduling meetings with each of us to go over our work and talk about what, if anything, we need to improve. Not everyone needs to improve (probably about half of us do), but “for the sake of optics,” we’ll all be having meetings.

    I’m curious to see how this plays out, and if it’s an approach I can adopt with my team in the future. I know it’s theoretically better to just talk to the underperformers and tell them that they’re underperforming, but sometimes that’s difficult to do. And thankfully, pointless meetings are generally pretty rare around here, so taking up a few minutes of the high-performers’ time shouldn’t be a super-big deal in the grand scheme of things.

    1. The Grammarian

      At least, QC can let the high performers know that they are doing good work during those meetings and keep those short. It never hurts to have a check-in, especially if it’s to give praise!

    2. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems

      I think that if I was one of the higher performers I might ask if there are any things that they think may help me keep up that level of performance.
      Maybe make a the best of a situation where a blanket approach is being applied to the group.

  16. CatCat

    Oh, I had a boss that did this at an ExJob. I recall receiving an email of this ilk at a time when I was descending into some serious burn out. To cope, I started going to work, closing my office door, cranking out work, eating at my desk, and leaving. I was exhausted. I could go pretty much the whole day without talking to anyone. The anti-social aspect of this was not typical for me.

    My boss did note this atypical behavior and eventually talked to me about it in a “What’s going on/is everything okay” kind of way. I got super annoyed though because I was being incredibly productive (yes, totally burning out, but you’re getting the damn production out of me so who cares whether I say good morning or eat lunch with anyone). I brought up the email and that I was doing the best I could and could literally produce no more than I was. She said, “Oh, that wasn’t about YOU. We’re not concerned about your work.”

    FLAMES. ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE.

    I asked why it was sent to me then. I don’t recall the answer. That conversation began my “coming into the office and spacing out most of the day” phase of my burn out.

  17. JM in England

    These group messages remind me of my schooldays where the entire class got detention because of the misbehaviour of just a few!

  18. Dex

    My old boss did something similar; one member of our team would constantly just refuse to follow protocols, perform tasks according to old ways from when they first joined the company, or simply make all sorts of careless errors. Whenever we (the people doing our job correctly) would bring it up to our manager, we’d all invariably end up in a group “in-service” where the whole team would be reminded to be careful, and reminded of current protocols. And nothing would ever change. The people doing a good job would second-guess themselves, those of us who were aware of what was happening would just get frustrated, and the person responsible for most of the errors kicked back to our team would just happily keep doing what they were doing without a hint of self-awareness. Our manager refused to ever just sit down with them and explain what they were doing wrong so we could fix the problem. Every “correction” had to be a group effort, diluting the message and never accomplishing anything.

  19. Jenny

    Your Boss has mentally checked out because he wants to move away in a year and a half? That’s so unacceptable!! That’s a huge chunk of time to be disengaged. He could seriously ruin his reputation and cause harm to the organization.

  20. Damn it, Hardison!

    I think there needs to be some term for this but I can’t think of a pithy or humorous one right now. This is so common. I recently attended a staff meeting where we were all lectured on the appropriate use of working from home, how we are expected to be visible in the office for the majority of our working hours, and that ALL requests for working from home must be justified and approved. When I asked my direct manager about this she all but rolled her eyes and said not to worry about it, there were just a few people in the other groups in our larger dept. that were apparently taking advantage of the policy. So maybe the department head could just take it up with them? And, you know, manage like the VP he is?

  21. Sabzy

    I have had the unfortunate experience of being one who didn’t realize she was the one mass-criticism was targeted to. Working on a radio show and kept getting the script formatting wrong, but the manager never told me personally that I was doing it wrong. He just had post-mortem meetings after every show complaining about people who were still not using the correct the format. I really thought I was using the correct format, so why would I change it? By the time I figured it out, I had been creating more work for other people for months (having to reformat my errors) and it would have been solved in exactly two minutes if someone had just told me, personally, that I was doing it wrong.

    1. CatCat

      Something similar happened to a colleague of mine, who was unwitting, but true target of several mass emails over a couple of months. They were sent to people across two separate offices. We found the emails confusing and opined that there must be something going on in the other office. My colleague got in serious trouble for her mistakes that she didn’t even realize were mistakes. She did not connect the mass email to her work because it turns out, you don’t know what you don’t know! The boss called her in and said she was likely to be fired for it and why hadn’t she followed the emails. The boss had escalated it high up the chain. My colleague was gobsmacked. A single conversation months prior would have resolved the issue! It was devastating.

