The Wayward Complaint
School Administrator, March 2020
Scenario: The superintendent receives a lengthy e-mail accidentally sent from a clerk in the district. The message, intended for the clerk’s sister with a similar first name, complains about not getting a job transfer she had requested in the district. It complains about co-workers by name, their behaviors and perceptions of their poor work ethic and mentions possibly filing a grievance about the transfer process. In quick order, the superintendent receives a second e-mail from the disgruntled clerk apologizing and begging her to disregard the first message. Should the superintendent disregard the message as requested or does she have a duty to address the matter raised?
Once known, it’s best the issues raised in the e-mail be addressed directly. People who are dissatisfied with their working conditions and their co-workers won’t experience satisfaction in their jobs and won’t create a healthy work environment for others. To address the issue, the superintendent should respond by expressing concern about the employee’s dissatisfaction and indicate that she is forwarding the original e-mail to the person’s supervisor so the two of them can discuss what might be done to improve the situation.
The superintendent also should remind the employee that district e-mail is a public record, at least in many states, and that this message can’t simply be withdrawn and erased. Anyone interested in her communication could access it. If it was sent from a work e-mail address, this matter is more problematic since she should not be using work e-mail or work time for personal purposes.
If the employee is responsible and effective in her job as a clerk, this error presents an opportunity to initiate a problem-solving dialogue with her supervisor about how to improve the current work situation, perhaps leading to positive change. However, if the complaints she presents represent her own negative attitude toward her fellow employees and the district in general, this would be a good opportunity to either facilitate a transfer or to have her find another work situation outside the district. In either case, it is better that she confront the issues directly rather than remain disgruntled, which impacts the quality of her life and of others around her.
The superintendent should disregard the message as the information in it is unreliable in multiple important ways.
First, it is being expressed by someone with a strongly felt grievance who wants to get out of her workplace (hence her transfer request) and is upset that she is unable to do so (since her transfer request was denied). Small surprise she sees the negative rather than the positive in her situation, including in those with whom she works. Her original disgruntlement may (or may not) be justified, but it is likely too overlain with additional frustration about not getting the transfer for her critiques to be taken at face value.
Second, the intended audience matters in assessing reliability. The clerk intended her e-mail to reach her sister, not the superintendent. One may make all sorts of claims to one’s sister without much (or any) evidence; in fact, the clerk might even be justified in e-mailing exaggerated claims of malfeasance to her sister as a means of blowing off steam, even though they would be indefensible if levied formally. The superintendent has no way of knowing whether the clerk herself believes her own claims would stand up in an investigation—other than that the clerk subsequently asked her to disregard the e-mail, which suggests that the clerk does not believe (or wish) that these allegations should be closely scrutinized.
If the clerk were accusing co-workers of dangerous or illegal behavior—say, putting students directly at risk or misappropriating funds for personal gain—then the superintendent would have reason to overlook the epistemological weaknesses in the clerk’s account and investigate the charges more thoroughly. But in the absence of such concerns, the superintendent should set the message aside and shrug the incident off as normal human folly.
The superintendent needs to follow up on the matter. She can respond to the disgruntled clerk by letting her know that, though the e-mail was not intended for her, the clerk’s concerns merit attention.
The superintendent can contact the district’s human resources director and share the e-mail with the clerk’s concerns and ask the director to talk with her. It’s not acceptable for the clerk to make these kinds of comments about employees and not be held accountable or give the district the opportunity to look further into the matter.
Human resources will need to follow up and take reasonable and appropriate action regarding the complaints. Additionally, human resources must review the district’s e-mail policy and complaint policy with the clerk as it appears her method for addressing her concerns was not well-informed or productive. The e-mail was of a personal nature and most district e-mail policies would likely discourage e-mail for personal use. It would have served her better had she spoken to human resources instead of just grumbling to her sister.
Autofill is full of perils! While the Golden Rule should rule the day because there surely will be a time (or there has been a time) when the superintendent will want to recall a message owing to an autofill error, the superintendent cannot disregard the message.
As superintendent, she and all district employees are bound by school board policy, so she should turn over the e-mail to the human resources department to determine whether a violation of the district’s acceptable use policy, civility policy or any similar policy has taken place. The superintendent also should meet with the clerk in her work space to explain the actions being taken and to encourage the clerk to discuss her concern face-to-face with her supervisor and/or union representative.
Finally, the superintendent should toggle off her own autofill and show the clerk how to do the same.
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The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.