The "Bully CC"

Email as a Vehicle for Workplace Bullying

Everyone is familiar with phenomenon of email overload. Our phones are constantly buzzing and if it's not an email, it's a text or Whatsapp or Slack notification. Dr. Melissa Gratias estimates that in the average American workplace, people receive two to three times the number of emails they send. She theorizes that “email breeds email” due to overuse of the CC/carbon copy field. Every day, employees waste precious time in the simple act of filtering out irrelevant emails. Many years ago, on my first day of work at a new company, my manager told me that I “should probably CC at least three people on every email. CC me, I’ll CC you, you CC —— and ——. That’s how we do things at ——. CC everyone all the time”. They phrased it as a joke but I quickly realized they were not kidding. Promoting a culture that values overuse of the CC drains your employees but can also lead to a more sinister outcome: the use of the CC as a form of workplace bullying.

There are perfectly legitimate and innocuous reasons for using the CC function. It exists for a reason: 1) if the message is truly relevant to all recipients; and/or 2) the email contains action items for all recipients. However, if you're using the CC for another reason, it is likely a "bully CC" and you may want to rethink your strategy.

The bully CC appears in the workplace in two main forms:

  • CC’ing someone’s supervisor. This could be innocuously explained away by saying that you’re just “keeping them informed”. However, the act of CC’ing someone’s supervisor (either yours or the recipient's) carries an implied threat. It connotes a lack of professional trust in your colleague and suggests consequences if the recipient does not answer favourably or take the desired action.

  • CC’ing other co-workers. Again, one could apply a theoretically innocent explanation. However, this also carries an implied challenge and can put your co-workers in an awkward position. If you are CC’ing your co-workers without their consent, you are positioning them as pawns in a potential conflict with the recipient. They have to choose between silence (which equates to unequivocal support for your position) and objection (which creates direct opposition to you). If you CC your co-workers with their consent, then you are simply ganging up on the recipient, which is the literal definition of bullying.

All of this is unnecessary and relatively easy to avoid. The reality is that any job includes difficult situations. Often, we must choose whether to manage a given situation with finesse or firmness and making that choice is a nebulous task. If you find yourself tempted to use the bully CC, stop and consider your options.

There are many variations to the following aphorism but the message is consistent: Never embarrass someone in public if you can achieve the same result in private. Even if you find yourself dealing with a truly obstinate or recalcitrant colleague, it is highly unlikely that the weight of a bully CC will improve that relationship. As soon as other people are made privy to a conflict, the ego becomes involved and will often overrule one's better insticts. In the short term, you may get what you want but at what cost? Communication via devices seems to lower our inhibitions and embolden us to do or say things with far less thought than if we had to say it to someone face-to-face. However, just because it feels satisfying in the moment does not mean that it is the smart long-term play.

Like everyone else, I have grown accustomed to the myriad of technology that allows us instant access to people across the globe. However, regardless of the medium, there is truly no substitute for straightforward one-on-one communication. If you are having a challenge with a colleague, approach that person directly. If a colleague is repeatedly neglecting an action item, go privately and directly to your supervisor and ask for their help or their advice. The role of a supervisor is to assist you in resolving these situations; not to loom in the background like a spectre summoned by a bully CC. Ultimately, clear and direct communication will maintain respectful professional relationships and create successful working experience more so than a bully CC ever will.