  22. Anonandanon

    Simultaneously micromanaging while appearing to be hands-off is exactly what my manager does. And it’s the same thing, blanket emails, blanket yelling at us, but never dealing *directly* with the root issue because of what, wanting to be liked, fear…who knows? I think I have bitched about her *style* enough to one our coworkers in the department that it’s gotten back to her because she seems to have at least not yelled at us en mass in recent weeks. All I know is the next time this happens, I won’t keep quiet. She actually has, in the past, told us to each look at her and nod our heads in understanding about whatever is stuck in her craw at the moment. The team is demoralized enough due to an extremely low performer with a bad attitude who is causing the entire situation…

  23. AKchic

    Passive aggressive group emails are a sign that your boss(es) are ineffective leaders and that they either don’t want to be The Bad Guy to one offender who they know won’t take direction well, and/or they are scared of actually managing period.
    You don’t send out group chastisement unless the entire group needs to know the same information and you are actually chastising the whole group. I.e.; “hey all, I feel like my tutorial on painting your noses with chocolate was unclear. I did mean to paint your nose with chocolate, not paint *with* your nose *using* chocolate. The janitors have cleaned up the unexpected ‘art’ on the walls. Attached is a video of what I’d like to see next time, to avoid any confusion. If anyone has any other questions, please reply to me directly or visit me in person. Thanks!”

    Somebody will probably still click “reply all” with some weird question, but that’s the joy of group email.

  24. Artemesia

    About 60 years ago the vice principal came into our class and screamed at us for cheating on a important test and all these decades later I still feel the guilt and humiliation — and I was not even there on the day the event occurred. People feel terrible when they are berated even when they are not the target. Super bad management to do this repeatedly when in a small group obviously it would be easy to identify and talk with the people who are not meeting their targets.

    You have already raised it with the boss and he continues to do it, so I would figure out how to disassociate during these little talks, but it sucks.

    1. Arts Akimbo

      “People feel terrible when they are berated even when they are not the target.”

      That… suddenly makes sense for me of the feelings I felt when there was a theft at my workplace. I *knew* I hadn’t done it, and yet I felt guilty! Like there was a part of my brain that was telling me, “Maybe I *did* do it and just don’t remember it! Maybe everything would be ok if I just came forward.” That’s how strong the secondhand guilt was. Luckily my bosses were not idiots and knew I hadn’t done it (and already knew who did).

      I was very young and my people-pleasing tendencies had not been scorched to the ground and salt-plowed into the earth yet.

  25. goducks

    All-staff emails to correct behavior have a purpose, but both of the following must be true:
    1. The issue that needs addressing has had wide-spread non-compliance
    2. It needs to be something that people can ascertain whether they’re complying with or not on their own.
    Examples of the kind of things that work:
    *A reminder that time records are due by 4 on Fridays, no exceptions
    *A reminder that parking in the south lot is for people working in production only
    *A reminder that everyone is required to power off their computers at night.
    These are things that everyone can determine if the email is to correct their personal behavior, or not. Generalized “work harder” ones don’t work. Nor do ones about a specific item (like dress code or grooming) where they’re really about one person, but sent to everyone. In those instances everyone knows who the email is about…except, generally, the target. One on one conversations are appropriate there.
    The managers of the OP need this thread printed and left on their chair :)

  26. What’s your damage, Heather?

    I’ve worked for this boss, in the same kind of field. It was infuriating. I have no advice, just sympathy.

  27. QerenHappuch

    Oh the Dunning-Kruger Mass Email! The people doing a great job on whatever it is (in my office the DKME is often about dress code) immediately become paranoid and hyper-vigilant about things in themselves that might possibly be a minor infraction, but aren’t, while the flagrant violators whistle about their merry way, either assuming it doesn’t apply to them or that it doesn’t matter. I hate the DKME.

    If the individual ever gets spoken to, we get the miserable “but nobody told me this was a problem” situations others have mentioned. If that never happens, you get really unfortunate “the rules only apply to some people – who made them so special” office dynamics. All to avoid one awkward conversation.

