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Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Safe or sorry?

This reader admonished another manager's staff member when they failed to follow proper fire safety procedure. The other manager sent an irate email to complain. Who's in the wrong?

Dear Virginia,

I'm line manager of a department in a big conference centre, and recently one of the staff who's under a different manager failed to unlock the fire exits during a performance when I was in charge. Her line manager was away. I emailed her pointing out the dangers and have now had an email from the other manager accusing me of being high-handed with his staff. It was personal and vindictive. Confusingly, when I meet him on a daily basis he's all nicey-nicey. How do I respond to his email?


Yours sincerely,


No doubt there is some ghastly guideline that you should have followed and no doubt there is some ghastly guideline that he should have followed – perhaps you should have gone to him rather than straight to her, perhaps you should have told her rather than emailed her… who knows.

But the essence of this dilemma isn't in the guidelines. It's that someone has written to you extremely unpleasantly and yet appears friendly on the surface.

I think you can assume that his vindictive and personal email was something written in the heat of the moment and represents his childish feeling of anger and fear when he heard you'd ticked off a member of his staff. At some level he clearly feels terribly insecure, has lashed out at you like a threatened animal and, unfortunately, pressed "send".

At another level, however, he equally genuinely wants to be civilised about the matter and may, for all you know, by being so amiable now, be trying to apologise for letting his feelings run away with him.

You've got to respond to his email and I think you would do this best by simply writing back saying that you quite understand how hacked off he must be feeling with you reprimanding a member of his staff. It's important to say this. He needs to have his hurt feelings acknowledged and he needs to feel reassured that, unpleasant as his outburst was, it wasn't stupid. Stupid to send the email, yes, but not stupid to feel the feelings. You must even add that you'd probably feel the same were the positions reversed. This may not be true, because you, perhaps, don't feel threatened, but be kind and forgiving to the poor man. If you make him feel like a total tit, he'll only get at you in other ways in the future. If he feels better, everyone feels better. However, you can say that it was a safety issue and very important and you just wanted to make it quite clear to the person involved that it was a real boob. But you've taken his point and that another time… blah blah

If someone's lying on the floor and having a temper tantrum, it's never a good idea to get down and join them, scratching and punching. It makes you look silly. Far better to smile indulgently, offer them a sweet and give them a kindly pat and make it better. He's doing his best to be civil now. And who knows, we can all get carried away. Isn't that how you'd like him to behave if it was you who ever lost it one day in the same way?

Readers say...

I'm on his side

I assume that the conference experienced no safety issues, so where was the urgency? Workplace etiquette demands that if you have an issue with a member of another manager's staff, you discuss it with the manager, not the employee. And why email? If you absolutely had to reprimand her, which I don't accept, surely a quiet word face to face would be preferable. I'm sorry, I'm on the side of her manager.

Ian Hurdley, by email

You were right

You did the right thing, as everyone's safety was being compromised and the whole point of a performance fire drill is to throw light on safety measures that need to be modified to be better prepared in the event of a real fire. Since the email was personal and vindictive and is obviously affecting you, I think it is important you email back explaining why you sent your original email and let the other manager know that you were not trying to parade your powers over his staff. I think you should copy your supervisor and his supervisor into the email.

Nowmi Zaman, by email

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

Six months ago I made what I thought was a new friend. Since then we've met up a few times, but each time she's either late or she cancels at the last minute or wants to rearrange things. When we meet it's clear she enjoys our meetings just as much as I do, but I'm starting to wonder why she behaves like this. I keep thinking I must have done something wrong, or that she doesn't really want to see me. I don't want to make a fuss because I know she's busy, but should I have it out with her? I feel so second-best.

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Pam to do?

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