The Email Tantrum

by admin on December 28, 2010

I’m a university lecturer teaching a course that is partly online.  For the online part, I am in a group with two other lecturers (Jane and Sarah).  A major part of this is for each of us to run an online tutorial for a particular course section.

At the start of the course we introduced ourselves by email.  Then Jane sends an email saying, “I will do the tutorial on Book 3 and we will all do Book 1”.  OK, nice of you to check with us, but it was no skin off my nose.  I had Book 2.  The first tutorial ran successfully.  Jane then starts emailing me and Sarah reminders, which we already get centrally anyway.  I ignored them; Sarah told her quite tersely to stop it.

Last Saturday was the day for my tutorial to go up, and I had it all prepared.  I go online and there is a message from Jane reminding me that my tutorial is due today and do I need any help?  I say no, thank you, I’m about to post it.  Jane emails, “Obviously the little chat I’ve posted is completely different.”  What little chat is she talking about?  I hadn’t seen that on the forum.  Time to have a look and get my tutorial up.  Except when I go onto the forum, there is a thread called “Book 2 Tutorial”, started by Jane the previous evening.  I open it, and find to my disbelief that Jane has posted an online tutorial for my book.  Not only that, it’s on the exact part of the book I’d chosen for MY tutorial, and she has also put my and Sarah’s names to it!

After thinking it over, I sent Jane a polite email asking why she had done this without checking or asking permission to use my name, and pointed out that I now had to do a completely new tutorial because of it.  I asked her if in future she could please let us both know when she planned to post tutorials, and to keep to her book as agreed to avoid confusion.  I kept it light – I assumed she’d been over-eager or just thoughtless.  It was annoying because it caused me quite a bit more work, but not worth getting angry about.  Sarah emails suggesting we agree some rules just to make sure we don’t have this again.  We both suggest her thread stays up, since students will find it helpful.

Except then Jane responds.  She sends us a hysterically angry email – she accuses us of being horrible, rigid, inconsistent people who leave her to do everything (not true, I’d say I do more than she does), she has NEVER been ‘told off’ before for trying to do the group a service, it is her job, she is so upset and cannot believe what I’m saying, she can’t understand our problem.  I email back, still being polite, saying that Book 2 is my job, not hers, and that using my name without asking before pre-empting my set work is not what we had agreed.  I said that all she had to do was ask me what I’d prepared, to avoid me wasting several hours’ work.  Her second email is another long, sobbing piece about how horrid we are, she is bewildered at the fuss we’re making, she has taken her thread down and will never post anything ever again and she hopes we’re happy now.  I’m reading this in total disbelief that a grown woman is having a tantrum!

Jane then emailed again immediately after that one.  We were so wrong and unkind, and had ruined it all for her, but she would go along with our stupid suggestions to keep the peace.  I ignored her, but Sarah told her that the tutorial aside, fraudulently using colleagues’ names was not only massively discourteous, it was illegal.

No response from Jane since then.  I’ll just pretend this never happened and I don’t know she’s barking, but if she ever tries that again I’ll report her.  What she did to start with was wrong but not horrendous, but her reaction!  I’ve worked in universities for ten years and I’ve never met anyone quite like that before, thank goodness! 1207-10

This is probably one of those situations when it is better to communicate displeasure about behavior by telephone or in person so that there is no misunderstanding from miscomprehended email messages.   Sometimes, no matter how dispassionately we think we are writing, it will still come across as harsh.  I am particularly aware of my own tendencies to be very terse in my written communications and it can be perceived as unkind.   When it matters that a breach in a relationship be repaired or at least resolved civilly, it’s time to invest in face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication to reduce, as much as possible, the probability of being misunderstood.

Email is great for the transmission of “just the facts” but when it comes to relationship maintenance, the written word can really suck sometimes.

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Hal December 28, 2010 at 5:05 am

I absolutely agree that using the telephone in cases of dispute is best. Years ago before email I was involved in a similar situation. The note I wrote to another person seemed provocative and unfair when read without the note that triggered it. I learned then the danger of the written response. Verbal conversations are much less likely to be used against one. The email is forever. Be very cautious.

