update: I sent my boss a long, angry email … but I turned out to be wrong

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

Remember the letter-writer who sent their boss a long, angry email … but turned out to be wrong? Here’s the update.

Here is how the situation resolved itself.

I took the day off to decompress and think some more about what happened (and of course, to reach out to Alison!). The night before returning to work, I sent my boss a follow-up email in a different thread from the 1000-word tirade which had kickstarted the whole thing. I followed Alison’s (and other commenters’) advice not to use any “I’m sorry, but” statements, or say anything else that could sound like trying to justify the original email.

The opening sentence of this new message was to, “Renounce the statements made previously, because they were based on a mistaken and out-of-context interpretation of the conversation that we had on MM/DD/YYYY. I sincerely apologize for jumping the gun and making statements that were completely inaccurate and unjustified.”

The next sentence of this email gave a brief recap of how I had interpreted the original conversation. But I wanted to be careful & avoid any semblance of trying to defend my initial behavior. So I followed up with, “However it was my responsibility to ask for clarification, instead of getting angry and using inflammatory rhetoric towards what I THOUGHT was an unfair judgment being passed on me. By failing to do so, I escalated a simple misunderstanding into a situation that damaged the team’s morale and productivity.” The reconciliatory email ended with some genuine words of appreciation and sincerity, and finally a promise to behave differently in the future.

We had a face-to-face meeting first thing in the morning, on the day I returned to the office. He was in a surprisingly good mood, and acknowledged that he saw the follow-up email. I apologized again for the original Angry Email, and acknowledged that it was “completely deranged and made zero sense” for me to react that way, over something that could’ve been so easily cleared up. He said a few things about the importance of communication and staying calm, and the next 15-20 minutes were spent talking about work.

At the time of this writing, a little over 3 months have passed since the original letter. The project has gone well and we haven’t had any more issues in our professional relationship. Although I can definitely sense that our 1:1 meetings have started to have a little more-than-before talk about soft skills. Things are definitely on the right track, but I am aware that I will have to show long-term improvement (e.g. many years without another incident) in order to fully change the way that I am perceived.

Thank you everyone for your time and feedback!

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Dust Bunny*

    I’m chuckling a bit that the blazing-red email letter just followed the “how can I write warmer emails?” letter.

    But this sounds like a great outcome.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        “I was trying to be warmer and accidentally set the house on fire. Please advise.”

    1. squeakrad*

      I’m wondering if anybody has been watching the show “hacks.” I’ve only watched the first season so I haven’t seen the follow up to the young Writer sending all the evil things her boss has done to a group that wants to make a TV show about it.

  2. IsbenTakesTea*

    Brilliantly done, OP! It must have been very difficult, but it’s amazing how a simple acknowledgment of ownership over our behavior can be. You nailed what I think most of us are really looking for when we feel someone else has wronged us:
    – this is what I did,
    – I understand now this is why,
    – this is how it impacted you negatively,
    – this is what I should have done differently,
    – and this is how I’m committing to change,
    – because this is why I value this relationship.

    Thanks for the update, and good luck!

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      I fell down a rabbit hole about Love Languages and found the discussion of Apology Languages, which theory suggests that we actually don’t all look for the same thing in an apology. An effective apology therefore covers several (or all) of the possible elements people want.

      What particularly stuck out to me in that reading was that some people sincerely value the literal words “I’m sorry” or “I apologise”. That is very unimportant to me but I’ve now internalised that I may need to use precisely that script for my apology to be accepted.

      From memory, other elements included: naming the wrong and its consequences, expressing regret and remorse, taking action to avoid a repeat, and offering restoration.

      I think I want to look at it again. Human communication is fascinating.

      1. ava*

        I admit, I feel much better if someone says sincerely “im sorry”! I suppose its just the acknowledgement that this is, in fact, an apology, and that you feel you owe me an apology– a lot of the time when people just start in about how theyll do things differently next time it feels to me like theyve missed a step and are breezing over the actual acknowledging of wrongdoing. But Ill keep in mind that other people dont see this as important and likely arent intentionally trying to skip it

        1. allathian*

          This really depends. It may be the case in the US, but not necessarily in the rest of the English-speaking world. “I’m sorry” can be a simple expression of sympathy when things go wrong rather than an admission of guilt.

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            For me, speaking as a Brit, “I’m sorry” often causes the other person to back off completely. They come in all puffed up with anger and a heartfelt “I’m so sorry” has all that anger deflating in an instant. It’s magical.
            It doesn’t quite work the same way in France because people have to be able to rant. I’ve often apologised quickly, only to have them continue as if I’ve not said a word. When they let me get a work in edgeways, I’ll try a tentative “well I did say sorry, I’m not sure what else I can do”, at which point they realise all that rant was not actually necessary. Except that somehow, it is necessary because ranting is an integral part of the French way of life.
            (My partner and I are both from elsewhere, and now have French nationality. If either of us accuses the other of ranting, the other will come back with “I’m French what do you expect! It’s proof that I’m well integrated!!!”)

