What is the best way to respond to boss' negative email?
February 19, 2008 8:12 PM   Subscribe

How do I respond to a disciplinary email from my boss?

This morning I received an email from my boss regarding my performance on the job--specifically, regarding being late on a couple of deadlines in recent months. The letter threatened that in the future, being late would "not be tolerated." There was no further explanation of what this entailed.

I'm not going to deny that I have been late with work. In fact, it was the one negative element of my performance review last June. Still, I have always notified my boss when I'm going to miss a deadline (which she requested I do in today's email, making it look like I hadn't been doing that all along); I am responsible for a significantly larger portion of work, requiring dealing with an exponentially larger group of outside clients, than any other staffers (which has never been acknowledged); and I'm not the only person who has missed deadlines (and when I have, it's typically due to one of those outside people not coming through). I'm not going to make excuses for myself, because I know it's a problem, and I've worked hard to improve.

Finally, the email contained a forwarded message from a new employee to my boss, which made me sound as if I'd been derelict. Basically, the new employee wants information from me on a certain date, but that date is well before I'm due to receive it from clients. I set my date for the clients about a week before she set the date for me, but her email to the boss makes it sound otherwise, like I was scrambling for more time.

I would like to explain myself and clarify what potential consequences await me, but I'm not sure that email is the appropriate way to do so. (Further complicating this is that Tuesday is the one day a week I work at home--it seems really passive-aggressive on my boss' part to send this on a day when I'm not even in the office. She couldn't have discussed this with me in person tomorrow?) And I'm not sure whether defending myself will serve any purpose anyway--I don't want to make excuses, and I'm starting to feel railroaded here.

So I seek advice from more business-savvy minds. If I'd been in the office today, presumably my boss would have actually spoken to me. Since she didn't, is it wise to speak to her in person, or should I continue the "paper" trail? Is it worth trying to explain/defend myself at all?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Continue the paper trail stating the exact facts and timelines of everything involved. If you messed up somewhere, acknowledge it and what you'll do to address the specific problem along with how you propose handle the situation in the future so it doesn't happen again.

Then, follow up and ask to speak with your boss in person on the specifics. Make sure you do this piece. I've had far too many employees avoid me and only discuss these things in email. It immediately drops them down a few levels on the maturity scale.

Be greatful that you at least have a boss addressing the issue with you directly.
posted by Octoparrot at 8:20 PM on February 19, 2008

It's tough to say, it really depends on your relationship with your boss.

Generally I'd say email him or her back and say something along the lines, "Thank you for the email. Let's set aside sometime to meet in private about the issues you've raised." Then prepare a few statements addressing each of the points mentioned in the email.

Definitely call your boss on the fact that you do always inform him of changes to deadlines, ask him to clarify what he means by not being "tolerated" (surely he most know that now all delays are directly your fault), and I would also bring up the forwarded/attached/quoted email from the other worker. Suggest that all three of you should get together to discuss that problem (your boss won't go for that, but it puts the onus back on him.)

Good luck!
posted by wfrgms at 8:27 PM on February 19, 2008

I would definitely follow the advice of asking to speak about it in person. I would also start sending out resumes immediately. It sounds like your boss has stopped trusting you, and once that's gone you can't get it back.
posted by sweetkid at 8:29 PM on February 19, 2008

I would not respond at length in the email at all. I would simply reply, "I received your email and would like to discuss this with you Wednesday morning." Then, talk to boss in person and state your case.

You say you are feeling railroaded, but it is you who has missed deadlines even after being warned. You are driving the train. Hopefully not like Casey Jones.

Send separate email to new employee with a cc to Boss that says, "Our valued customer is scheduled to give me the information you need on x date. As soon as I receive the information I will forward it to you. I do not think it wise to pressure the customer to produce the information any earlier."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:34 PM on February 19, 2008

I'd suggest you stop making excuses, to your boss and yourself, about missing deadlines. Otherwise it is going to cost you this job and it may well cost you others in future.
posted by unSane at 8:36 PM on February 19, 2008

The reason this was put in an email was so your boss would have a paper trail in your personnel file for if/when they actually do fire you. I'm sorry to say this, but once a boss has made up his/her mind about your performance, it is 10x harder to dig yourself out of the hole. You can try an in-person meeting, but what's going to get you back in good graces is meeting her expectations. Even, unfortunately, if those expectations are unreasonable or insane. Sucks. Sorry.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:41 PM on February 19, 2008

I would respond with a request to meet with your boss and the new employee in a non-confrontational way. The response would be something to the effect of "I believe that we have a process problem that needs to be solved in order for our team to work more efficiently" yadda, yadda, yadda. I have some ideas that might help solve the deadline problems that have been occuring in our department." Then show up for the meeting with real ideas that demonstrate that you have been making an effort and that you have been establishing deadlines well before the ones needed by the new employee.

