General Question

girlofscience's avatar

What is the best way to deal with this work situation?

Asked by girlofscience (7477 points ) December 5th, 2008

My boyfriend really enjoys the work he does at his job, but more and more frequently, he has been getting emails that completely demotivate him.

BACKGROUND
Some background: It is a small office. 30 employees total, 15 in my boyfriend’s department, 8 on his specific team. His office is one of 6 nationwide, each with approximately 30 employees. He is well liked and respected by both his coworkers and the higher ups. He has never violated the company’s policies, and he has never been reprimanded for any actions. The only individual feedback he has received has been incredibly positive, and his overseers are very pleased with his performance.

THE SITUATION
About a month and a half ago, he received the first unpleasant mass email to his department, which had been sent by his immediate boss. It was criticizing the employees for “talking” at their desks in a very elementary-school-like manner. Upon receiving this email, my boyfriend went into his boss’s office and said, “I was a bit concerned about the email I just received. [The girl I sit next to] and I speak occasionally throughout the day, but our conversations are typically about work-related projects, and I didn’t realize this type of conversation was disruptive. Is this a problem?” His boss responded, “No, no, no! You’re completely fine; don’t worry about it. That email was not directed toward you. There are a few other people that seem to be conversing a bit too frequently.”

He left his boss’s office feeling kind of insulted that such an email would go out to everyone, if only a few people were the problem. Why not just confront those people directly? Why bring down the morale for the rest of the people who are doing their jobs correctly? But, he decided to just let it go and move on.

Since that incident, he has been receiving similar emails twice a week. The emails are always sent from his immediate boss to his entire team, and they are always written in a very scolding-child way, always about something my boyfriend is not doing wrong.

(In my opinion, they seem overly strict as well. Yesterday’s was about how cell phones may not be kept on the desk; they need to be kept in the desk. The email went on to say that if the boss sees them on the desk again, the person will be given a verbal warning. If he sees them on the desk after the first warning, the phone will be TAKEN AWAY. Like, seriously?!?! Doesn’t this seem a bit elementary???)

Additionally, they have started to institute “technology-free Wednesday mornings,” during which the employees are not permitted to use their computers for 4 hours and must spend the time organizing their project files. My boyfriend (and one other worker) had previously been exempt from this policy because of their outstanding statistics, but now, after some incident, there will be a nation-wide company policy that all employees have technology-free Wednesday mornings.

THE PROBLEM
My boyfriend feels insulted by this type of treatment. He is a hard worker and loves the work he does, but every time one of those stupid emails goes out, his motivation drops, and he thinks, “Why am I busting my ass for a company that treats me like a child?” The emails (which are not even relevant to him) are seriously decreasing his job satisfaction. What should he do?

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48 Answers

janbb's avatar

Talk to the boss about it. Maybe he (the immediate boss) is feeling the squeeze from higher up? In any case, I think your boyfriend should be non-confrontational but honest about how the e-mails and treatment make him feel and see if he and the boss can come to an understanding.

dynamicduo's avatar

Wow. Tough problems here.

First off, and truly no offense meant, but your personal opinion doesn’t matter one bit here in regards to how the company chooses to run its business and manage its employees. Yes it might be strict, but that’s how they’ve chosen to run things, and its up to the employees to decide what to do to deal with it, not the employee’s partner’s opinion.Whether its elementary or not doesn’t matter. I doubt you have spent a lot of time in your boyfriend’s workplace during working hours, so putting cellphones in the desk might be a required action indeed, maybe other employees are chatting on their cellphones all day. Remember there’s always another side of the story.

It’s obvious that your boyfriend is suffering from IMS, incompetent manager syndrome. Sadly it is prevalent in all types of industries. Many people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers. Confronting the boss may or may not have the desired result – if the boss is the location boss’ friend for instance, there’s no way he’ll be fired no matter what he does. But if upper management doesn’t like the boss, speaking up to them is a good thing to do.

