I sent an angry response to a work email — was I in the wrong?

A reader writes:

My question is: *If* I was actually the toxic party, how can I recover from this? (If I was in the right, I will have to start job hunting due to the toxic workplace culture at my company!)

I will admit to having a very direct communication style, and that is especially true when I am angry. But I do not believe I should be required to provide a lot of fluff when I let someone know that I feel violated. The incident began when I was forwarded an email that was sent to my boss, his boss, and his boss. The email erroneously stated that I had not taken a required training course that I most certainly had taken. I replied to the original sender that I had taken the course, attached the “transcript” of courses I’d taken, and asked that a correction be sent to my boss’s boss’s boss.

I received a reply saying the data had been pulled 2.5 days before the email was sent and before I took the class. That is when I became angry because those who sent it knew it might be inaccurate and sent it to my company’s second highest executive anyway, without any reference to its potential inaccuracy. I said there was no disclaimer on the data presented in the email, it appeared that I still had not taken the class even after I had done so, and I explained that I felt quite violated because it had been sent to such a high level manager. I added that since the report was sent even though it was known to possibly be outdated, with no indication that it could be incorrect, a correction needed to be sent.

All hell broke loose.

Even though I was the one who was maligned, I was told that I had taken the training later than required (true, but irrelevant to the issue, and the first time in 4.5 years at the company I’d been late) and that my email was harsh and unnecessary. I refused to acknowledge wrongdoing because I was not insulting. I was direct and firm, but did not personally attack her. I do not believe I even came close to crossing a civility line!

It feels very much like I was being gaslighted. First, blame the person who was wronged, then bring up irrelevant wrongdoing on the part of the wronged person to prove it was all deserved, and last — but not least — don’t discuss the email with the person who sent it … get half the executive management of the company (almost literally, in this case) to side with you and have someone else confront her. I believe that if I were male instead of female, I never would have been spoken to about this incident. When a man has written such things, women in my company are told: “That’s just the way he is. Don’t take it personally!” I am still furious.

No details have been omitted. Am I toxic and need to eat crow, or am I working in a toxic corporate culture and need to find another job?

It sounds like you’re really overreacting:

* It’s really normal to pull this kind of list a couple of days before it’s sent out. In this case, it was a list of people who had missed a training deadline — so it makes sense that you were on there because you had indeed missed the deadline (even though you then took the course in the two days that followed).

* You could have rectified the situation by replying to correct the record (which you did) and asking your boss to issue any correction she felt would be necessary to the managers above her. Your boss is better positioned to know if that sort of correction is even necessary; there’s a good chance that it isn’t. (If I got an email telling me that an employee three levels down hadn’t met the deadline for a required training, I’d either assume the person’s direct manager would handle it, since they were also on the email, or — if I were concerned — I’d ask that manager about it … at which point I’d be told the training had happened, problem solved. I’d then spend literally no further time thinking about it, unless it tied into some larger problem. It’s not a big deal.)

* Replying that you felt violated by this is … a lot. That is not something that should typically come up at work in the context of routine emails, likes ones about training deadlines. People are going to see the initial email as a very minor thing, even with its error, but will see your reaction as hugely disproportionate. That is not helpful for you — it means you will have much less capital and credibility the next time something bothers you, and it can make people see you as touchy and difficult to work with.

* Having a very direct communication style is fine, as long as you’re aware of how to operate effectively within the culture you work in. But “especially when I am angry” is problematic when you’re at work. Anger should rarely be a thing you’re expressing at work, particularly in regard to routine interactions like this one. At work, you’re expected to not to take things like this personally. You’ve got to be able to deal with annoying stuff without losing your cool. (More here on that.) To be clear, there can be some things at work that warrant a strong reaction (although usually still a strong, controlled reaction); it’s just that this was minor.

* You could be right that if you were a man, you wouldn’t have been criticized for your email. Lots of companies have sexist double standards like that. But a man should be criticized for a message like this, for all the reasons above. If men in your company are sending over-the-top emails with no repercussions, that’s a problem. (That said, because your assessment of the email you sent is off, it’s hard to know if it’s comparable to what men are sending. If it is, that’s a legitimate beef.)

* It’s not irrelevant that you took the training late. You did take the training late! One consequence of that is that you might be included on a list of people who didn’t take the training on time, even if that list is two days out of date.

* But also, being erroneously included on this list is not a big deal. This isn’t a list of people who should be fired or demoted. It’s a list of people who still need to take a training. You can just note that you’ve now completed it. Done, finished, resolved. You’re not being maligned (that’s a very strong word for a minor administrative thing) or violated (ditto).

Ultimately, this is all a very big reaction to a very small thing. The best thing you can do is to let it go, and maybe send an email to your manager and the other person apologizing for making it into something larger.