Don't be defensive, take a positive approach but make it clear that the new employee needs to be involved in the discussion as well. You are acknowledging the problem and offering to help work out a solution. You have been given the "end-around" in a way by the new employee and the best way to handle it is to confront it so that you acknowledge that you are aware that it has happened but it turns into a problem-solving opportunity. That way the new employee doesn't get away with tattling. By forwarding the email, this was probably the boss's not-so-subtle way of letting you know what was happening behind your back.
posted by tamitang at 8:42 PM on February 19, 2008

Is New Employee the boss's Boss's nephew? Honestly, I think you're right, and you are being railroaded - seems like they are creating a paper trail of evidence to fire you with.

Of course, I am unbelievably paranoid about these kinda things.
posted by clh at 8:47 PM on February 19, 2008

nthing discussing with the boss in person asap after notifying her of your desire to do so.

it's hard to state reasons without them sounding like excuses so after admitting that yes, you do have a problem with missing deadlines as you have both discussed before, if you reiterate to her your reasons why you have been late in the past, do it swiftly but then follow with solutions—that is, what you think can be done by you and others to facilitate your meeting the deadlines in the future so that you will not continue to miss them. this will make it appear as though you are working towards trying to solve the problems you have enumerated as the reasons for your missing deadlines rather than leaving it at those reasons.
posted by violetk at 8:51 PM on February 19, 2008

If you defend yourself, it's important to do both, like Octoparrot says. Taking it to the boss in person may will especially help you if she's a bully because it will demonstrate that you're not going to be intimidated by it.

The larger problem here, which you probably already know about, is the unreasonable expectations your boss is placing on you. This is a chance to drive home to her that when you say something is going to take longer than some arbitrary deadline, she needs to take that seriously.

If this is the kind of company that believes the person doing the task shouldn't have any say in estimating how long it should take, I'd leave. I worked at such a company for years, and it was a lot of misery that I didn't actually have to tolerate.
posted by ignignokt at 8:59 PM on February 19, 2008

I agree with several of the points raised above, both positive and negative.

1) Your deadlines are your deadlines, not your vendors'. If the vendors aren't coming through in time for you to make the deadlines, set theirs earlier, and communicate with the people waiting on you so they don't get surprised. Get extensions, if necessary, by fully explaining the situation first in your own words, before you get tattled on.

2) Do not be too wordy in your email back. wfrgms has pretty good wording on that. Ask to meet in person to discuss it. Be humble. You may have gotten screwed, but you did miss your deadlines. You will work on improving in that area immediately. The meeting will not be a chance to vindicate yourself.

3) Tamitang is right. Boss is ratting out new employee for ratting on you. Good sign. Me, I would throw a hard copy in new employee's box with a request for them to come see me about this. Then I would ream their ass for going behind my back with my boss. Uh, I mean "discuss" how similar problems could be handled "more professionally" in the future. Possibly with blunt objects. That, of course, would make a lifetime enemy, so YMMV. New employee is trying to climb over you, which may be a more dangerous situation in your workplace than a temporarily annoyed boss. Or maybe not. I don't work there.
posted by ctmf at 9:09 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

The reason this was put in an email was so your boss would have a paper trail in your personnel file for if/when they actually do fire you.


It sounds like the boss has had it with you. For whatever the reason, the boss thinks you, not the customers. are to blame for the missed deadlines.

Have you considered being more of a take-no-prisoners, get-it-done-on-time-at-all-costs performer? It sounds like that is the type of employee your boss wants.
posted by jayder at 9:10 PM on February 19, 2008

You're on the verge of being fired. There's likely no salvaging the situation, only delaying the inevitable.

Do what it takes to prevent them from firing you until you can find another job. Perversely, you're a much more attractive candidate to other employers if you have a job than if you don't. So you gotta stay under the radar and not fuck up until you land another opportunity, at which point you jump ship.
posted by randomstriker at 9:27 PM on February 19, 2008

Boss is ratting out new employee for ratting on you. Good sign.

Get real. Boss is using new employee's complaints as ammunition, and you are the target.
posted by randomstriker at 9:29 PM on February 19, 2008

First keep it simple.