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beckstar December 28, 2010 at 6:54 am

While I appreciate Miss Jeanne’s advice that telephone conversations can be a good way of dealing with situations like this, I fully support the OP in using email as a method of communication here. Jane’s behaviour is causing more work for her colleagues and is possibly in the realms of illegality if she is using other’s names on her work – this kind of thing is massively frowned upon in academic circles. For that reason, the OP is correct to protect hers and Sarah’s academic integrity by keeping a written record of her colleague’s behaviour.

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ferretrick December 28, 2010 at 7:00 am

Perhaps in some personal situations admin would be right about taking the dispute to the telephone or personal meetings. But in a professional situation where one is dealing with a Jane, it is better to keep to e-mail so there is a written record of everything and she cannot twist or misrepresent what was said. I have dealt with too many “Janes” in my career who misrepresented or outright lied about things I said/did to cover their own lack of professional conduct.

I wouldn’t wait for the next incident. I’d enlist Sarah’s support and report her immediately.

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Fox December 28, 2010 at 7:22 am

I totally agree

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Fox December 28, 2010 at 7:30 am

I totally agree about your comments on the pitfalls of e-mail; however, in this situation it seems that the OP’s ONLY relationship to this person was online and she was essentially discussing a “professional” matter rather than a personal one. Considering that she and Jane had never met in person, I think it may have come across as even more offensive to Jane that the OP telephone her to chastise her. I would likely consider that an “escalation” if I already felt I was under attack. (On topic: I’ve also had to work with people like Jane in an academic setting, who ignore agreed-upon rules concerning who should do what and then act like a martyr and complain that they did “all” the work. Sometimes these people are just anxious that the rest of their team won’t deliver, but you need to be clear that part of the task is to work as a GROUP and while you appreciate their efforts, the group will be using YOUR work for your assigned part, thank you.)

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Mechtilde December 28, 2010 at 7:33 am

I think that in these circumstances E Mail was the best way to go, as now the OP has proof of exactly what she said and the reaction to it; should Jane decide to behave like this in the future. I suspect that Jane would have been just as unreasonable on the phone, but then it would have been the OP’s word against Jane’s as to what happened.

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Xtina December 28, 2010 at 8:52 am

I’m going to partially disagree with our E-hell grand dame here–while I agree that e-mail is sometimes hard to read and an in-person or phone chat is truly needed so that the receiver of the message understands one’s tone of voice and intention, in a case like this, a written trail IS needed in order to make sure the exact sequence of events is documented, particularly since this is work-related. True that it would be a good idea to communicate more personally so that there is no misunderstanding of tone, but since something like this could be escalated to the personnel department, documentation is important so that there won’t be any twisting of what was said. I’ve worked in an office setting long enough to know that it is a lifesaver to be able to have written proof of my claims when there is a dispute—he-said, she-said can get you in trouble.

That aside, I see that Jane is one of those types of people who believes that she or he alone carries a group project, attempts to steamroll everyone else, and when they speak up about it, accuses them of being lazy and leaving all the work to her or him, simply because they aren’t “producing” to the schedule that person had set up in their mind. This is a control issue, and a person who cannot trust others enough to give them a chance to do their part. Perhaps a written-out and agreed-upon schedule of dates that was agreed upon at the start of the project would be a good idea so that it is spelled out when everyone will have their work done, but people like Jane will often be fidgety and worried about it even then.

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jen December 28, 2010 at 9:12 am

I agree with the above posters. The OP probably avoided a potential landmine. No matter how the OP worded her email, when you’re in a professional environment it’s important to remain professional. “Jane” was very unprofessional, and might have been not entirely truthful when recounting any phone conversations. When using email you can also take time to weigh what you say. It doesn’t happen often, but whenever I have to send a potentially upsetting email I always wait a bit, and if it’s appropriate I sometimes get someone else to read the email and get them to tell me how I’m coming across.