  28. That Work from Home Life

    This reminds me of how all the female staff at a summer camp I worked at (2005) were rounded up and given a lecture on dressing appropriately. One counselor was the culprit, and I guess some parents had complained. As gross and sexist as this felt at the time, we were working with children and to be frank, she dressed like a playboy bunny 24/7. I assume they were afraid that they were violating some sort of discrimination law by pulling her aside individually, but the group reprimand backfired spectacularly. The following day was a formal event and instead of dressing up as we were expected to do, we organized and all wore our camp t-shirts in protest. Do not underestimate the feminist energy of a bunch of 18-21 year olds in the middle of their liberal arts education. Management was so upset by this that they made camp shirts a mandatory daily uniform from the next summer onward.

    1. That Work from Home Life

      I should add that the (married) camp director was fired a couple years later for having an inappropriate sexual relationship with an underage volunteer (and she wasn’t the first). So his judgment falls cleanly into the Not Great and Misogynistic Idiot categories.

  29. Leela

    OP I’m so sorry!
    Two jobs ago I had a manager that would pull our fairly tiny company into an all-hands meeting where she’d list out grievances like this, and give no indication at all of which grievance was directed to which people. We’d all just sit there dumbfounded having no idea if anything brought up was about us or not, because it wasn’t even specific enough to tell what team it was. Once she even used me as an example which made me very uncomfortable, and I brought it up to her after the meeting and she said that it truly wasn’t about me and that’s why she used me as an example because she thought it would be so obvious it wasn’t actually about me (it wasn’t to me, and I have no way of knowing if it was obvious to my peers either which was very frustrating). But sometimes she’d get angry weeks later because X hadn’t been done and she’d brought X up in a meeting, but hadn’t assigned it to anyone! Just threw it out into the void and assumed we’d know who should take it and when it should be done.

    I brought up to her many times that this was likely not reaching the people she wanted, especially as she brought up the same grievances over and over for the two years I was there. When I brought up that honestly it felt very unfair to me to be brought in and given negative feedback with no clue it if was about me or not, and it spiraled into a 40-minute argument where she told me i was “waaaaaaaaaaay” overthinking it (she actually typed out all those “a”s in a follow-up with me later.

    What this led to is exactly what Alison describes. The people it was intended to hit didn’t know that it was about them. The feedback was truly, truly vague and came off more like general grumbling than an action item. The people it wasn’t about were terrified that they had secret targets, which became exacerbated by the fact that sometimes we actually did.

    Unfortunately in my case there was no fixing it, and I suspect that will be your experience as well based on what you’ve written out, it sounds like your manager is just riding this out until he can go and his boss has no interest in insuring that the managers he oversees are managing properly. I’d start looking if it was feasible, or deciding if it’s worth it to wait out the year and a half until your boss goes. However, if grandboss is going to manage like this, I’m skeptical that grandboss is going to hire or develop a good manager either.

  30. Alanna of Trebond

    The one argument I can think of for emails like this is that seeing the offending behavior (coming in early/leaving late when you aren’t performing well, being unproductive, etc) continue seemingly unaddressed is very frustrating. I can see a rationale for pairing targeted feedback to individuals (“I notice you’ve been asking for more schedule flexibility. You published one article last week and our expectations for staff are generally that you publish at least 3, and I don’t want you to come in late or leave early until your productivity is back up”) that you don’t talk about with the rest of staff, with a more general note so that everyone knows something is being done.

    But the same people who get frustrated when nothing is (outwardly, visibly) being done are the ones who are likely to think a general email applies to them, even if they aren’t the problem.

    Managers who are strong on editorial judgment but weak on people management are a dime a dozen in journalism (and probably everywhere else). Best of luck dealing with it.

  31. Falling Diphthong

    The people the messages do apply to will often miss the message, not realizing they’re the ones being addressed.

    I would be fascinated to have any two-side confirmation of a time this technique actually worked. Like, Myrtle says “When my manager sent that email that said ‘Look, people, you have to clean up after yourself in the break room’ I realized he meant ME ALONE and my soup stains on the microwave” and the manager says “Yeah, when I sent that email to everyone about cleaning up in the break room, I specifically meant Myrtle and her microwave splattering soup.”

