Putting a stop to email bullying

November 5th, 2010

Don't have confrontations on email

Bullying has been getting a lot of press lately. In a recent Zogby International study, 54 million Americans say they have been attacked by bullies at work. That is an astounding number.

The definition of bullying is activity that is unfair, humiliating, malicious, vindictive and intended to harm the victim. It is persistent, prolonged and it happens over a period of time.

What we’ve seen is a change in the way people are handling confrontation. Many people are uncomfortable with face-to-face confrontation, so email confrontation is increasing astronomically. People are clearly not uncomfortable with email confrontation.

I’ve recently seen several cases of email bullying. I’m willing to bet that the person involved in the email confrontation was not aware that she was being unfair, humiliating, potentially malicious or vindictive. I’m willing to bet that these people thought they were handing the situation clearly and in a businesslike manner.

That was not the case.

To begin with, confrontation should not be handled via email.

I realize that given the choice, it’s easier to have a confrontation via email rather than face-to-face. It gives us the opportunity to choose our words carefully, and to be very clear and unemotional. It also gives us a valuable paper trail so we don’t have to rely on “he said–she said” afterthought.

So I realize that sometimes these tense conversations are held via email. As much as I advise you not to do that, it does sometimes still happen. If so, here’s what not to do: add someone else to the conversation.

If it is a conversation between you and another person, don’t include others; don’t add anyone to the cc: field. Especially don’t add anyone to the bcc: field, (which includes others in the conversation without the receiver being aware of it). If you are having an issue with one person, don’t bring others into it without permission. That is unfair and potentially humiliating.

A client I’ve been coaching was having an email dialogue with a contractor in another time zone. Things got heated and unexpectedly, several VPs and senior directors from my client’s firm were added to the conversation. My client felt ganged up on; he felt that adding his executives to the discussion was unfair to him. It was certainly humiliating and he felt that his contractor was trying to harm his professional reputation.

That is bullying. Would the bully do this again? Potentially, as it probably worked well for him.

The bully in my example would have defended his position by saying that the senior team needed to be brought into the conversation. While that justification might be accurate, shouldn’t the other party be aware, and agree to that? The bully gave my client no choice.

Be careful you’re not bullying someone on email without being aware of it. How would you feel if the situation were reversed? Would you feel that it was unfair, humiliating, malicious, vindictive and intended to hurt you?

If you’ve ever called a co-worker over to read an email to make sure it sounds okay, don’t send it. I guarantee the tone you are hoping it is read in is not the tone that it will be read in. Pick up the phone or go speak to the individual in person, but don’t handle the conversation via email if there is another option.

And if you are being bullied via email, stop the conversation immediately. Pick up the phone. Find a way to speak to the person using any medium other than email. Take control so your bully cannot continue to bully you.

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This entry was posted on Friday, November 5th, 2010 at 12:16 pm and is filed under Bully, Confrontation Skills, Difficult People at Work. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can trackback from your own site.

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