Second, if you're overloaded, you must say so. Send an email back to your boss, saying it's best we talk, and email isn't the best forum for such.

When you sit down with your boss, say that you were distressed (as you are!) at his email. You should say, that you've been being diligent in keeping him abreast at the status of your projects; if you are dependent, or hindered by the client(s) then you should state as such. In fact, you should bring him up to date with each and every projects. The email/meeting should be, in fact, exactly that. "I'm concerned because I felt I have been very communicative about the status of the project(s), and since you feel that I am behind, I think it's something we should talk about, to make sure you're up to date on the projects."

It totally sounds like to me that you're taking too much on. And in fact, you should point out to your boss (in a very quiet, non threatening way), that since he knows how much more you're doing (or that you percieve you're doing), that it's best that he delegates some of your workload to other people (and therefore takes responsibility for your missing a deadline, after all, it's his responsibility too.)

I'd even hazard a guess, that your boss isn't reading your 'updates', and just assumes that your due dates are...well, due. This whole process is subtly doing two things:
a) It's covering your ass (and explaining to your boss that you've been keeping him in the loop)
b) A 'cry for help' - that your boss, knowing the deadlines are passing, ought to bring more help (i.e. take some of the work from you and pass it along to other people.)

The item that is unclear on this email is: are you behind because you're slacking? Because you have too many projects? Or because your end clients are not conforming to your internal deadlines?

Somewhere in this meeting, when you've settled whether or not you should give up some of your projects/decide that it's okay that you're behind/get your boss to contact the clients to get them to see the 'urgency'....you need to bring up the fact that his email was threatening and disturbing (and ask how/why being threatened was going to get the job done...)

It certainly seems like your boss (based on your post) knows what's going on and is clearly saying to you that 'you've fucked up' even if it'd be impossible to succeed. This is a clear sign that he's trying to pass the blame/responsibility to you.
posted by filmgeek at 9:37 PM on February 19, 2008

The letter threatened that in the future, being late would "not be tolerated." There was no further explanation of what this entailed.

This almost certainly means you're going to fired if you don't shape up immediately.

ask him to clarify what he means by not being "tolerated"

Do not do this. To put it bluntly, your boss will think you're an idiot, in which case she'll have one more reason to think you're not worth keeping around.
posted by dhammond at 10:21 PM on February 19, 2008

Yeah, by advising you in a trackable way (e-mail) that your performance is unacceptable, you may be terminated with just cause upon the next occurrence, depending on where you live. That is: no severance or notice. In many jurisidictions, mere inability to do a job to spec (on time, on budget, etc.) may not provide just cause, but in some, it can.

In any case, they're about to fire you. Talk with your boss in order to buy some time, but start looking for work.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 10:54 PM on February 19, 2008

Your boss is starting a papertrail. You need to do a combo response - on paper and in person.

The forward from the new employee is ammo. It's the initial point, and your boss is adding his/her own 2p to it to describe your OVERALL unsatisfactory performance, by mentioning discussions you've had in the past about missed deadlines. You miss deadlines, even for good reasons, your boss may look bad to his/her own superiors... they might just be stressed and annoyed that this is happening and are trying to show they're doing something about it.

You need to do five things now:

1) keep in mind that you need to complete the paper trail loop your boss has started, if that makes any sense. The mention of your prior discussions about missed deadlines has opened a door for you to legitimately mention your side of the conversations. (greater work responsibilities, any benchmarks you'd previously agreed, what your boss may have agreed to do to to help remove obstacles to you achieving your deadlines). Your email back doesn't need to be War & Peace, it just needs to agree that the conversation did take place, give highlights of what you'd brought up yourself in the meeting. You also need to schedule time to meet with your boss to discuss the problem more fully.

2) Have that meeting. Have a 3rd party present. Not the new employee. They're just snakey, and they've done you the favour of letting you know that right off the bat. Take minutes. Send an email to your boss after the meeting with the agreed points of change or new targets in a list... and thank them for their time and concern. Give yourself a short enough time to turn things around that it's something on the horizon, yet is achievable & makes sense in the rhythms & cycles of your company or industry. The minutes are key. You need to make sure that there's a written record of what each of you has agreed to do.

3) Actually perform. Remember that a willing horse gets put upon. Not saying you should become one of those "not my job" people, but obviously you need to focus on your job in particular (or at least, the core of it).