If I were in your boyfriend’s sitation, this is what I would do:
1. Talk to the boss and request to not have any more of these emails sent. I’d have a discussion along the lines of, “Hey Boss, you know those emails you’ve been sending around? Since we already determined I haven’t been an issue I’d appreciate not being sent them, they just distract me from my work.” I would not leave the office until he had agreed to not send me any more of them, he’s already admitted that your BF is not the problem so there is no reason why he should be sending the emails to him. If I needed to delve into the low motivation issue, I would.

2. If this did not stop the emails, I would take it up a notch and talk to either HR or his boss. I would phrase the issue like this: “Boss Name has recently been emailing every team member with concerns intended for just a few team members. I believe this breaches one’s right to privacy, and criticism can be delivered more efficiently by talking to the specific people instead of concerning all of us with issues that all of us do not suffer from. I would ask you to look into this issue and I look forward to your reply.” This makes it into an HR issue and guarantees it will be looked into.

If both of these have no result, I would look into a technological solution – filter all emails from the boss out of the inbox and into a “Boss” folder, and only check that at certain times of the day. I would do this after telling my boss my reasons for doing so, so that he would know that if he wants to contact me immediately he should do so over the phone.

fireside's avatar

HR will most likely stand behind the manager, especially if he is getting pressure from above to improve productivity.

It seem to me that the company thinks it will be easier to force people out by providing a less pleasant atmosphere because that would be cheaper than paying unemployment benefits to incompetent workers they have been too lax with.

Honestly, I’ve seen this before and nothing worked to change it.

girlofscience's avatar

@dynamicduo: Interesting insight.

I agree my opinion of the way the company is run has no impact, but I wanted to offer the type of behavior that is being criticized.

Regarding (1), I agree this is a good approach, but my boyfriend certainly doesn’t want to create conflict, and considering the immediate boss is higher up than he, I am questioning his place in criticizing the way in which the boss is addressing the “problems.” Could such a suggestion be viewed as disrespectful toward the immediate boss? If not, what would be the best approach? A formal email? A walk-in to the boss’s office? A casual comment about the situation at the holiday party?

girlofscience's avatar

@janbb: Same question goes to you. What is the best way of nonconfrontationally confronting the boss about the problem? A formal email? A walk-in to the boss’s office? A casual comment about the situation at the holiday party?

girlofscience's avatar

@fireside: How is it a good business practice to “improve productivity” by insulting and demotivating the productive people? They need the full team they currently have staffed in order to run efficiently, so forcing people to leave would cause them to need to hire new people. And considering the current job market, I doubt anyone would want to leave just because of these emails. It seems that creating an unpleasant environment is only decreasing productivity of the good people. I’m not sure how it could be viewed as effective. What do you think?

cak's avatar

GoS – very bad form to mention it at a Holiday Party – office politics should not be discussed at that time!

dynamicduo's avatar

Face to face absolutely, and in the boss’ office, not a comment at the party. It’s a professional issue and should be dealt with professionally. Email should never be used for such conflict resolution. And I hope the office party was a joke, you NEVER ever talk about office politics at a party. Set up a 20 minute meeting if that’s what needs to happen.

The key to communicating without offending the boss is to make the issue yours, even though it’s blatantly obvious it’s not, it still saves face. For instance, don’t say “Boss, your constant pointless emails drive me crazy!”, say “Boss, I get distracted with the number of emails sent that don’t need my attention.” Don’t say “Why do you send me emails when I am following the rules?”, say “I am unsure as to why you send me these emails when we have both agreed I am not part of the problem.” Don’t say “You really make me unmotivated when I get these emails,” say “I would prefer to not be sent these emails as worrying about my other teammates affects my motivation and productivity.” Make the issue yours, lots of “I feel, I am, I think”, avoid all blaming phrases like “You are, You make me feel”, etc. Also make it clear that this issue is hindering your productivity, now it is a business issue as well.

An important point, really think before this meeting, and determine a course of action that will leave your boyfriend satisfied. Have a plan of action for any comeback the boss will say. Have options to propose to the boss, so when he shoots down one, you have another. Now there’s a fine line here between being obnoxious and persistent though, so be sure not to cross that line else you risk pissing the boss off but still getting the emails.

fireside's avatar

I agree that it is a bad business practice and that is why I was so motivated to chage it at other jobs.
I watched them drive out good employees while the slackers stuck around and the managers just sort of shrugged.

