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Empowered Email or “Tail” Covering?

Something has gone terribly wrong in email. To understand it, imagine this scenario:

An employee walks into a manager’s office a dozen times a day, asking, "Is this okay?" and "Do you approve of this?" He or she also stops by, saying, "I just want you to know about this in case I am doing it wrong" and "I’m telling you this so I know you are aware of it in case there is trouble ahead."

This scenario takes place in offices, labs, and plants across the globe, each and every day. But the employees are not actually stopping by and talking with their managers. They are copying (cc-ing) their managers on email.

I know this is happening because I hear about it in business writing classes. When I offer the email tip "Avoid copying people on messages they don’t want or need," people regularly say, "I copy my boss whether he wants it or not. I want him to be in the loop in case something comes back to haunt me."   

And when I talk with managers and executives, they say, "I get hundreds of copies of messages every day. I wish people would stop covering their tails." (My definition of "covering their tails," also known as CYA, is "passing on responsibility, putting oneself in a position to accept no responsibility or blame.")

Why are employees sending copies of messages to managers who don’t want to receive them?

Maybe it is because many managers supervise people they never see. The days of the weekly supervisory meeting–the place where employees would check in about challenging situations–have ended in many industries. Perhaps it is because managers supervise many more people, so less time is available for coaching and developing employee confidence. Maybe some companies are bogged down in overly cautious or blaming behavior, leading to a CYA mentality.

But it is a waste of managers’ time, employees’ skills, and email bandwidth when employees constantly cc their managers. Managers who receive hundreds of messages daily are not reading those cc’s. They are glancing at the messages, wishing their employees would stop sending them so many copies, and deleting or filing them–perhaps with a still, small dread that something in an unread message will come back to haunt them.

What is the solution? In the scenario that opened this post, I imagined an employee walking into the manager’s office frequently throughout the day. A good manager would put an end to that behavior quickly. The manager would coach the employee to accept increasing authority and responsibility. Then if the employee stopped by to ask "Is this okay?" he or she would reply, "You are empowered to make that decision. What do you think?" Eventually, the employee would bring up topics for approval only in weekly meetings–not in daily encounters.

Let’s make that happen with email.

Managers, if you want to receive fewer email cc’s from employees who report to you, make clear to them the level of decision-making authority they hold. Coach them to accept responsibility for their decisions and actions. Get agreement that they will not send you copies of their email except in limited special circumstances that you agree on.

Employees, talk to your managers. Find out what types of email they really want and need to be copied on. Develop the knowledge and confidence to stop bringing (roping?) your manager into the loop.

All this is easy for me to say. I work in an office of two people–just my husband and I–and we sit three feet apart. He never complains about my cc’s, and I don’t object to his.

Empowered email? CYA messages? What is your view? What can managers and employees do to reduce debilitating email copies?


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.