    ‘Cause anecdotally, it seems everyone self sorts into Alison’s two categories–people it’s secretly aimed at, who assume it’s not them, and people it’s secretly not aimed at, who assume it must be them.

    1. doreen

      Well, it isn’t a mass email but- complaints about co-workers come up frequently during staff meetings at my job. It’s about things like leaving the cars dirty or with an empty gas tank, staff scheduling appointments when they know they won’t be in etc. At least 75% of the time, at least one person being complained about outs themself by getting defensive.

      1. Falling Diphthong

        Though you could look on that as giving voice to “Well obviously this doesn’t mean me and the stuff I do.”

  32. Interviewer

    Please consider explaining to your boss that being a top producer and then receiving these emails can be quite demoralizing, that it creates anxiety and self-doubt. Finding out that the messages don’t apply to you after the fact doesn’t change the initial sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, or stop you from dreading the next team email about poor performance. That’s why you continue to question if the message is meant for you, and need reassurance that it isn’t – because you continue to get that email!

    I would say that I don’t want to be the recipient of blanket criticism that isn’t true for everyone – make it 1:1 instead for the ones who need to hear it. I would add if there is any constructive criticism that ever needs to be shared about my performance, I want to hear it 1:1 as well, not by group email.

    Good luck!

  33. Cog in the Machine

    I had a twist on this at ex-job. Ex-boss would do something wrong, and then the team would get the nasty-gram emails. None of us were doing what the boss was doing, mind. He just felt the need to passive-aggressively yell at us because he got yelled at.

  34. Talley

    I would suggest having the “I’ll assume it’s not addressed to me unless you specifically tell me it is” conversation via email, so you have it in writing when Boss is all, “What are you talking about? We never had that conversation!” the one time they expect you to read their mind and know it is addressed to you.

  35. Letter Writer

    OP here! Thanks to Alison and all the commenters for validating my concerns. Since I wrote this, my manager has formally put in a request to move back to his hometown and step down from his management position in a year. He also has instated weekly 1:1 meetings (though they haven’t really been implemented yet…and I don’t know that people need to be meeting THAT often but whatever). The vague emails have dissipated, but I will not be surprised if there is a resurgence near the end of the year with pressure to meet annual goals.

    In a twist, my grandboss and her boss have asked if I would like to start training to take my manager’s position when he leaves. So I will be revisiting this thread (and the rest of the site) for pointers on how to hopefully manage better than he did, if and when I formally have that position.

    Thanks again!

    1. Lana Kane

      Congrats! I’ve been in management for only a year and change, and I really think that reading AAM has helped mold me into a better manager, and faster.

      I was also promoted after doing the job myself , which has its particular set of challenges because some people skew heavily to either I’M THE BOSS NOW! or I WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING I HATED! I already knew I had to be careful about that, but in reading AAM I picked up some good nuance and scripting.

  36. HappensAllTheTime

    This happens all too often. I used to be part of a 2 person paralegal department where we were required to bill a certain number of hours a month. The number was fairly easy to reach but because the other person goofed off most of the time she rarely met it. At the end of the month we would both get a group email with all our bosses on it that read “If you don’t have enough work, please let us know…” My coworker said she knew they were talking about her because she wasn’t meeting her requirement but they never spoke to her directly. Then the emails turned to “It is important to meet your billing requirement…” I guess trying to get a little more specific but still not singling her out. They also made a big show of congratulating me for meeting mine every month even though they were sending those emails, I guess in an attempt to let me know it wasn’t about me?

    Then because my coworker wasn’t improving they started pulling us both into monthly meetings where we would go over our “work habits” and to do lists. It was so weird because not only were they wasting my time and beginning to micromanage me all because they didn’t want to have a direct conversation with my coworker but it was humiliating for my coworker because I had to sit in every meeting with her while they grilled her and then turned to me, asked for my to do list and how I planned to meet my goals and then praise me for it when I told them. It was just awful!

    The only time this worked out was when they sent an email to remind us both that we should be doing x instead of y and to review the client guidelines. In that instance, I reviewed them and noticing that I was making this mistake, corrected it and sent an email apologizing and saying I will do x going forward. But I could have easily ignored it thinking I was doing the right thing. Managers like this do all of their employees a disservice.