The idea behind sending it to the whole team is to show that there is a blanket policy in place. A good manager would present it differently and think about all of the issues that are effecting the productivity of the team, not this ad hoc nagging approach.

Last I heard, the slackers have the run of the company I was more than happy to get away from and the company has downsized because of poor management decisions.

janbb's avatar

Yes, when I’ve had to deal with these kinds of things, I usually go to the boss’s office and say something like, “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about. Is now a good time?” I wouldn’t write an e-mail because you can’t see the boss’s reaction and also probably don’t want a written record of your remarks. I also would not mention it at a party. I think if b.f. can do it in a non-confrontational way, that is just sticking to the effect it has on his morale, it could be a productive discussion. It is possible, however, that the boss may not change and he may have to suck it up or leave (which is hard to do right now.)

basp's avatar

Sending such emails (or any type of directive) to the whole team or all employees when the issue only pertains to a few is standard operating procedure in the disciplinary process when acompany is doing things right. It also reduces/eliminates the possibility of a person winning a claim should they be fired for the infractions in question.
Your boyfriend’s company is targeting someone to fire them. (doesn’t sound like your boyfriend is the target).
They must put the directive out to all and then, that established the rule and that everyone has been I formed. If the person who is guilty of this behavior continues. The company will have just cause to reprimand them and,depending on the situation. Continue with the disciplinary process.

wundayatta's avatar

In such situations, I use the passive-aggessive approach. I let the demotivation hinder my work until I get laid-off or fired. Then I look for a new job, only this time, my highest priority is finding a good boss.

Obviously this is not a very proactive way of going about it, but, in the long run, it has worked for me.

girlofscience's avatar

@basp: You think all of these emails are being sent out because they’re planning to fire someone, rather than trying to improve the work of the people who are not abiding by the rules? That’s an interesting take and certainly a possibility. Why do you think this is the approach they are using?

(Btw, I do agree that it may be a possibility because there is one guy who my boyfriend seems to think all of the emails apply to. Every time he goes one, he’s like “Why is our entire team getting this email? X is the only one always texting!” or “Ugh, I wish X would stop Y-ing. He just caused another email to be sent out to our whole team. We’re all getting chastised for what he’s doing!”)

dynamicduo's avatar

In that case girlofscience, they’re doing it to leave a paper trail of the policies he broke, to justify his firing when it happens. They’re doing it to satisfy legal and HR requirements so that the guy can’t come back and successfully sue them for wrongful termination.

We did the same thing at McDonalds, including ramping up the rules (in order to ramp up the “official documented rule breakings”) with someone who was going to be fired (and even problematic people, to “encourage” them to quit note, I never did any of this silly stuff, just one reason why I quit after being a manager for a bit ). Yeah that’s a reflection of how silly or juvenile the process is. But sometimes silly gets the job done.

girlofscience's avatar

@dynamicduo: If the guy were to stop each of the problems as the emails came through, do you think they would not fire him, then?

Also, why not just email him??? That still leaves the paper trail. And then he would feel more directly that he has to change his behavior!

dynamicduo's avatar

They could, they could also not. It depends on their motivation for the actions – if they are set to fire the guy, of course it won’t help, they’ll just find another way to do it. If they’re looking to increase productivity though, then an effort to fix these “problems” would probably cause them to back off not fixing the problems gives them a way to replace the employee, in the strange warped minds of some employers this is win win. It’s pretty much the “shape up or ship out” mentality.

jackfright's avatar

“Also, why not just email him??? That still leaves the paper trail. And then he would feel more directly that he has to change his behavior!”

@girlofscience; so as a manager, i wouldn’t have to repeat myself if another staff member of my team repeats the same mistake.

dynamicduo's avatar

Email is a very ineffective method of communication especially when dealing with conflict resolution. One is completely devoid of body language and is unable to ask for clarification about a point when that point comes up. This leads to people misreading emails or misinterpreting the information, which leads to bad communication or ping ponging email replies to get to the resolution, when one face to face chat would have fixed the issue completely.

