Coworker Critiques Me In Emails Read By Others

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about criticism:

I have only been in the ‘typical’ workforce for about a year and a half, though I have worked successfully as a freelancer for a long time. One of my gigs turned into an editorial contract with a magazine that is a subsidiary of another magazine, based in another country. I’d like some advice, because I know that professional behaviour in a hierarchy is very different to dealing one on one with clients, and I’m not at all used to the former.

From the get-go, the editor of the main, off-shore office has been highly critical of me (and implicitly, but never explicitly, my boss). She is very good at her job and I have no problem addressing her queries – however, she persists in making negative ‘performance evaluation’ remarks about every article and issue in emails which are sometimes emailed out to the whole group of us (me, my boss, her coworkers, our office help) with these off-hand remarks. They are not useful criticisms and almost all negative in tone.

Naturally, she is going to receive articles with mistakes in them – she is the 4th step in the 4-step editing process and is paid to do that job. My boss has noticed these remarks and has mentioned so in emails, usually in a sympathetic (but not assertive, ie. willing to fix the issue) manner. He is not her manager: her boss is at the main office. She is not in a senior role to me by position, but is in her experience as this magazine’s in-house editor.

My query is: is it appropriate for me to write to my boss and tell him that these comments are making me uncomfortable, and request that something be done about it? Realistically, I am not sure what I can expect, but I believe that it is unprofessional for her to be evaluating me and my performance when it is his job to do so.

Signed, Frustrated Editor

Dear Frustrated Editor:

The kind of comments you imply the editor-in-chief makes would probably be inappropriate if it was directed to you in private emails. It’s doubly inappropriate when others are part of the audience. I’ll bet people say, “That’s just the way Edie (the Editor) is, don’t let it bother you.” People who are rude like that usually have been allowed to develop the habit over time. If it’s any consolation, probably everyone else is sympathetic as well–and glad she’s targeting you, not them.How you handle this will depend on how sure you are of your position and your influence with your boss, and how much influence and status Edie possesses.

You’re correct that behavior in a hierarchy is different than with a client. However, every hierarchy is slightly different–and some people in it are more shielded than others. Edie may be one of those or she may just think she is! Let me make some suggestions that have worked for others in similar situations and perhaps can be adapted to yours.

1. Apparently this has been going on for awhile, so if it doesn’t change in the next few days or even a couple of weeks or more, you probably can tolerate it that long. You may not have to, but you can give yourself some time if needed. That time can be used to develop a good foundation for yourself, before you deal directly with the situation.

2. Do a quick analysis of you, your work group and the hierarchy, from your boss on up. Some questions to answer for yourself: *How strong are those relationships in a general sense? Do you feel that you are well accepted and respected? *Do others seem to think you’re producing good work? *Could it be that even though Edie is being rude, she’s saying what your boss should say? Consider asking him if he agrees with Edie, unless he has already told you he does not. *Is she doing this to everyone or just to you? If she does this to almost everyone, it may not make it easier to deal with but at least will indicate it isn’t a personal antagonism. If she primarily directs unfounded (or even accurate) criticism at you, that’s even more reason to be concerned. She might escalate her efforts if she thinks she needs to get to you more or weaken your position in the company more. *Have you ever let her know her comments bother you and you want her to stop making corrective statements or suggestions in emails that others receive? If so, you can safely assume trying again won’t help. If you haven’t, perhaps that is something you should do–after letting your manager know your plans. One reason to communicate with her directly is to avoid having her say, “My goodness, I had no idea. If I had only known I would have stopped.” A very common remark I hear from higher level managers and HR people is that they encourage employees to deal with things themselves unless there is a big inequity in positions. I don’t agree with that most of the time, but I know they feel that way.

Talk to your manager about this and let him know that you are frustrated by it but would like to try dealing with it courteously and directly. I think he will be glad to not be asked to do anything at this point! Tell him you’ll let him know if you are going to send her an email about her comments.If you decide not to tell him ahead of time, at least be sure to tell him when it happens. It would not be good protocol at all to send Edie an email about the matter without letting him know. If he finds out he’ll be unhappy and you’ll have two issues to contend with.

