Email, a Modern Expression of Passive Aggression

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One of my responsibilities is managing a team in another state. That department is used to a lot of freedom. I’ve implemented structure, and it’s going smoothly. Recently, I’ve come upon a challenge of managing a long-term employee who is also a mother of two small kids.

Prepandemic, this employee would drop her work to stay home if her child was sick. Her role is client facing and appointment-based so rescheduling a full day of appointments on a moment’s notice is disruptive, but when it happens occasionally it’s not a big deal. Now, however, with Covid-19 scares and potential exposures, she has been missing a lot of work and even demanding — on multiple occasions — 14 days off for her kids’ school quarantines. We talked it through and I thought we had come to an agreement about how to proceed, but it came up again and she plainly stated she’s not interested in making a backup plan for these not-so-isolated instances.

She’s loyal and good at her job, albeit doing the minimum. I want to be supportive and provide the appropriate accommodations for parenthood. But how much is too much? At what point is she taking advantage of her status as a senior employee?

— Anonymous, New York

With the pandemic, we’re all having to be more flexible about schedules and fulfilling responsibilities. I commend you for supporting this woman as both an employee and a mother. All employers should do that. When you and your employee mutually agree on a way forward and she doesn’t hold up her part of the bargain, you have a problem that must be managed. She doesn’t have to be interested in making a backup plan for meeting her responsibilities, but she needs to do it anyway. It isn’t up to her.

Refusing to have a backup plan for when the work of raising her family must take precedence is … irresponsible and strange. That is definitely too much. She is, indeed, taking advantage of her seniority. Give her a timeline and your expectations for developing contingencies when necessary. You should also outline consequences if she doesn’t comply and be prepared to follow through on those consequences. There is a mutually beneficial way to accommodate parenthood while supporting your staff members in performing their jobs well. I am confident that you will find it.

I’m in grad school and I work pretty closely with a colleague in another graduate program at a nearby university. Every time I email him directly, he copies my (very wonderful but extremely overworked) adviser on his response. This really irks me because I intentionally leave her off less important email chains, because I know how out of control her work inbox is and I don’t want to clutter it with more irrelevant messages. I also think this makes me look bad — as if I messed up and forgot to include her on all of these email chains, when in fact I intentionally left her off them.

Should I confront my colleague (a fellow grad student) about this behavior and ask him to stop? Or should I let it go and accept that this is just the way he emails?

— Lauren, California

People play all kinds of ridiculous games with email. Think of it as modern expressions of passive aggression. Your colleague is cc’ing your boss so she knows what he is up to. He is trying to make his work visible to a person with power. Or, he doesn’t respect your authority or competence and is looping in the person whose authority he does respect. It’s transparent and annoying, but just let it go. You certainly can ask him to stop but, in doing so, you might create unnecessary drama. This would irk me, too, for the record, but it’s a nuisance you can process in your group chat or with friends over drinks once you’re all vaccinated.

As for your leaving your boss off emails and your concerns about looking bad, it’s a thoughtful gesture, but it is not your job to manage her inbox. She is a grown woman who can handle her professional communication. If she doesn’t want to be copied on this pedant’s emails, she is perfectly capable of letting him know. If it will make you feel better, you can embrace the petty and copy his boss when you email him. He’ll get the message fairly quickly.

Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at

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