4) Have a follow up meeting. Take minutes. Send minutes, asking for confirmation & suggested revisions. In writing. If you've hit your agreed targets, you want written confirmation of this.

4) if your boss doesn't respond to your meeting request or just keeps sending you email about your unsatisfactory performance like the one you've received (but not actually taking that second or third step), get HR involved. It's what they are for. If you don't want to do that, get another manager on the same level as your boss in your section involved. You don't want to leapfrog over your boss to include his/her boss in this meeting, at least not right away.

6) Do all of this, then consider afterwards if you want to stay at this company. If you don't, you have done all you can to show you actually give a crap about your job & your job performance & have behaved professionally. If you do, hey, bonus.

Best of luck!
posted by Grrlscout at 11:20 PM on February 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Actually, that was six things, but I need coffee. Good luck anyway :)
posted by Grrlscout at 11:20 PM on February 19, 2008

I agree you are on the verge of being fired. I agree you need to complete the paper trail (either before the meeting or after, in the form of minutes, if you'd rather present your side in person). I agree you should take the high road the way tamitang or filmgeek presented it. "I am concerned. Something is not working here. Your view of the situation is different from my view. I want us to see eye to eye and figure out how this can work. Let's all discuss what is going wrong and how we can fix it." The high ground is the only way to return to a positive working relationship, if one exists at all, but it does sound like it may be a non-salvageable situation.

Also, for the future, consider that it's your job to make sure their expectations of you are realistic. Their satisfaction with your performance equals the results you produce divided by their expectations. If your attitude is "Take on this extra work? Well, I feel overwhelmed now, but I'll try!", you're not actually doing them any favors -- the favor would be to really think through what the impact on your work will be, and then involve them in deciding if they are okay with that. So, rather than saying, "I am responsible for a significantly larger portion of work, requiring dealing with an exponentially larger group of outside clients, than any other staffers -- therefore I am allowed to miss deadlines," instead say, "I am responsible for a significantly larger portion of work, requiring dealing with an exponentially larger group of outside clients, than any other staffers -- therefore I am concerned about my ability to finish my work on schedule. Can we discuss delegating some work to others, getting me some help, or formally moving back my deadlines?" or "Take on a new project? It sounds interesting, but I want to make sure you understand the potential impact on my other work if I take on this new portion, and make sure that new completion date would be acceptable to you." I know it's hard to predict this in the context of growing responsibilities, and I'd be up-front with them about that, too.

Best of luck!
posted by salvia at 12:24 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's OK to make excuses for yourself, but what you wanto do is justify your behaviour

If you cannot justify your behaviour, cop it on the chin and ensure it doesn't happen again.

If you feel you are being railroaded, then you need to articulate the reasons why you feel this way.

Send your conserns in a polite email and request a meeting to discuss. This will make yourboss feel that she's "got" to you and give you the chance to put your points forward.

Email then meeting. Same points discussed in the the meeting as in the email.
posted by mattoxic at 12:52 AM on February 20, 2008

I'm assuming you don't belong to a union because that's something you tell them. anyway, you can consider a lawsuit, because I'm not sure trying to explain yourself to your boss is going to do much, frankly they're establishing a paper trail to fire you later, as others have said already. if you belong to any kind of minority or have some sort of disability or have been harassed in any way, you might consider talking to a lawyer.
posted by matteo at 3:51 AM on February 20, 2008

I think you should start looking for another job.

My experience as a former supervisor, and from discussions of personnel issues with other managers, is that we avoid formal written warnings for employees we want to keep and handle performance issues with conversation, coaching, etc. instead. Formal written warnings are for employees that we think we might need to fire and thus we need to start a paper trail to justify it.

Firing someone is a big pain in the ass -- it is much better for the to go voluntarily -- so if you spin your desire to leave as "finding something that is a better fit for me" you might even be able to get your current boss to help you with a letter of recommendation or (if you work for a large enough company) help transferring to another department. Maybe a job where deadlines are less important?
posted by Jacqueline at 5:06 AM on February 20, 2008

You need to keep careful track of when you are assigned tasks, when they are due, and when you complete them. When new assignments arrive, you have to negotiate a schedule with your boss that takes into account your current workload. ("I cannot get this to you within a week unless you want to delay when you expect my existing project by a week as well. Which project is higher priority?") You need to have this all down in email or writing with your boss. You are not going to convince your boss about past projects, but if you show a change of attitude and process on paper, you might not get fired.

