Transforming Toxic Leaders

Making the Impossible Possible in Troubled Organizations

Email Harassment

Executive coach addresses a corporate leader's poor communication with staff

Another email arrives at 3:30 A.M. from your boss. Unfortunately, you sleep with your  iPhone beside you at your night table. There is no downtime, no sacred time. Does this qualify as email harassment? Why does this manager electronically assault employees 24/7? Is he over stimulated and over functioning or are his employees under achieving and overreacting?

I am brought into such workplace conflicts between leaders and subordinates. It is not unusual for a boss, HR or an employment attorney to confide in me. In one corporation I was privy to hearing the confessions of a manager who was not able to control the urge to shoot that post-midnight email out. This leader was quite aware that he was thoroughly disliked and even hated because he was an over achiever and had the bad habit of aggressively emailing subordinates throughout the night. This superior’s lack of email etiquette and zealousness is not unique. Companies experiencing internal conflicts identify inappropriately timed or excessively aggressive emails as falling within a top ten list of why employees file complaints against their managers.

Employees had made repeated efforts to see whether their boss would consider not emailing them workplace assignments, reflections and revelations throughout the night. He was evasive and non responsive. HR was brought in and they reported that the senior manager was "extremely resistant" and non compliant to the issues raised. Based on several grievances filed leadership determined that they should take further action in order to avoid escalation of what appeared to be a very resolvable dispute.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

When asked to enter in as an executive coach I recognize how the over functioning boss may negatively impact subordinates. Employees commonly feel as if they are being bullied by the seemingly hyper, insomniac, busy bee superior. Can’t this joker close shop at 8 P.M.? How dare this manager attempt to communicate with me electronically when it is six hours past my bed time? Does this leader need lessons in email etiquette and time management or is ‘round the clock workplace communications the new reality in the e-company? On the other side of the dispute I wondered why employees slept beside their activated iPhones. Did they not allow themselvers any down time? In response, several reported that illness in the family and other personal life issues required that their cells be activated at all times.

In this case I unveiled that the emails from this overly functioning boss were a logical consequence and outgrowth of his personality and lifestyle. For example, he frequently dozed off on his living room sofa at midnight and would suddenly wake up at 2:45 A.M with a burning desire to generate a company altering email to his employees. When an epiphany strikes Mr. Lugar he wants to immediately freeze frame the moment and give it shape. Curiously, this nocturnal behavioral pattern was nothing new. In the past, Lugar developed his “A+” MBA research papers during the wee hours of the night. Lugar had a history of highest motivation and through the roof productivity during the three to four hours before dawn. The 3:30 A.M. emails to employees were true to his longtime pattern of after midnight productivity. Whereas the majority of managers would put off emailing their employees until 7:00 A.M., the compulsively inclined boss cannot wait until daybreak. There is an excess of adrenalin pumping in Mr. Lugar’s psyche that compels him to whip that email out to subordinates while most of humanity is fast asleep. Does this constitute harassment?

Does an email challenged and over functioning boss necessarily need to be whipped into shape and coached in politically correct workplace etiquette? To a majority of subordinates a pattern of middle of the night emails represents a faux pas or even a form of harassment. For instance, in this case, the corporate president and CEO badgered me as to whether Mr. Lugar’s 3:30 A.M. emails were the tip of the iceberg and actually pointed toward the leader having deeper issues of obsessive compulsive disorder or some form of psychopathology. In reality, we were just witnessing a somewhat inconsiderate, mildly obnoxious and truly committed leader who has some hyper tendencies and can’t quite turn them off. Once this senior manager has an epiphany his emotions go wild and he is compelled to hit the laptop’s send button despite being 100% aware of potentially negative responses and consequences.

This pattern of frequent 3:00 and 4:00 A.M. emails, however, is a real departmental and companywide concern because of how it impacts a manager’s direct reports. Employees’ interpretations of his outside the box email etiquette is quite legitimate. If five employees file complaints and bombard HR and the paperwork is in turn kicked upstairs to the President, the CEO and the Executive Board then it certainly needs to be sorted out. I was summoned to the scene of the crime.