When it comes to personal relationships, I agree that a phone conversation (or better yet, a face-to-face conversation) is usually best, but in a professional setting it’s sometimes safer to get everything on record.

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Goldie December 28, 2010 at 10:14 am

I second what most of the commenters said. This is a professional conflict, not a personal disagreement. At this point, everything needs to be in writing, otherwise it’s Jane’s word against the OP’s, and, as we’ve seen, Jane has an interesting way of twisting people’s words. In fact, I suggest that all professional communication with Jane from here on out is done via chat/forum/email and saved, and in case of email, someone other than Jane should be CC’d at all times – otherwise she’ll claim she never got the email, or that the email she received looked “completely different”.

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Jillybean December 28, 2010 at 10:19 am

Count me among those advocating the paper trail. It is an invaluable resource in a business setting. It’s a little thing called CYA (cover your, you know what). Further, I find that many people just don’t take criticism well, period, but often when that criticism comes face-to-face, the person feels cornered and gets extra defensive. I find you have a greater chance of needless escalation in person. I suspect that would have been the case with Jane – complete with waterworks and hysteria.

That said, I also think it’s a very valuable lesson for people to learn that if it an email upsets them in any way, to wait before responding until you can be calm and rationale.

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SS December 28, 2010 at 10:19 am

I’ve participated in online university courses, and the professor was in a different COUNTRY from some of the students and other lecturers. Obviously, a face-to-face would be impossible. This leaves the phone. These courses are done ENTIRELY online. Switching to another medium for an issue is not to be taken lightly, plus there is no record. I always emailed conflicts to professors to have that paper trail. It sounds like Jane was called out on her behaviour properly, and chose to get defensive and “blame the victim”. Very mature behaviour from a lecturer.

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etimodnar December 28, 2010 at 10:30 am

Wow, as a university student who is occasionally assigned the dreaded group project, I am so very delighted to hear that LECTURERS deal with the same sort of crap that us students go through. It seems there is no ivory tower of civility once one become an elite academic. I feel better about my humble primary teacher aspirations now. ;D

Also, I agree with the other commenters about keeping it to email. It was an online component of the unit, the primary method of communication is through email and forums and the initial inquiry into Jane’s actions via email was entirely justifiable as a phone call would have likely escalated the situation.

I find it particularly unsavory that Jane “helpfully” emails another adult “reminding” her about a due date (yeesh, she’s not a student!!) after she’s already posted her own discussion the night before! My insides squirm!!

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Ruth December 28, 2010 at 10:53 am

As others have said, since it was an entirely online relationship, taking it to the phone level would’ve been a serious escalation of the situation. If they’d had an offline working relationship, then phoning or dropping by the other’s office (assuming they worked at the same uni) would’ve probably been the waay to go. But not in this case. The record is also useful in case Jane gets nuttier.

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Elizabeth December 28, 2010 at 11:15 am

I don’t think “Sometimes, no matter how dispassionately we think we are writing, it will still come across as harsh” is a fair comment here. Jane’s behavior is controlling and down-right fraudulent; her response to objection is irrational and over-the-top. Let’s not blame the victim.

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Daisy December 28, 2010 at 11:22 am

I agree with those who point out the necessity of an email trail. The Janes of the world love drama and see themselves as the central figure in every set piece; they may easily escalate things to a higher authority because everyone is being “mean” to them. In addition, using someone else’s name in a professional setting, especially to “credit” them with written work they have not done, is unethical and may lead to all sorts of questions about who is actually doing the work that the university is paying for. Telephone calls can be just as misconstrued if one of the parties is determined to take offense. It’s best to be able to prove what actually was said, and when.

