A reader writes:
I’m wondering how to address a doozy of an email my new boss sent yesterday, which has left my coworkers and me uncomfortable and a bit panicky. In this email to my whole department, she stated HR and senior leadership had informed her about a private chat group connected to our team which often “contains negative and unproductive conversations.” She then went on to remind us that chat conversations are monitored and to make sure our messages are work-appropriate.
The thing is, I am 98% certain I know what chat group she is talking about because it’s the only major chat group my whole team uses, and the only negative comments made recently are about my boss. In my opinion, none of these comments are malicious or cross a line, and there really aren’t a lot of them. For example, after our boss invited the whole team to a meeting with another team where it turned out our department were not the ones who needed to respond to the issue, there was understandably some frustration briefly aired in the chat. Other than those very few and far between criticisms, the chat is very productive and positive. Believe me, I’ve been part of toxic work chats before, and this ain’t it!
A lot of people on my team feel a bit blindsighted and uncomfortable that they are being spied on. There is also a lot of confusion about why HR and upper management are involved and why they would be looking at our chats specifically. My boss is new and has only been in this role for about a month, so this on top of a general lack of communication on expectations and changes she has implemented, has left people very uneasy. Do you have any advice on how to handle something like this? Should I just let it go and let things fall where they may?
Assuming you’re using something like company-run Slack for the chat group, it’s true that you should be aware that anything you write there could be read by your boss or someone else at the company.
It’s also true that monitoring employee chats is really heavy-handed unless there’s some specific reason to look at them (like allegations of harassment or bullying).
I wish we knew if your boss had looked at the group herself before delivering this message, or if she just heard about it from “HR and senior leadership” and was just passing along the message from them at their request.
If she was just passing along the message rather than speaking for herself, I’d be less concerned. Who knows, it’s possible that HR had a legitimate reason to look at the group at some point, were concerned by what they saw, mentioned it to her, and she just dutifully passed on the message to the rest of you without doing any particular investigation herself. You might think the content of the group is mild enough that HR shouldn’t have been concerned, let alone alerted your boss, but sometimes complaints can sound a lot sharper to an outsider than they’re intended within a group.
But if your boss looked at the group herself and the message is her own, I don’t like it.
Any manager should be aware that sometimes people are going to air frustrations about them. People blow off steam and vent, and sometimes managers do things that are genuinely annoying and people are going to talk to each other about that. It doesn’t feel great to come face-to-face with it, but as long as it’s not malicious or so constant that it makes the culture toxic, it’s just something you’ve got to accept as a manager.
And frankly, if it is malicious or so constant that it’s making the whole culture toxic, the first thing a manager should do upon discovering that is some self-reflection about how that situation has come about. Now, maybe your manager has done that (you wouldn’t necessarily know), but ideally she would have taken it as a flag that she needs to be talking to people more and getting a better feel for how things are going, not just issuing a “stop it” edict. If the concerns people were sharing are serious ones, a “stop it” edict won’t help — and if their concerns aren’t serious and this was just light venting, she’s going to look overly heavy-handed.
So if this was your boss’s message to you — as opposed to passing it along at HR’s request — it’s useful information about her style and instincts. Not encouraging information, but useful nonetheless.
But where does that leave you, when you don’t know which of the two scenarios it is? All you can really do is take it as a reminder that private chats on company systems are never private, and if you wouldn’t want your boss to read something you write there, don’t write it. It’s not necessarily that anyone is spying on you, but these are work programs and your employer can have reasons to look at them that have nothing to do with you. (And keep in mind that even if your manager never has any reason to look at your communications, if they’re looking at the messages of someone who was talking to you, they’ll see your side of conversations too.)
The bigger problem, I think, is that you’ve got a new boss who’s not communicating well, while making a bunch of changes. Throw something like this in the middle of it, and of course it’s going to leave people rattled. But she is right that you should remember the company can see everything you do … and there’s not enough info here to know whether this incident says anything beyond that (like that she’s thin-skinned or spying on you, etc.). I’d try to move on from this and just pay a lot of attention to what else you observe from her.
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