  37. Hey Library Lady

    When I first read the headline, I thought the boss was sending the scolding emails to the OP specifically and then telling them not to take them personally. I had an HR person who did this to me a lot – she would be talking to me, mention something that I did wrong, or that could very easily be interpreted that way (“That wasn’t an appropriate way to handle that” or “You wear your pants pretty tight”) and whenever I made ANY response, she’d say “Don’t get defensive! You’re not in trouble! I’m just saying that you did this wrong!” ASAFGHFDGDSSF

    I know that’s not the case here, but I have a real problem with managers who indicate there’s a problem but don’t direct it at the right people, or who basically keep employees feeling wrong footed because they don’t know how to react if there IS a problem.

  38. Amethystmoon

    My apartment building does this all the time, but with signs and sometimes printed-off memos that they stick under literally everyone’s door. They’d probably use less paper and toner if they just called or visited the people responsible and talked to them.

  39. Oh So Anon

    I would be careful about checking in to ask if something is directed at you. I’ve seen this go sideways where a manager who would habitually call out the entire team for something very vague that only one person was guilty of eventually started accusing the “good” team members of crazy things such as:

    -Seeking excessive reassurance
    -Lacking self-awareness
    -Fishing for compliments
    -Not being open to feedback
    -Attempting to create an “us versus them” divide or going on a witchhunt to figure out who the actual target is

    This was a situation where these grievances were taking up a lot of our time as a team, it was difficult for the rest of us to get individual feedback on things relevant to us, and the problem employee wasn’t getting any better. Our manager basically got angry at all of us, individually, for not collectively solving the problem. Which…yeah, no.

    Someone who thinks that mass call-outs without individual follow-up is an effective management approach may also lack the emotional intelligence needed to understand how their behaviour impacts others, so they may massively misinterpret your motives in seeking clarification.

  40. Jake

    My otherwise fantastic boss does this once in a while. It’s utterly ridiculous and undercuts his credibility

  41. Melissa

    I have received those emails before and was told the same thing. That it didn’t apply to me.

    Eventually, the morale heads South.

  42. nora

    I used to supervise three social work interns at vastly different levels of practice/skill/general competency at working in an office. While I managed their actual social work learning, there was a different person responsible for the administrative side of things. The other person was extremely passive-aggressive when she wasn’t just flat-out aggressive and would often email me things like “don’t forget that the interns have to fill out their timecards daily.” I would ask her who specifically wasn’t doing whatever she needed them to do and she wouldn’t answer. I literally had to take it to our mutual grandboss to clear things up. People without management skills should, perhaps, not manage things.

  43. EvilQueenRegina

    I used to have this boss who would call everyone out for excessive personal chatting even though this was a “specific offenders” thing rather than an “everyone” thing. At the time, this was a team that clashed a lot, and Manager had the idea that going after everyone together on the chatting issue would end up uniting us all together against her and lead us to get on better. All it really achieved was to cause resentment towards the main chatter.

    (And chatting wasn’t even entirely the reason a backlog had built up at the time. There were at least three other factors, but this manager was like Cornelius Fudge in the “burying head in the sand – I can’t see this happening, therefore I don’t think it is, I’m not going to investigate it and will act on what I think is happening – wait, what, that concern was true and really wasn’t someone being malicious?”

  44. Mimmy

    I think this is very common, unfortunately. Our director does this regularly, both in email and during meetings. Sometimes it’s along the lines of “please remember to do X because it assists us with Y” (something that has to be done weekly). Other times, it’s in response to something that happened but lacks context for those who may not know what prompted the email. I saw such an email the other day but I wasn’t around, so I was thinking “what prompted this??”. I really wish he would address issues directly with whoever is forgetting to the weekly task or who is causing an issue, especially if they are repeat offenders.

    Another time, one of the supervisors stated during a meeting that some people had left early without permission and threatened disciplinary action if it happened again. Umm…how ‘bout addressing the actual individuals in private rather than making the rest of us feel like crap??

    General reminders are fine but these types of blanket emails and announcements can make the workplace pretty negative.

  45. Jennifer Juniper

    GRRRR. Your boss sucks. Since he’s only managing five people, there’s no excuse for not talking to the bad actors! Dust off the old resume and search for a new job.

Comments are closed.