      2. nobadcats*

        And don’t ever say “I’m sorry, but…” that “but” negates everything the “sorry” was trying to remediate and puts the blame on the person wronged.

      3. linger*

        Sure is. The subparts have different values in different cultures, and there are also mismatches between form and social function, so miscommunication is common.
        In America apology expressions are usually reserved for admissions of personal responsibility. However, in Japan, apology expressions are a more general expression of regret that an unpleasant situation has occurred. (An actual admission of personal responsibility is a much more involved performance!) Thus in 2006 the Japanese baseball player Hideki Matsui, after breaking his wrist while fielding, apologised to his Yankees teammates … much to their surprise, as he clearly hadn’t taken himself out of play deliberately.
        Conversely, a Japanese expression of regret for not accepting an invitation does not usually contain any explicit rejection phrase corresponding to the apology expression “I’m sorry, I can’t, because…” expected in English. The social function of rejecting the invitation is implied in Japanese just by stating the obstacle. So, a fluent Japanese speaker of English will often simply give a reason for not attending … which a native speaker of English tends to misinterpret as a problem to be solved to allow them to attend.

        1. KN*

          Not to derail too much, but — while there are definitely some real distinctions between Japanese and English communications styles (I’ve studied Japanese for many years and know there are some pitfalls…), this seems a bit over-generalized to me. Americans apologize all the time for things we’re not personally responsible for! Maybe not as formally, or to the same degree, but the concept of someone saying “I’m sorry” for something unintentional that’s put their team in a bad position does not strike me as incredibly strange or foreign.

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            I remember ranting that I’d missed my flight in Miami, and the American tourist listening kept apologising, and I kept telling her “but it’s not for you to apologise, it’s not your fault, you’re just next to me in the queue”, so I definitely agree that Americans apologise for things they’re not responsible for.
            I’d go as far as to say that Americans even invented the “apology without taking responsibility”, where employees say “I’m so sorry this happened” without it being an admission that the company is at fault in any way.

            1. JustaTech*

              It is a bit weird how “I’m sorry” can mean both “I apologize” and “this situation makes me sad for you”. A few years ago my mom and I were walking in a downtown area when a guy asked (very politely) for spare change.
              “Sorry, no.” I said and we kept walking.
              “Why did you say sorry? It’s not your fault,” my mom said.
              “Right, but I am sad that he’s out here in the cold asking for money, so I have sorrow for that.”
              It was also a bit of “I want to acknowledge you as a person but also I really don’t have any change in my pockets and I’m not digging through my purse, so I need something to say”.

              Language is weird.

  3. EPLawyer*

    Considering how you handled the situation, are most likely accepting the feedback regarding soft skills and have not repeated the incident, I am thinking it won’t be “years” before your reputation recovers.

    1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      I think it might actually be a good amount of time – just because of the context of having had drama before this incident.

      But the good news is, if I was their boss, I’d be like ‘I’m confident OP really gets it and is committed and now it’s just a matter of watching them practice these skills in various challenging situations over time” and not “oh lord I wonder what will happen this week”.

      1. Yeah, no*

        I agree on both kinds. I would handle it with cautious optimism for quite a while if I were OP’s boss.

  4. southernfried*

    I think it is so great that you handled this so professionally! Everyone I know–myself included–have has some type of “life lessons.” What’s important is what you learn from them. Well done.

    1. BeenThere*

      Definitely- I know I have emailed and hit send in a mood then realized I came off too strong. Now I write an email without a person in the TO: box then sit on it and then go back and change it accordingly.

      1. JustaTech*

        I was so glad I got to learn the “don’t send emails when you’re angry” lesson vicariously in college.

        Several of my friends worked for the X department, and so were on the faculty-and-staff email list. One evening an email came through on that list from one of the tenured professors, completely irate that the department had not approved another professor for tenure (apparently this was the second or third prof that hadn’t made tenure in a row). The tenured professor was so angry that she ended her email with “and I quit”.

        Of note, this professor was not well liked by the other faculty, the staff, the students or the facilities team.

        So the dean of the department said “OK, you can work through the end of the year. We wish you well in your future endeavors.”
        (This was terribly awkward because the professor was married to another tenured professor at our school, so it wasn’t like she could just up sticks and move away to a new college.)

        The students who had gotten the email were told to delete it, which they did, and then were given a short talk from the lab manager about why you never send emails when you’re angry.