3. If you are going to communicate with Edie about this, use the approach I often suggest to supervisors: Make the next time, the first time. It’s difficult to deal with something that has gone on for awhile and most of us will put it off forever if we’ve let it go for very long. But, if you make the next time she takes a potshot at you by email as though it’s the first time, you can essentially start all over again. You can be shocked that she would do that but certain she won’t do it again now that she knows it was a problem. .For example, she writes something that everyone sees, either mildly or severely being critical or making a comment about your skills or abilities. Immediately send her an email (which you could have drafted and ready to adapt to the situation.)”Edie, I didn’t realize you were unhappy with my edits on the widgets article. Do me a favor and let me know in a private email about problems you see with something I’ve produced so we can discuss it. The email today was read by at least 9 people so the remark about my last article was quite embarrassing and demoralizing to me, something I don’t think you intended. If you could put those concerns or comments in a private email or one to Vern and me, I’d appreciate it. Now, about that article”I worded that response that way for a specific reason.*You give yourself a reason for writing, “I didn’t realize.” That also reminds her to talk to you first, before putting it in an email. . *”Do me a favor” and “I’d appreciate it” are both friendly terms that nevertheless convey a strong feeling in this context. No one, seeing this later, could say you were snippy or just as rude as she is. *I left out, “Next time, I would prefer you.”, because that is rather hackneyed and also because you don’t want there to be a next time anyway. In addition, that implies you are directing her, which she probably wouldn’t like. *You don’t waste time, you get right down to it. You state what you want and why you want it and you give her an alternative action if she seriously is concerned. You’re not asking her to never criticize, just asking her to do it privately. Who could argue with that? *You link her behavior to your work. This is a key point. If you don’t say something to indicate her remarks had a negative impact on you, you’re just essentially saying you don’t like to be criticized.

Link her behavior to something seriously inappropriate–demoralizing you. You could soften it by saying, “somewhat demoralizing”. But, make sure you say something that indicates she has done a bad thing. You may think of something other than demoralizing, but there should be something to indicate a problem.I have always maintained that ten “I resent that” comments are outweighed by one “it makes me feel like not working” comment, or, one “it’s having a negative effect on my work” comment. Or even one, “It hurts the team” comment. *You give her an out by saying, “something I don’t think you intended.” It wouldn’t serve your purposes to say, “and you knew it would be embarrassing to me.” You may not want to use that line, but it would be easier for her to change her behavior if she can say, “You’re right, I didn’t mean to do that.” *You end by talking about business. That creates the feeling that you didn’t just write because you were offended. You wrote because you want to do good work. She can pretend she’s not being reprimanded by you, because her main comments will be about work.

4. After you have sent that first email, you have established that she has done something that is harmful to your work and that you are willing to hear her critiques. Then you can see what happens next. She may write and apologize. She may write and say she hasn’t got time to send you personal emails and it’s not her fault you make mistakes and create more work for her. She may escalate her remarks. She might even get huffy and say you are reading things into her comments and she resents being told how she can write her emails. Or, she may not respond at all. But, at least then you will have something to include in a letter to your manager if you must go that route next.

5. If she does it again, write to your manager and remind him of your efforts. Draw the link to work, strongly: “Her actions are very distracting to me and my focus on the work.” Or, something similar. Then, ask him if he can assist you by letting her know that she can write to the two of you privately but it’s harmful to the work and to the team spirit of the editorial department and the company to put critical comments in an email with many readers.That brings us to the next part: What if your boss simply does not want to take this on, even after you’ve done your best to stop it? That’s a difficult thing to deal with. You won’t have many options, short of going over his head, which is probably not a good idea. At that point you may have to sigh each time, know that others also think she is being rude and just keep moving forward, building more influence every day until you can try again to stop her actions. Save the ones that are particularly offensive if you think you will need documentation.If you can do so, try to avoid thinking obsessively about her and her comments. I know that’s asking a lot, but you’ll get tired of thinking of her and others will get tired of hearing about it, you talk to them. If she can’t fire you and can only pick at you, you may be required to tolerate it or leave. You’d hate for her to win in that way! In a situation very similar to yours, which an employee had talked with me about, “Edie’s” manager said he had all the confidence in the world in Edie and although her style was a bit caustic, she was a genius at what she did so he wasn’t going to intrude. The employee just kept working and maybe worked a bit harder to ensure there were no errors or problems. At the same time the employee developed positive relationships in many areas of the company. Three months later Edie was allowed to quit with a severance package instead of being fired. I think having a good employee say how hurtful and harmful Edie was, finally made the manager notice.All of this may seem at least somewhat possible to you or it may not fit your style or your company at all. But, the bottom line is still the same: You have three options at this point: Do nothing. Go to your manager, who so far has done nothing. Start all over and let the editor know you’d prefer another way of being critiqued. It probably won’t be easy to do. However, if you do it courteously, no HR section, higher level manager or anyone else, can say you didn’t handle it right. And once you write your “first” response and hit send, you’ll feel better about having taken the first step.If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. If we can provide any further thoughts, let us know that as well.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.