Compare to a face-to-face conversation. If my boss says something I don’t understand, I can give a facial expression and interject to clarify the point immediately, I’ve communicated many ways and immediately. We can also navigate the conversation more tactfully, if I say something and my boss has a certain negative reaction I may know not to talk about that issue, or I may know that is the issue he’s worried about and steer my conversation accordingly. I guarantee you you will make more progress towards a resolution through one face to face meeting than you will in one email exchange.

jca's avatar

dynamicduo: i agree with most of what you wrote and it was all thoughtfully written. three things i disagree with (from your first reply): you said he should not leave the boss’s office until boss agrees not to send any more emails. i think that’s confrontational behavior, and if boss asks him to leave, or the conversation is over and he insists on staying or persists with his demand, boss might get really pissed. second, you said he should go over boss’s head. that never is helpful since in the end, he has to continue dealing with boss about other things, and now boss will be totally against him. third, you said he should tell the boss he will read the emails only at a certain time of day, and if boss wants to contact him he should do so over the phone. if i were the boss and somebody told me that, it’s like who are you (“my subordinate”) to tell me (“your boss”) how to contact you? if it’s company policy to have your email readily accessible, or boss wants an immediate reply, who is the employee to be telling the boss when and how to contact him? i just can’t imagine that going over well.

girlofscience's avatar

@galileogirl: I think you’ve been crafting a response for the past hour. You must have some story!

dynamicduo's avatar

jca, thanks for your reply. I would like to note that I did not say that the BF should do not leave. I specifically said I would not leave the office, which is true for me. As with the rest of the tone of my argument, it’s plainly obvious that I am a person who does not work for companies that have silly fake managers in it. I work for companies where we work towards obvious goals and there is no time for games and office politics. I am simply saying that if I were going through the same issue, with my manager sending me pointless emails which seriously affected my productivity, I would be plain and blunt with my manager about this so that he understood it, as fundamentally it is an issue that is affecting the business. And I am confident that my current manager would listen to my point of view and we could work towards a solution. Luckily this situation hasn’t occured. But if it did, I would certainly not let this situation continue as it is if it truly affected my motivation and made me not want to work. If my boss couldn’t fix the problem, the next logical step is in talking with HR. And if the situation really continued I would look for another company that valued my contributions and provided an encouraging and motivating environment.

I should have noted that for a smaller company as described, this plan of action may not be the most tactful, as smaller companies tend to have more office politics and shenanigans going on. Some small companies don’t even have a real HR department, more like an HR position that’s more symbolic than anything else. Maybe the best course of action, in interests of keeping a job, is really to do nothing on the boss’ side of things, and learn to manage the demotivation the emails provide. But I would never recommend that course of action explicitly as I agree with pursing happiness in all forms of life.

cwilbur's avatar

He should take stock of the situation, and consider jumping ship. It’s very easy for a workplace to go from pleasant to unpleasant, and it’s very hard for it to go back in the other direction. So if there’s a clear trend—and it sounds like there is, and it’s being driven not only by local events but also by national events—it’s better for him to leave when he’s feeling a bit demotivated than when he’s feeling completely burnt out and frustrated.

jca's avatar

dynamicduo: i agree that if i were him it might be better to just look for something else. at my job, working in county government, there is a clear hierarchy, and if i went over my boss’s head it might win the battle but not the war. it could definitely bring down retaliation in the form of ball busting, being scrutinized, etc. it might not, but it could, and then it would be really unpleasant. i am all for if you don’t like it, then leave it. it’s a shame because this guy seems to like everything else about the job.

another thing, just as an aside, all bosses have good things about them and bad things about them. maybe the worker could overlook this if the boss has other great things about him, or is motivational in other ways. i mean, the boss does keep insisting “it’s not about you” so the employee could keep looking the other way.

girlofscience's avatar

Yeah, leaving isn’t a feasible or desirable option. He got this job because we moved to a new state for my career, but it took him 2 months to find it, just because of how crappy the job market is. He’s been at this job for 4 months now, and the last thing he needs is for his resume to look like he just skips around in jobs…

Plus, this is his favorite job of the 3 post-graduate jobs he has had (2 previous jobs were for 2 years each in our prior state), and I don’t think he would want to leave it.

