Is CCing someone into a critical email bullying?

Years ago, I sent a colleague an email about what I considered to be a serious situation. I CC’d a senior colleague because I felt they should be aware of the situation I was addressing. The recipient of the email lodged a complaint against me, suggesting that by CC’ing this third person I was engaging in bullying. The complaint was eventually dismissed, but it made me stop and think.

Much more recently, I have received critical emails from a colleague and have been disappointed to find senior colleagues CC’d. I know this sounds petty, but it’s unnecessary, is happening often and is making my life very unpleasant. I find myself thinking back to that initial complaint against me and wondering whether including a manager or other senior colleague as a CC in an email could be construed as bullying.

CC’ing someone into a critical email can be poor form, but it’s probably not bullying.
CC’ing someone into a critical email can be poor form, but it’s probably not bullying.Credit: Shutterstock

I asked Prashant Bordia, who’s a professor in the Research School of Management at the Australian National University, about your question. His expertise lies in industrial and organisational psychology as well as organisational behaviour.

He told me that thoughtlessly worded emails can certainly be difficult for the recipient, although they would only constitute bullying in quite specific circumstances.

“Bullying involves repetitive and persistent acts of harassment or abuse,” Bordia explained. You’ve described the CC’ing as “happening often”, which suggests the first criterion is being ‘met’, but it’s not so clear whether the unpleasantness you describe is indeed harassment.

“The mere act of copying the manager on a sensitive email is not bullying,” Bordia said. “You may need to keep the manager informed for various operational reasons and even as self-protection in case of retaliation from the person you are emailing.”

It certainly may feel to you that this CC’ing is unnecessary and so constitutes maltreatment, but Bordia told me that even if this is the case, a strong, compassionate leader – the very person being CC’d – should be able to step in and “defuse the situation”.

“A manager is a very legitimate stakeholder in any workplace issue and is expected to behave in a sensitive and unbiased way. An effective manager will find ways to mediate in a constructive manner.”


Lots of us find ourselves having to write a pointed email in our work lives, and Bordia’s advice to anyone in that position is to think carefully about how you put your challenging question or critical assessment.

“If you are concerned about how the target of the email will feel, try and soften the tone and avoid finger-pointing. The risk is that, by copying in others, you may be perceived as ganging up on an individual. So avoid copying to multiple people.

“Email is all text; there are no non-verbals – like a smiling face – accompanying the content. Everything has to be conveyed in words, so try and elaborate on what you are thinking and feeling so the intended message gets across.”

Send your questions to Work Therapy by emailing [email protected]

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