How to deal

with an office e-war

How to deal with an office e-war

Tired of passive aggressive or rude emails? Try these tips

By Kate Allman | 31 March 2016


Every now and then, we receive emails that really grind our gears at work. Whether it’s the sullen one-word response, the snarky “reply all”, or – worst – the managerial “CC”, certain emails have a unique knack of getting under our skin and making our blood boil.

A simple word, “Noted.” (note the deliberately-placed full stop), can make us seethe at our computer screens. “Thanks in advance”, exerts power through teeth-grinding politeness. And “happy to discuss” almost certainly means there is no point discussing anything because a decision has been made. The Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway describes it well, calling email “perfect for communicating hostility passively, without getting caught."

If you hit back with honest, overt rage, you’ll be meeting with the Human Resources team faster than you can archive the evidence. If you don’t respond at all, you could be accused of not doing your job. Email, as Kellaway writes, is “the weapon wielded by the passive aggressive colleague” and is extremely difficult to respond to.

Rachel Clements, Director of Psychological Services at Sydney’s Centre for Corporate Health, makes a living mediating workplace conflicts. She has seen communication breakdowns turn into full-blown office wars through email. “Problems escalate if someone writes something that the other person perceives in a different way,” says Clements. “We call it the ‘ladder of inference'. People go shooting up the ladder of inference and end up making big assumptions that change their overall perception and behaviour toward the other person.”

So, what is the best way to deal with infuriating emails?

1. Stop and think

“If you’re picking up undertones of anything passive aggressive in an email, I would be inclined to take some time, stop and think before you react,” says Clements. “Don’t react straight away. Maybe reply a few hours later, maybe even a day later. By buying that thinking time, you can formulate a constructive way to respond.”

Clements says that when our emotional brain is firing, the rational parts of our brain shrink. We are not thinking logically when we respond in the heat of the moment – which is why it is best not to. Instead, if you really want to vent and write that angry email, email it to yourself and come back to it the next day. You will likely be relieved that you didn’t send it.

2. Meet face-to-face

Fiona Craig, professional coach and careers columnist for the LSJ says you should resist the urge to bite back online. Approach the person face-to-face and give them an opportunity to explain.

“The danger with email is that it can be difficult to get the right tone,” says Craig. “Be the bigger person and go and see the sender in person, or at least pick up the phone. Do your best not to make assumptions about what’s going on in the other person’s head.”

3. Try damage control

Despite all forewarning, sometimes the heat of the moment causes us to over-boil. If you fired back a vitriolic response that you later regret, you’ll need to extract your foot from your mouth and start eating humble pie. E-damage control starts with an apology.

“We get people to use a DESC script,” says Clements. “Approach the other person and start by Describing what happened, Explain how you feel, Specify what you’d like to do next time and discuss potential Consequences that will help you both to move forward in a constructive way. Own your behaviour and don’t make excuses for it. This goes a long way toward disarming the other person and forming an authentic apology.”