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TheOtherAmber December 28, 2010 at 11:43 am

As someone who worked in a university for over a decade, and who’s husband is a professor, let me say that phone is NOT the way to go about handling something like this. For something like this what you not only want, but NEED, is a paper trail. Universities are rife with internal politics (moreso than government!) and manipulation. Opportunities for advancement, course assignments, positions etc are often not based on merit but more on how friendly you are with the decision makers, and how much you can discredit your competition. The OP may need to disprove Jane’s allegations about this incident at some point in the future. Or, Jane may continue to be difficult to work with and intentionally cause problems at which point the OP will have to discuss her actions with the head of the department – again very difficult to do if you don’t have a paper trail.

A university is NOT a normal work environment. Working in a university is all about CYA, which is what the OP has done, and it was exactly appropriate for the situation.

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Gloria Shiner December 28, 2010 at 11:47 am

It sounds like all of these players are at the same institution, so I’m wondering if they ever met in person. While I agree that having a paper trail is a good idea, it seems that meeting for a couple of hours to come to agreement about the course would have avoided a lot of these problems.

Instead of having Jane dictate the schedule and lesson plan for all three, all three could have come to agreement during the meeting, there could have been a list of action items, and the agreement could have then been written and sent out via email.

I’m seeing these kinds of problems a lot more recently because people are reluctant to “waste time” having a face-to-face meeting. They then spend much more time than the two hours the meeting would have taken dealing with resulting problems.

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bookworm December 28, 2010 at 12:49 pm

None of these women have a boss or supervisor that they can forward these emails to?

I find it unbelievable that they’re allowing it to go on this long without getting some sort of interference from a higher up.

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Chelsey December 28, 2010 at 12:56 pm

I agree with the Admin. I do prefer to correspond through email, but some people just don’t understand that when you sound terse or unkind in an email, that doesn’t mean you’re actually trying to be mean. I had a professor who was like this, only because he didn’t like wasting time trying to sound polite…he just wanted to get to the point. But he was one of the nicest men I knew, so I knew not to take it personally. Some people just don’t realize that, so it’s best to just communicate on the phone or in person, especially when you don’t know a person well.

HOWEVER, this woman obviously has some kind of problem since she basically took over the OPs job without consent and used his and Sarah’s names (which, as she said, is illegal). So maybe having that “written trail,” as one commenter put it, as a good idea in this particular case.

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Jillybean December 28, 2010 at 2:15 pm

@ Gloria – I got the impression that meeting wasn’t really an option, but, if it were I would agree that often sitting together for an hour or two to hash out the game plan is better than an endless chain of emails. But, I would still follow even that up with an email such as, “Hi All! Great meeting today. I just wanted to send out a quick email to summarize the meeting so we have it to refer to later. Let me know if I’ve misrepresented anything here.” And then I’d go on to list all that was agreed upon. Though, in this case, I highly doubt it would have matter, since quite frankly, Jane made (dictated) all the decisions without any input, and then STILL didn’t follow them.

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Laura December 28, 2010 at 2:35 pm

While I agree that Ms. Jeanne is right about e mail not always being a good way to solve conflict (there are some people I will not e mail because even “How’s the weather in DC” can turn into a misunderstanding!) but I also agree about this being a work situation and I am glad they have a paper trail to document who did what and why. (Especially if the course is audited for accreditation or something… the OP and other teacher could be in a bad situation.)

It sounds like these are literature teachers, though.. it is a shame that they are having such communication problems.

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OP December 28, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Gloria – OP here. Yes, we are in the same department but no, we don’t all live in the same part of the country. Sarah lives about 3 hours away from me – I don’t know where Jane lives. It’s a specific UK university that covers all regions. We are in the same region, with a central department, but we live in all corners of it. We’ve never met and are unlikely to do so. If we wanted a face to face meeting, we would have to arrange to travel to the Centre (a couple of hours), book a meeting room there, or meet somewhere else.

Sarah and I agreed Jane’s suggestions about the course, and it was clearly written out via email who would do what when – Jane just ignored it when it suited her, for reasons I still don’t know (because she wouldn’t explain to us). Given that, I’m glad I didn’t waste a whole day going to a meeting with her, because I suspect she’d have done exactly the same anyway!