It may also be that you just work too slow for your boss. And so either your quality needs to suffer, or you need to get a new job.
posted by about_time at 5:08 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, and to specifically answer your question about whether it is "worth it" to defend yourself -- you should do what you need to to protect your professional reputation, but you shouldn't dig in and fight to keep your job.

Hunting for a new job may be scary and stressful in the short-run, but it isn't as bad as the long-run stress and unpleasantness of trying to stay somewhere you aren't wanted and worrying about getting fired. Go find a new job that matches your workstyle better and a new boss that appreciates what you do.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:17 AM on February 20, 2008

The forwarded message seems relatively easy to deal with per many suggestions above. Showing up on time from now on will be important, since that's the easiest pretext they will have to fire you with. Your third item not much discussed above is "missing deadlines". I am wondering if that's pointing to a more serious performance problem that you may not recognize. Forget about your perception that you're handling more workload than others; that may or may not be true, but it's not the place to start fixing things. If you address things in person with your boss, focus on the reasons you think you are missing those deadlines and as for help with those. That is, if you're interested in keeping the job.
posted by beagle at 5:36 AM on February 20, 2008

This sort of thing happens from time to time in my workplace, with varying degrees of severity, depending on the players.

How you should proceed depends upon your relationship with your boss. Agree that you should express your desire to discuss this in person. You also need to add to the papertrail. I suggest the in-face meeting first with an e-mail follow-up to reiterate what was discussed.

Start working on a VERY CAREFULLY worded e-mail referencing some of the extenuating circumstances. This e-mail cannot sound like excuses (and sorry, what you have in your post immediately following the caveat about making excuses sounds excuse-y. It's the approach, not the info, that you need to watch), cannot be an attack or accusation, cannot pass the buck, and in general should be a masterpiece of high-minded restraint.

A strongly-worded e-mail from your boss does not necessarily mean that your days are numbered. I would use "not tolerated" as code for "you're in trouble today" not "start looking, bub." Your boss is starting a paper trail, to be sure, just in case its needed, but I wouldn't consider an e-mail a formal written warning. In my experience, formal warnings involve a trip down to HR requiring you to sign a statement acknowledging a problem situation. All of the folks saying that this person is on the immediate verge of being fired -- wow, you folks can fire someone a lot more easily than any place I've worked. And yes, I work in an at-will state.

There is a problem, and it is partially your fault. Show your boss how you're going to fix it. Defend the work you do for the company.

A job brings together people who wouldn't necessarily collaborate by choice -- you have to be able to take negative criticism without giving up or getting angry.
posted by desuetude at 6:42 AM on February 20, 2008

2¢: Stop making excuses, and stop trying to "explain yourself" or "clarify things" - just apologize profusely, and don't miss the next deadline - if you can't hit your deadlines it sounds like you might need to be replaced with someone who can. People who succeed without crossing their boss are people who say "Yes Sir/Ma'am" to this sort of warning about performance, correct the problem without making it the bosses problem, and who do what they are expected to do (hit deadlines) - your question above is filled with excuses and blame placing. That's not what I look for in an employee - is it what you would look for? I'd be infuriated if you replied to my disciplinary email with anything but "I'm sorry - I'll correct course immediately." and an actual follow through on that promise.
posted by idzyn at 7:30 AM on February 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Regardless of how much you are/aren't to blame for problems up to now, you need to follow Grrlscout's advice to the futhermuckin' letter.

That, and start quietly shopping your resume around. Best of luck.
posted by somanyamys at 8:55 AM on February 20, 2008

anyway, you can consider a lawsuit

Are you seriously suggesting that the poster sue the company because her supervisor called her out for fucking something up?

if you belong to any kind of minority or have some sort of disability or have been harassed in any way, you might consider talking to a lawyer. [emphasis mine]

matteo, I've generally found you to be a thoughtful person (so I hope it's just that you are not expressing yourself clearly here), but suggesting that someone use their minority status as a crutch absent any form of discrimination is completely reprehensible.
posted by dhammond at 3:26 PM on February 20, 2008

Does you company have an HR department and a personnel manual? I may be old-school, but this sort of email, in this manner, seems like a very irregular manner of disciplining an employee. I'm used to the idea that it starts with informal -- verbal -- notices, escalating if needed to a face-to-face meeting with a printed memo copied to your personnel file.

Is this sort of thing typical of the way your company works? If so, I'd look for a new job. If not, ask to talk to your boss face-to-face, maybe with an HR person present in the meeting.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:53 PM on February 20, 2008

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