This case of the crazily timed emails did not reveal a manager with any clinical issues such as obsessive compulsive disorder or adult ADHD. It simply pointed toward a leader and employees who required some mediated eyeball–to-eyeball communication. I gathered the five employees who filed complaints and called a “relationship building meeting” with their boss, Mr. Lugar. The emails were the third item on the agenda. There was no need to overly dramatize the sore point and bad behavior that was already causing mistrust, guilt and anger among a growing number of employees. Dealing with the alleged email harassment during the flow of the meeting, I asked the manager, Mr. Lugar, several questions aimed at probing his cognitive and behavioral patterns and work habits. I questioned Lugar on his history of meeting deadlines in his Ivy League MBA program and while serving in leadership roles at two previous companies. Lugar revealed that midnight to him was like noon to normal employees. He boasted how his best ideas seemed to come to him after 3:00 A.M. and gained momentum until daybreak. Clearly, his obnoxiously timed emails were not intended to intimidate, harass or invade private time.

Present during the Q & A, the five employees at the table were more than a bit surprised. They began to see the emails as more of a statement and behavior consistent with their boss’s personality and work style history and less as an assault upon them personally. The fact that over the past three months they had received approximately fifteen deep night emails suddenly took on a different context and meaning. It was a relief to learn that the emails were not born of mean intentions.

This collective revelation further led me to navigate through the fears at the table. I solicited how the employees had been feeling about Mr. Lugar’s style of leadership. They felt that via his 3:30 A.M. emails Lugar was communicating that employees were not working hard enough and that his team was not sufficiently committed to the round the clock necessities. Lugar in turn pledged that this was certainly not his intention. He was profusely apologetic to employees and assured team members that his workaholic tendencies were only “his way” and it was not intended to imply any shortcomings or inadequacies on the part of his direct reports. As part of the table negotiations Lugar promised to restrict himself to an 8 PM deadline for workday emails. In addition, two employees pleaded comparitive negligence by virtue of sleeping with their activated phones. Perhaps they could turn the ringer down occassionally during the sacred night hours? Smiling faces emerged.

Further examination revealed that this over functioning leader also agitated his employees through a lack of direct communication and self-disclosure. Unfortunately, subordinates felt that Lugar was targeting them for public humiliation and electronic belittling. Ironically, the real culprit that fueled the flame surrounding the alleged email harassment was inadequate eyeball-to-eyeball communication. Lugar only seemed to express his views and commands via email communications while all of his employees were fast asleep. His physical presence and voice was sorely lacking during the workday. Moreover, frustrated and intimidated employees attempted to open conversation during daylight working hours with their boss about the issues but they were brushed aside. Resistance and avoidance prevailed. Especially when there are disconnects and conflicts, straight talk is at a premium. Once the emails started to agitate employees it became quite awkward for this leader to address delicate matters in the flesh. This avoidance behavior, however, directly contributed to the escalation of bad feelings, mistrust and fear.

Important here is the fact that not all questionable or allegedly bad behavior from a boss necessarily signifies malicious intent, corporate misbehavior or a psychopathology. We are rather witnessing managerial blind spots, miscalculations and communication breakdowns. Mr. Lugar over functioned around the clock but still missed numerous opportunities for sorely needed interaction with his subordinates during official office hours. Despite noble intentions on the part of Mr. Lugar, this case illustrates shortcomings and failures in leadership that unattended may spread and turn toxic. What is called for is the need for more open communication venues enabling leaders and employees to talk through incivilities and manage conflict. In this case the objectionable timing of emails required a third party to bring perspective to a communication breakdown. Negotiating an 8 PM deadline and having a better understanding of the leader’s true intentions appeared to soothe the savage beasts and provide much needed diplomacy.

Finally, I leave you with the same question that I started with—did the repeated 3:30 A.M. communications qualify as email harassment? Or was this a case of employees overreacting? Or?

 

 

Alan Goldman, Ph.D., is a professor of management and faculty director of the W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University West.

more...

Subscribe to Transforming Toxic Leaders

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?