dynamicduo's avatar

Well I think a friendly chat with the boss would hopefully be able to bring some light to the situation. But there is a chance the boss will continue to send the emails the way he is, and your boyfriend will have to work on a solution from his own side. Maybe some type of email meditation or something :)

basp's avatar

Girlofscience
Yes I think these emails are for the purpose of targeting someone. This is standard procedure in the diciplinary process. The company must have the paper trail to protect themself from a lawsuit should they fire the guilty person.

wundayatta's avatar

If the emails aren’t directed at a specific person, I don’t understand how it protects the company, unless it is amending policies and procedures. They will still need other write-ups that were delivered to the individual in question if they want to cya.

augustlan's avatar

If they are targeting someone for firing (and I think they are) they cannot just send the emails to that individual. S/he would be able to show s/he was singled out. The emails must go out to the entire team, to show that the rules apply to all of them. Cover-your-ass is in play here.

wundayatta's avatar

@lol! Post at the same time, say diverging things. Ironic, ne?

augustlan's avatar

Yeah, my post was definitely not aimed at what you said!

fireside's avatar

Sounds like the guy knows how to game the system.

They said no chatting, so he texts, now the phones can’t be on the desk, so he’ll text under the desk.

If it is targeting one person, the multiple emails are probably because they haven’t been able to nail him on the new policies.

Ultimately, none of these issues (except the mandatory no computer time) seem like anything your boyfriend should worry about. They’re good business practices that it sounds like he is already following.

basp's avatar

Augutian is right. They have to send the directive to everyone or the person can claim they are being singled out.

jca's avatar

i’m thinking just take it, try not to get annoyed over it since it’s not about him, consider the good things about the boss and the job, and consider the economy and how it’s not a good time to leave the job. all jobs have shit you have to deal with. i have never had a perfect job in my life. i have had great jobs and sucky jobs and they all have plusses and minuses.

wundayatta's avatar

Actually, if it’s an employment at will state, the company doesn’t need to do anything to explain a firing. It’s only a problem if the firing is based on the race or gender of the person. That’s impossible to prove unless there are many, many cases that illustrate the discrimination.

If the state requires some “cause” for a firing, then the policy must apply to everyone, and so notifications of changes in policy must go to everyone, but there also has to be proof that the employee knew about the policy, and still broke the rules. Usually this consists of a series of warnings, culminating in the firing. The warnings are private, not public, unless there is a union.

I could be wrong about this, but that’s what I remember from grad school.

fireside's avatar

In North Carolina, employees are presumed to be “at will.” At-will employees may be terminated for any reason, so long as it is not illegal. Generally, employees who work under an employment contract can only be terminated for reasons specified in the contract.

Zaku's avatar

I’d give adult feedback and/or suggestions about the negative impact of the inappropriate management, to the direct superior, and if that doesn’t help, to the person above him.

Depending on the work environment, I might also just generate conversation about the whole thing in the work environment.

If all that has no satisfactory effect, I’d look at the impact on me, and look for a better employer.

fireside's avatar

The real issue is whether the boss sees your boyfriend as someone that he trusts enough to give him honest feedback about his performance as a department manager.

If he isn’t going to be open to that and he just views your boyfriend as a good worker that doesn’t need to be managed, then he is most likely going to react negatively to your boyfriend coming in to tell him how his department should be run.

steve6's avatar

It’s simple: The sender wants to e-mail everyone because it’s simpler than typing all those names. Also, he wants to cover his ass. If anything happens he can say he told everyone. No way is he going to change.

AlfredaPrufrock's avatar

Let me see if I have this straight: BF works for small company, on a team of 8. Everything is fine, until 6 weeks ago, when the boss turns into uber-micromanager, sending out messages not only to his team but the other 22 people in the office as well. Previously good job turns into an episode of The Office. First questioning of the boss brings about reassurances that the e-mails aren’t targeted towards BF.