  5. Irish Teacher*

    That sounds like a very gracious apology and I woudl imagine it went a long way to repairing the damage.

  6. Daisy*

    OP, I am very impressed by your maturity and willingness to self-reflect. Congratulations on redeeming your relationship with your boss.

  7. Elm*

    I really hope the “completely deranged” was either from the OP or was said in a way that doesn’t sound like “wow, you’re nuts” in a real way. Being under a lot of stress can result in stupid choices, sure, but saying the reaction was “deranged” doesn’t help the stress! “Unusual,” “unaligned,” or even “over-the-top” would be a bit better, as it describes the email more than the potential mental state of the writer.

    That said, I’m super glad things went well. We all make mistakes, and it sounds like the boss gets that.

    1. Spencer Hastings*

      Yeah, the tone of the apology email was still kind of over the top, and it sounds like that’s the kind of writer LW is: they “renounce” the statements they made earlier, for instance. Personally, I’d have gone with something more like “I want to apologize for what I said earlier. I was wrong about X…” and then gone on from there.

      1. Lozi*

        Yeah, I was thinking similarly… I notice some all-or-nothing thinking, or at least communicating. I imagine different industries have different styles of communicating … in my workplace, I think that apology would feel a bit performative.

  8. animaniactoo*

    This is a great update! Really happy that your boss reacted so well to your ownership of the issue, retraction, and identification of where the problem(s) lay so that you could avoid it in the future.

    Well done. I hope that by this time next year, this will all be so far in the past and just fodder for “embarrassing work stories”

  9. buddleia*

    Great job, OP! This internet stranger is proud of you. You made a mistake, you reflected and learned from it, you owned up to it, you sincerely apologized and you’ve committed to doing better in the future. That’s all we can really ask for, right? Congrats. :)

  10. Goldenrod*

    OP, what a fantastic update and outcome!

    As a recovering hothead, I can truly relate to the challenge of not bringing that particular part of my “whole self” to work. I’ve worked on it a lot. I can be crushing to think that one moment of stupidity and impulsiveness can destroy your whole career and work relationships. This is a great example of how to set things right! I think it’s great that your boss was open to it too, and was able to accept your apology and move on.

  11. DrSalty*

    This is great! Good on you for taking such a mature and thoughtful response. It’s hard to do that. Glad it’s working out well!

  12. Hannah L*

    What a great update!

    OP, you might consider looking at professional development classes. Both for your benefit and to show your boss that you take this very seriously. I recently saw a state university near me offering a seminar on Soft Skills, so it might be worth seeing what is available around you locally or online. Just an idea!

  13. AshAsh*

    I kind of feel like the follow up email is also something that should’ve been done in person instead of via email. To me, that just further added to the drama of it all instead of a quick convo.

    1. Ace in the Hole*

      I think if the faux pas is an email, it’s good practice to apologize in an email as well (along with verbal apologies if it’s something serious). Otherwise you have a permanent written record of the bad behavior with no record of the attempt to make up for it.

  14. Michelle Smith*

    I am so happy you have a normal boss who is not taking this one incident personally. You apologized appropriately and he was able to move on. I’m extremely happy for you!

    I definitely think it’s a good idea to take advantage of any assistance he’s giving you on soft skills. It can’t do anything but help, right?

  15. Spruce*

    “We had a face-to-face meeting first thing in the morning, on the day I returned to the office. He was in a surprisingly good mood, and acknowledged that he saw the follow-up email. ”

    I bet he was in a good mood! We know from this blog that most people loathe confrontation, and he probably thought he was going to have to have one with you… and you gracefully let him know it was unnecessary. Very nice save on your part, and lovely of him to allow you this graceful exit.

    This is a lovely update!

  16. Toolate*

    Allison’s advice to the original comments was fascinating and counterintuitive. I made a similar mistake early career (not *nearly* so scorched-earth, but jumping to conclusions and misjudging tone in an email).

    At the time, my takeaway was to try to completely leach all my emotions out when I was at work, which has had… varying success as a strategy. (I’m a lot better at it now, but it has taken some therapy to figure out how to completely emotionally disengage from work.) I would also try to completely avoid talking about topics where I felt an emotional valence with my boss, which probably contributed to my leaving. But Allison’s response suggests it’s ok to have emotions at work, just to channel them correctly.

    In any case, I don’t think her advice would have worked with the boss I had at the time – she was more about having iron control and was almost wholly unavailable except through email – but it’s interesting to see different advice on how to bring emotions to work.

    1. Toolate*

      Also, the letter writer’s update was a very interesting strategy. I’ll have to save that in my arsenal the next time I make a mistake (hopefully never, but who am I kidding lol)

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