I have reported her for use of my name without my permission, more to cover my back, so the Centre knows what happened. I can’t say I was happy doing it, but I don’t trust her.

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Phoebe161 December 28, 2010 at 3:37 pm

I must agree with all the above posters–it’s essential that in any business climate to CYA with written documention. I’ve TA’ed a few on-line classes where all communication was thru the class forum or e-mail–no phone calls. You quickly learn to think thru & edit each e-mail/posting sent for appropriate content, & to think thru your “gut reaction” to each email/posting received. And, yes, I’ve received a few not-so-nice e-mails from students, one which I had to respond to that took some self-control to keep the email on a professional basis. (It helped knowing the professor was receiving a cc:!) On a slightly side note, we (where I work) tell people often that if there is not a WRITTEN record of training given, then the training did NOT take place–something that OSHA, EPA & other agencies will fine a company for not having.

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Geekgirl December 28, 2010 at 4:01 pm

My union advocates doing everything via email. That way there is a paper trail, especially important when you are dealing with people who say one thing and do another. Otherwise industrial disputes (and I suspect someone like Jane will end up in the middle of one if she keeps behaving like this) degenerate into ‘he said, she said’. Also, if Jane claims harrassment (and I bet she does), emails are proof of what went on – phone calls and face to face conversations have no proof.

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Shores December 28, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I agree with many of the others. It is extremely likely that these instructors do not know each other in person and would find it inappropriate to move from their “workplace” (the internet) to their personal phones for a work issue. If the instructors had a relationship in real life or over the phone, it is unlikely that they would have introduced themselves in an email at the beginning of the course.

The only suggestion I would make for the writer is to take the issue to the head of their department without bringing up the drama and ask for clarification on the division of duties and posting. This would give the 2 who are being stepped on some backup that they can point to when Jane gets out of line. Jane way overstepped her boundaries here and needs to be put back in her place.

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Onlyme December 28, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Hi

I think that you should report this, now.

I am betting from personal experience that if “Jane” is like this with you, well you’re not the only one. Imagine the surprise it will be to someone when they have to discipline “Jane” when they ask why this wasn’t brought to their attention before. I worked with something like Jane, basically I didn’t like their behaviour and it wasn’t professional. I reported it stating “NO malice intended, I haven’t said anything personally to the person” but this is not professional.

Onlyme

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Just Laura December 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm

I too work in a university, and a paper trail is not only suggested, it is expected. What the OP did was entirely appropriate. However, had there been a phone conversation, a written record of the conversation filed away would be a good idea.

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Maitri December 28, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Jane needs to learn to let things go. If the OP had failed to post her part of the course on time, then that would have been the OP’s problem, not Jane’s, and the OP would have had to answer for it. Her lack of preparedness would not have reflected badly on Jane. One reminder, sure. Anything more than that and Jane’s stalking her co-workers, which is scary.

I have a boss who’s notorious for firing off snippy-seeming emails about minor issues, but then when you try to talk to her face-to-face about it, she’s smiling and “I don’t care, whatever.” We all ignore her at this point.

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--Lia December 28, 2010 at 6:42 pm

My idea of hell is consensus rule. I’d rather work for a tyrant who made unreasonable demands than be asked to work it out with an equal . Look what happens when you try to agree on rules and stick to them. To repair the damage, don’t these people have a boss? A department head, a dean? Someone who can tell them who does what and what’s appropriate behavior? I’m not suggesting tattling. I’m suggesting going to the person in charge and saying that you need help figuring out how to team teach, that you want help determining who does what, help handling disagreements, maybe someone to give assignments.

Each tutor doing the chapters individually anyway isn’t working together. It’s giving the students piecemeal. Ideally, you’d be working together and filling in each others’ gaps. This is something that should be handled at the management level.

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Kristen December 28, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Just wanted to add another voice to the “paper trail” side. I have a client who always calls instead of emailing, and it drives us up the wall. We NEED a record of what was said. It’s also why so many customer service centers record phone calls.

