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The Passive-Aggressive Email Tactic That All Office Workers Abhor

© Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.   Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

By Alison Green, Slate

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Much attention has been paid to the abuse of the “reply-all” email feature, thanks to a relentless parade of high profile reply-all disasters (like last year’s potluck invitation accidentally sent to 25,000 Utah state workers, many of whom kept replying—mostly asking to be taken off the thread). But less attention has been given to the misuse of a different email field: the cc line.

If you’ve ever opened an email at work and found a colleague has inexplicably copied your boss on a message to you about a minor concern, you likely know the irritation this tiny electronic bomb can cause: Does your co-worker not trust you to resolve the issue without your boss’s scrutiny? Is the presence of your boss in the cc field intended to imply you’ve been negligent on the matter in the past? Why, for the love of God, is your manager being dragged into what should be a routine interaction easily handled between two colleagues?

The cc field does have a place. It’s perfectly acceptable to copy people you want to keep in the loop even though they’re not the primary recipient of your email. The problems start when the cc field is used more pointedly than that. Employees who copy their recipients’ managers because they think it will get their message taken more seriously or handled more quickly often end up being perceived as saying, “I don’t trust you to take care of this on your own unless you know your manager is watching.”

Here’s a pretty typical perspective on how that type of usage lands:

I’m a software developer and often have to work with a lot of internal clients. Most are great, but there’s one guy I’m not sure how to handle. … When this person has a problem or issue with something I’ve done, he emails my manager, his manager, my manager’s manager, all the way up the chain ON THE FIRST EMAIL. I feel this makes me look like I’m not helpful, which I am. I resolve most issues very quickly.

The last time he sent such an email, it turned out to be the case that he was doing something wrong. I really wanted to hit “reply all” when I told him this, but thought this would make me look unprofessional and I also didn’t want to waste my manager’s time with a small issue. … If I ever have an issue with him, I’ll be tempted to include his manager on the email so he can see what it’s like.

Of course, there are times when copying someone’s manager to hold them accountable is exactly the point. If you haven’t been able to resolve an issue by talking to the person directly, the co-worker in question has a track record of being unresponsive, or the issue is a very serious one, copying in a higher-up can be a reasonable next step, as this person points out:

I only cc a manager after repeated attempts to get a response. If they get ticked off, too bad. If they’d responded to any one of my numerous requests for help (via email, voicemail, drive-by when I happen to see you in the hall, whatever) then I wouldn’t have to resort to the tattle-tale email, which is essentially what this is. If you don’t want your boss cc’d on your emails, then respond to people within a reasonable amount of time.

Other times, what looks like passive-aggressive cc’ing is actually happening at the direction of the manager, unbeknownst to others on the email:

My manager asks me to copy him on almost any email correspondence I mention to him. … Often, when I do add him to an email, the responders delete him from the string—it’s often the team I’m working on, plus my manager on an email I originate. They delete him, I’m assuming, because it’s odd he’s on an email that will result in nuanced, detailed responses. (I have the embarrassing job of re-adding his name on the response.) Other times, he wants to be copied as a passive-aggressive nod to other units that he “knows I’m reaching out to them” or because I’m collaborating with someone a level up from me—his level, not mine.

And of course, the manager cc becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. Once someone has added your manager to an email chain, it’s difficult to remove her without leaving the impression that you’re being unresponsive to the message. (One solution to that is to bcc the manager on your next reply and explicitly note that, saying something like, “Jane, I’m bcc’ing you to save your inbox from any additional back-and-forth.”)

Again, it’s not that it’s never appropriate to loop in someone’s manager! But when it’s truly warranted, it usually makes sense to be explicit about why—for example, “I’m cc’ing Jane, since I know you’re swamped and she might want to prioritize this differently” or “I’m cc’ing Jane because I know there’s some backstory that might affect how we approach this.” And in cases where honesty would require you to say, “I’m cc’ing Jane because you never respond to me otherwise,” that’s a flag to have an actual in-person conversation about the pattern—either with the colleague or with their manager. That’s a lot more direct, and ultimately better for office relationships, than pointedly adding the manager on every email.

Meanwhile, if you find yourself irritated by a co-worker’s misuse of the cc field, take some comfort in knowing you don’t work in this office, which has taken the “tattling” nature of the cc to a new and bizarre level:

During a recent disagreement between my coworker and me, my coworker cc’d his mother on some emails going back and forth between me, him, and our board of directors. … I asked why his mother was being cc’ed, and asked whether she was a consultant for our company. (I know she is not; I was making a point.) He replied, “I’ll cc my mom on anything I like.”

Perhaps better to cc a manager than a parent, at least.

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