A reader writes:
My coworker, Jane, and I share a common Outlook mailbox and the emails get sorted out to each team member chronologically. Example: first email gets assigned to me, second email gets assigned to Jane, third email gets assigned to me, fourth email gets assigned to Jane. And so on. We can tell who each email is assigned to, as the person sorting adds the appropriate initials to the subject line.
Anyone can do the sorting of the emails, but I find that I do it the majority of the time. And because I do it, I also see follow-up emails that come in — people asking for a status update on email sent in a week or more ago. When these come in, I do a quick search through the mailbox to see if Jane or I have started processing this email and are just waiting on some more information before it’s completed. This does happen sometimes and, in those cases, I reply that the issue is being worked on and what is needed before completion. But more often I have been finding the first email in the deleted folder, having been untouched.
For example, Joe Smith emails on 3/22 asking for the status of a request submitted 3/6. And I find the 3/6 email in the deleted folder, with no replies or forwards and no work having been processed in our systems. And the pattern I am noticing is that all of these emails found in the deleted folder were originally assigned to Jane. I let my manager know when I find these scenarios and then reassign them out as appropriate.
This has been happening for years now, and it happens more frequently in our busy periods. We have had other team members come and leave the department and the only time an email is found in the deleted folder not having been worked on, that email was originally assigned to Jane. We have had team meetings to discuss how this might be happening. My manager suggested once that it’s possibly a system error but IT is unable to tell who or what is deleting these emails. And Jane is just as seemingly baffled as the rest of us.
I have my suspicions that this is not a systems error, because emails seem to disappear a few times a week for a month, we have a team meeting about it, no more emails disappear for three or four months, and then it starts up again. I, of course, have no way to tell if Jane is intentionally deleting emails. Maybe her computer has a serious bug that randomly deletes emails in Outlook. But a lot of red flags are being raised.
I have come to realize that this is somehow not as big of a deal to my manager as I believe it is, so I’m not really expecting anything to change. But it did make me wonder what my options would be if I was the manager.
Could Jane actually face disciplinary action for this if she maintains that she is not intentionally deleting emails and there is no way to determine how these emails are being deleted? How would this even be addressed from an issue of how to make it stop? I can’t imagine she could be put on a PIP if there is the possibility of a systems error, let alone outright fired. What are your thoughts?
Also, does it ever get to be my responsibility to raise this to someone above my manager seeing that it keeps happening?
It seems really unlikely that this is a systems error, given that it’s only happening to emails assigned to Jane, and especially given that it stops for a few months after it’s addressed with you both and then starts up again. (I’m assuming only you and Jane have access to this mailbox.) I would bet money that Jane is deleting emails to avoid having to deal with them.
It’s bizarre that your manager doesn’t seem terribly concerned about this when not only are work requests going ignored (a big problem in itself), but it’s potentially due to the deliberate negligence (and cover-up) of a staff member.
I’m curious who the requests come from. If they’re internal requests from other teams, this has the potential to harm your team’s (and therefore your manager’s) reputation. If they’re coming from the public, maybe she thinks there won’t be real consequences since each sender will think it’s a one-time fluke … whereas if they’re internal, word will start to get around that your team is unreliable.
But I wonder if your manager actually spoke to IT about this or if she told you they can’t resolve it without actually checking with them — because IT should indeed be able to track down some useful data on how items are getting deleted. And they’re unlikely to want people to just accept “oh, we have a bug that randomly deletes emails.” If such a bug existed and they didn’t act, that would reflect badly on them. So my hunch is that she didn’t talk to them, or she did and she’s misrepresenting what they said because she doesn’t want to deal with it.
You asked what your options would be if you were the manager. First, you’d talk to IT, who could probably help you. If for some reason they couldn’t, you could consider ways to build more oversight into the system (for example, more frequent spot-checks, a weekly check of the deleted folder, or a different way of assigning tasks). But there’s also enough here to warrant a manager having straightforward conversation with Jane, pointing out that the deleting stops for a few months every time you address it, it’s only with her emails, and what’s going on? I’d also be looking more closely at Jane’s work generally — is her workload too high? Is she cutting corners in other places? Is she good or bad at follow-through with other tasks? If she’s really deleting emails on the reg to avoid answering them, it’s highly likely that you’d find other problems with her work, and it could make sense to focus there rather than getting sidetracked on having to “prove” this piece of it.
What shouldn’t be an option is just throwing up your hands and saying “oh well,” as your manager seems to have done for years now.
You asked whether Jane could face disciplinary action if there’s no way to prove she’s deleting emails. I remain skeptical that IT can’t help but for the sake of argument, if they couldn’t, you could certainly require her to do things like a regular check of the deleted box to fish out anything that “got deleted on its own.” But also, that’s where the look at the rest of her work comes in — if she’s deleting emails to avoid work, you’re probably going to find other problems.
As for whether it’s your responsibility to raise this to someone who’s not your manager … it depends on the content of the emails and how much your organization would care. If they’re really low-stakes emails (like feedback from the public on something that doesn’t really require a response), it might not rise to that level of escalation. If they’re higher-stakes, I’d look for a way to bring it to someone’s attention, although whether and how to do that will depend on the internal politics there.