Besides, in this case, does it really matter if the OP’s tone came across as overly stern? As long as it wasn’t wildly inappropriate language, it was a business setting, and Jane should have been able to deal with it. We all get emails at work that are overly harsh, whether intentional or not. But we pull on our big-girl pants and respond like normal adults.

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karma December 29, 2010 at 11:24 am

I agree that keeping this exchange in writing is best. The people involved probably live in different towns, and likely have an online work relationship only. It’s fairly invasive to call someone on their personal line to discuss this when the environment is web-based.
Additionally, email exchanges act as documentation when there is a problem. The first question always asked in disputes is: “Did you let the offender know that this was not acceptable?” Having that proof in writing always works better than he-said-she-said verbal exchanges.

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Yvaine December 29, 2010 at 11:25 am

Yet another vote for “paper trail.”

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Enna December 29, 2010 at 12:04 pm

As soon as Jane had strated to behave unprofessionally it should’ve been reported to a superior. Email can be good for a record – if it is professional then yes it is useful however sometimes things can be misintrupered so it is careful to choose the right words. Email can be a double edged sword. Where I worship there was a bit of a clash in the meeting and some people from outside the area warned that emails aren’t good when there is a disagreement: I can see where the Admin is coming from.

As this is an academic situation it is wrong – illgeal etc to put another acadmeic’s name to work which isn’t their’s even if you wrote it. It is plagerism in reverse but still a form of plagerism. What happens if a student quotes or uses this material and uses the wrong name? Jane might use this as away to “get back” at OP and Sarah later on. Or could cause problems later on.

When I was at University lecturers would put lecture notes up on the univeristy’s intranet. Some would put up an “index” of what lectures were going to be about and the dates, also if there was more than one lectuerer for that module/subject the lectuerer’s name would be put up. This meant that the students knew what was going on. Also if they had missed something or were stuck on something they could contact that lectuer too.

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AS December 29, 2010 at 2:25 pm

I agree with other posters and respectfully disagree with admin on this one – the way Jane is behaving, it is better to keep paper trail of the conversations just in case OP and Sarah needs to report, and e-mail is the best way. That way, you can show that Jane totally over-reacted to your very professional mail, and she is acting more like a 6th-grader who wants to be the centre of attraction, rather than a a University lecturer.

OP, you and Sarah seemed to have dolt with the matter well.

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karma December 29, 2010 at 2:46 pm

I’m glad the OP let her supervisor know that Jane had put stuff up in other people’s names. That is SO not cool at this level of academia. Jane was out of line, pure and simple, and her tantrum was completely unprofessional.

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LovleAnjel December 29, 2010 at 5:17 pm

@bookworm

In a University there is generally no “supervisor” or “boss” for faculty. The faculty take turns being the head of a department, who functions more as a go-between for the faculty and administration (if this is untrue in the UK, my apologies). The Dean would be the “next up”, but I wouldn’t take a work squabble to them. It makes everyone involved look unprofessional and can bite you in the butt later. Unless this directly affected the students or might be actionable, CYA and keep the emails saved somewhere.

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SJ December 29, 2010 at 7:13 pm

I agree that in an email, your reader will probably get a different tone than you intended.

However, Jane’s little emails and reminders and stuff up to this point seem to show that she’s a control freak. When she got put on the spot, she turned the blame around.

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akhdubon December 30, 2010 at 9:01 pm

This doesn’t have to be and either or situation. I work for a local health department. Frequently, I contact the state health department for guidance, etc. We talk about it. Then I send an email saying, “Just want to be sure I understood. We’ll be …..” Nothing is lost in translation and there’s a paper trail. Ta Dah!! Fortunately Jane doesn’t work at the state or local health department.

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Wink-n-Smile January 5, 2011 at 1:44 pm

“Dear Jane:

“Thank you for your email. I’m sure our representatives in Human Resources will find it very enlightening. Attached, please find all previous emails and screen shots pertinent to this conversation.

“cc: Sarah, Human Resources”

Send

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