Ask HR: I Bashed My Manager in an E-Mail to a Co-Worker … and My Boss Found Out

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like him to answer? Submit it here.

In a moment of frustration, I wrote an e-mail to my colleague venting about my manager. She then forwarded it to my boss. There was nothing incriminating, but I wasn’t the kindest in my note. How do I move forward from this?—Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Let’s start with the big takeaway: It’s never a good idea to respond reactively to a momentary feeling of frustration. That’s especially so while at work, where such behavior can damage one’s professional reputation and career pathways.

When you take time to step back and filter your feelings before speaking, your response will seem sound, and it will look far more professional and mature. Hopefully you’ve learned from and forgiven yourself for this misstep (it happens!). But I also hope you realize this story isn’t over yet. How you resolve things—within yourself and with your co-worker(s), manager and boss—is of paramount importance for both your career and workplace culture.

First, I recommend speaking with your manager one on one as soon as possible. Explain the context of your e-mail to give your boss an opportunity to understand what caused the original frustration. However, be careful not to make excuses for your behavior. I don’t know what you said, but it would also probably be wise to apologize (assuming you feel genuine remorse or regret for what you said). They may just be words, but words have power.

Ideally, this can catalyze a productive exchange, and the two of you can move forward unbegrudgingly. As a show of your willingness to change your ways, brainstorm how you might openly discuss matters when differences arise in the future.

I also recommend speaking with your colleague. Share that the e-mail was intended as confidential, and try to figure out what made her forward it. And, just like your conversation with your manager will be, keep the conversation with your colleague collegial.

One other thought: If your boss is not the same person as your manager, you should speak with your boss, too. I add this point because it’s unclear, given the wording of your question. But if I were you, I would play damage control to the best of my abilities by speaking with everyone who knew.

Finally—and I just want to be honest—you should probably sharpen your resume. One of the fundamental tenets of the employee/employer relationship is mutual trust. Because of what you wrote, your boss is unlikely to trust you and may start looking for your replacement. The fact of the matter is your actions may result in negative consequences

No matter the result, the next time you feel frustrated or overwhelmed, take a second. Breathe, take a break, go for a walk. Or if venting helps, do so, but first confirm that your confidante isn’t somehow connected to your professional network.

I imagine the fallout is uncomfortable or difficult to navigate. But tackled with the right attitude and a sincere desire to make amends, your workplace will either forgive or forget, and you will learn and grow in the process.

I wish you the best.

Question: I went to college for a few years but didn’t graduate due to financial and personal challenges. In the interim, I’ve taken more online courses and certifications in my field, but I’m worried my lack of degree will reflect poorly on my resume and in interviews. Any advice on how to navigate this?

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: If I’ve learned anything as a CEO, it’s that every employee has a unique background and history. And I want to be very clear: You don’t need a degree to be incredibly successful in this life.  

We all have to start somewhere. And while it may feel like you’ve just begun, you’re well on your way. With a few years of college under your belt and added courses and certifications, you’ve laid the groundwork for your career.

Besides, not all jobs require a college degree. As the cost of college education has skyrocketed and student loan debt has grown, many people can understand the financial hardship you faced.

And, increasingly, employers are seeking work experience in lieu of a degree, even going so far as to remove the degree as a prerequisite for certain entry-level roles.

I encourage you to use the time in your interview to impress on employers why your outside experience makes you the person for the job. Leverage your skill set and individual expertise as an asset to the organization. Highlight courses and certifications you’ve completed, plus your relevant work experience—and, above all, highlight the strengths of your character and personality. Sometimes, these intangible qualities within you weigh infinitely more than some credential on paper ever could.

If the position you’re after requires a degree, discuss your options with the hiring manager. For example, would this employer consider you as a candidate if you complete your degree within a set time frame? In the meantime, keep your options open, and remember to consider jobs without those requirements, too.

After all, you might land an opportunity that advances your career and provides the flexibility you need to complete your degree.

Just remember: Be yourself. Your value does not depend on having a degree. You have strengths, skills and experience. Know them, own them, keep sharpening them and be strategic in how you use them. In time, things will fall into place.

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