Snarky emails

How to Respond to a Coworker's Snarky Email

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: I just received what I consider to be a snarky email from a colleague. I’m tempted to respond to him in kind, but I know I should calm down and see if we can resolve the issue. Any tips?

A:  It’s good that you’re resisting the urge to shoot off an equally snarky response. Stepping back and reflecting before responding will go a long way toward finding a positive resolution to this situation.

Email can be an effective communication tool, but it certainly isn’t perfect; this is a useful example of its limitations. Most likely, your colleague felt a lot more powerful when sending this message than he would have if he’d said the words to you in person.

The best approach is to respond to the message without mentioning the offending comment and ask to meet in person. If that’s not possible, talk on the phone. You two need a conversation to clear the air and get to what’s really behind the rude message.

Since emails are words on a screen, it can be hard to tell what your colleague’s true feelings are. Is he really upset about something, or was he trying to be funny? Or is the truth somewhere in between? When you meet, acknowledge that the email made you think there is an unresolved issue between you, but that you’re not sure what that issue might be. Ask for clarification without being defensive or hostile.

Whatever you do, don’t respond with a snide remark of your own. If you want to continue to work together, you need to take a step back and listen.

Whatever you do, don’t respond with a snide remark of your own. If you want to continue to work together, you need to take a step back and listen.

Try to stay calm as you work to learn what motivated the remark. Ask open-ended questions to get additional information. Listen carefully to what your coworker says and what he doesn’t say, and pay attention to body language—this is why talking in person is best. 

If you misinterpreted the remark, your colleague can set you straight so you can continue working well together. But if there is an issue that needs to be resolved, commit to making it right. If you can’t reach a resolution on your own, consider asking HR, a supervisor, or a trusted colleague for help.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected].

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