E mail, a Fashionable Expression of Passive Aggression


One of my jobs is to lead a team in another state. This department is used to a lot of freedom. I’ve implemented structure and it’s running smoothly. I recently encountered the challenge of managing a long-time employee who is also the mother of two young children.

This worker dropped her job to stay home when her child was sick. Her role is customer-centric and appointment-based, so rescheduling appointments for a full day on short notice is annoying, but if it happens occasionally it’s no big deal. Now that Covid-19 is afraid and may be at risk, she has missed a lot of work and even – several times – demanded 14 days off for her children’s school quarantines. We talked about it and I thought we’d agreed on how to go about it, but it came back up and she made it clear that she wasn’t interested in creating a backup plan for these not-so-isolated instances.

She is loyal and good at her job, albeit the minimum. I want to be supportive and provide suitable housing for parenting. But how much is too much? When does she start using her executive status?

– Anonymous, New York

With the pandemic, we all need to be more flexible about schedules and fulfilling responsibilities. I recommend that you support this woman as both an employee and a mother. All employers should do this. If you and your co-worker agree on a way forward and she doesn’t hold up her end of the business, you have a problem that needs to be resolved. She doesn’t have to be interested in creating a backup plan to fulfill her job responsibilities during this challenging time, but she does have to do it anyway. It’s not her.

It’s … irresponsible and strange to refuse to have a backup plan for running customer meetings and appointments when family raising work needs to be a priority. That is definitely too much. She is actually taking advantage of her seniority. Give her a schedule and your expectations for any contingent liability development, if necessary. You should also outline the consequences if she does not meet them and be ready to enforce those consequences. There is a mutually beneficial way of considering parenting while helping your employees get their jobs done. I am confident you will find it.

I’m in graduate school and I work pretty closely with a colleague in another graduate program at a nearby university. Every time I email him direct, he copies my (very wonderful, but extremely overworked) advisor on his reply. This really annoys me because I purposely keep them away from less important email chains because I know how out of control their inbox is and I don’t want to clutter it with more irrelevant messages. I also think it makes me look bad – like I screwed up and forgot to put them on all of those email chains, even though I purposely excluded them from them.

Should I confront my colleague (a fellow student) about this behavior and ask them to stop? Or should I let go of it and accept that he’s just sending an email like that?

– Lauren, California

People play all kinds of ridiculous games with email. Think of it as a modern expression of passive aggression. Your colleague takes care of your boss so she knows what he’s up to. He tries to make his work visible to a person with power. Or he does not respect your authority or competence and repeats the person whose authority he respects. It’s transparent and annoying, but just let go of it. You can certainly ask him to stop, but that way you can create unnecessary drama. That would piss me off too, but it’s a nuisance to handle in your group chat or with friends over a drink when you are all vaccinated.

Stopping your boss from emailing and worrying about looking bad is a thoughtful gesture, but it’s not your job to manage their inbox. She is a grown woman who can handle her professional communication. If she doesn’t want to be copied into that pedant’s emails, she’s perfectly able to let him know. If this makes you feel better, you can hug the little one and copy his boss when you email him. He’ll get the message pretty quickly.

Roxane Gay is the author of Hunger and a contributing opinion maker. Write to her at [email protected].