My thoughts are:
1) Boss has been instructed to cut staff at first of the year, and can’t bring himself to do it, so he’s making life impossible, hoping people will quit and he won’t have to fire anyone.
2) There is someone in the office that needs to go, but the person has some sort of political clout or dirt on someone, so the idea is, again, make it so the person will quit.
3) The boss’s boss came down on the boss for being too lax, or made some sort of comment at the next level about the efficiency of another office, run by an anal manager. Perhaps this person received a promotion or raise.
4) He read a management article about some sort of management journal and is trying it out. (In China, the whole country does exercises for a half hour at 10:30 every morning.)

It is insulting, but if you can learn to step back from it as if where a case study, there are interesting aspects to it. It is work, and it is your BF’s means of paying the bills, but it shouldn’t be his identity. It is employment at will.

Some conversations are best had one-on-one, out of the office, in an amicable setting. I would suggest that the BF invite the boss to lunch, ostensibly to get his advice about a project, situation with a client, whatever. Business consultation. At the end of lunch, say something like, “I really like working for XYZ Company, and especially feel like I’ve learned a lot about ___ from you, but I’m sensing that something’s going on that’s out of the ordinary. You seem to have developed an uncharacteristic need for more control over the minute details of how the office works. Are there staff reductions in the works for the first of the year? ” The boss will either say, yes, no, or why do you think that? At which point, BF can comment on what’s been going on and how he feels about it.

And he should update his resume and linkedin profile.

girlofscience's avatar

@AlfredaPrufrock: Best answer yet!! Thank you for the incredible perspective.

I had actually just showed this thread to my boyfriend an hour ago or so, and he found many of the answers very helpful, but he just fell asleep. I will be sure to offer your ideas to him tomorrow morning. :)

AlfredaPrufrock's avatar

I have a really great manager, and her manager is really great, but boy, when he gets pressure from above, it trickles down in all sorts of weird ways. And every now and then, he reads an article, and decides we need to try certain things. My direct manager is really big on the application of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the workplace, along the lines of something like this. We do a lot of things tho help us understand how to work better together—Strengths Finder, Predictive Index, to name a few. It’s amazing how that can transform culture.

jca's avatar

i was thinking about this more throughout the day and i concluded that the reason why the new policy is no cell phones on the desk tops is that probably, it started with people making and receiving calls on their cell phones. now, everyones is texting and/or reading texts. by making people keep phones in their desks, the problem is eliminated.

i just came back from our union holiday party. someone pointed out another worker from my department (about 600 people work in my department) who was a notoriously bad dresser. the woman wore something very inappropriate to court (we go to family court to represent the department) and she got a lecture from the county attorney. shortly after, the department issued a dress code: no jeans, no sneakers unless you have a doctor’s note, no sweats. at the time i didn’t understand why the new policy, since most of us dress fairly decently. since the party tonight where i learned about this one employee, i now understand. the commissioner figured instead this being an issue each instance, he would issue one blanket policy and nip this in the bud.

i am thinking the memos about the cell phones are something your boyfriend should try to ignore, since he’s been told they don’t have anything to do with him, since the economy is bad now and not a good time to switch jobs, and since he likes all other things about the place.

girlofscience's avatar

Hey, everyone! Thanks for your advice!

My boyfriend had an evaluation yesterday, so he decided to bring it up then (when the boss asked about his concerns), and it went very well!

The boss also said that he is so impressed with my boyfriend’s work and thinks his current position is below him, so they are considering promoting him to the more advanced editorial team!

Hooray! :)

augustlan's avatar

Thanks for the update…good for boyfriend!

fireside's avatar

Very cool!

AlfredaPrufrock's avatar

Did he ever get an answer from the boss about the “why” of what was going on?

girlofscience's avatar

@AlfredaPrufrock: Yeah, basically, there was a certain person that each email pertained to. The boss had emailed ONLY that person first, but then when the behavior persisted after the individual email, emailed the entire team to show that this was still a problem and something that everyone is supposed to follow.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Fact from fiction, truth from diction. The emails to everyone could be laziness on the behalf of the boss or a veiled way to put the word out to everyone even the good ones that policy is not being enforced but will be. Your b/f has 3 choices: quit and find a job he feels treats him more as he cares to be, stay there and thicken up and not let it bother him, or start a business of his own somehow where HE is his own boss then we won’t have to worry about how someone else treats him.

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