fear and toxicity in the workplace healthy workplace Sep 30, 2019



Because if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen. I have heard this many times in my work career, and even lost a job I loved because I only had a verbal agreement. Unfortunately, simply doing good work isn’t always enough - we fear not getting credit, not being heard, and of course, we fear having our heads on the chopping block when things go south. All this creates a culture of “covering your a$$” at work that negatively impacts company culture.  

I wrote the following piece while working with a client who’s manager often “forgot” the team and took their ideas as his own, forcing the team into a spiral of “cover your ass” (CYA) emails. We all write these emails. Here’s a look into the why and how, with some hints on ways to get that same coverage through a more positive approach.  


I’m in a meeting with a client, and I’m reading an email… one of THOSE emails. This client sends more than his fair share of these types of emails to: 

  • His boss 

  • His highly political teammates who copy the world on every email 

  • A maneuvering colleague who likes to take credit for all the work and throw others under the bus 


Are we not adults? You would think just doing your job would be enough. 

You would think all the hours you spend on work and meetings to deliver a project would be enough. 

You would think the verbal status report you give in your weekly meetings would be enough. 

Sadly, in our “if it isn’t in writing it didn’t happen” culture, often that just doesn’t cut it. 


I believe in trust, handshakes, verbal agreements, sunshine and rainbows, and not being naive. Realizing not everyone has our best interests at heart is often difficult but learning why this happens and then how to deal with this behavior is the only way to rise above it. 

Trust is the keyword here, and unfortunately, work cultures are often steeped in petty politics. If you find yourself in one of these challenging environments, the best thing to learn is the art of generating these emails/reports efficiently, quickly, and quietly, so they get the job done without wasting too much of your precious work time. If you have timesheets, project reporting, and due diligence checkboxes, be sure to keep up with them. Humans are messy and imperfect, so perfect your CYA game, incorporating it into your reporting communication as you work towards a healthy trust-based environment (where they will no longer be necessary). 

Why people send CYA emails: 

  • To get the credit they are due 

  • To avoid blame for someone else missing a due date or not sending a due date to others 

  • To avoid being held responsible while waiting on others for needed information 

  • To ensure task/deliverable visibility by a manager for air cover if needed 

  • To call out perpetrators of errors and/or mismanagement 

  • To follow up from a mistake to make good on a situation 

Thinking about the why gives me some ideas about the hows in solving the CYA problem. 

Steps to eliminate the CYA need: 

  • Visibility 

  • Kudos Committee 

  • Credit Where Credit Is Due 

  • The Final, Final 


Sometimes you must spend as much time TALKING about the work as DOING the work. Ensuring all key players on a project know what you are doing to maximize your visibility is on you; never assume your boss or other team members know what you are working on. Like you, everyone is busy and focused on their own lives, deadlines, and deliverables. Develop a habitual reporting practice to eliminate the hastily written one-off CYA. 

Pro Tip: Create a shared notebook (my favorite is Microsoft OneNote) with your boss/team. Have an agenda and take notes during every one-on-one or status update and send/post to the notebook. You can’t expect others to know your current project status or how brilliantly you multitask if you don’t communicate. Once a week should do it, regularly on Monday or Friday. My Friday reports often begin with one of these phrases: 

  • As discussed 

  • As a reminder 

  • To keep you up to speed on 

  • The workback schedule is 

This may seem like overkill, but I like to think these emails/notes are both helpful and non-confrontational when offered in real-time. A written record of what you do and how you do it will save you from many uncomfortable moments of “but I did tell you that” that may or may not be believed when they’re offered in the past tense. There are many other task management tools out there, but we don’t always use them; this simple practice is the key. 


Celebrate the goodness!! Most people complain 14 times more often than they compliment. Need proof? Look at Yelp, Amazon, Trip Advisor, or Twitter. 

Pro Tip: Create a Kudos Committee with your colleagues. Reach out when you need a pep talk or a “help me get some visibility.” Do this for each other and make sure everybody gets some love. #SquadGoals should be about collaboration, ensuring everyone’s work is seen and appreciated. 

We work best when we support each other. Many people in my community and teams do this automatically — they share, shout out, retweet, and say thank you without ever being asked. Recognition is always appreciated. Typing “thank you” or “good job” takes two seconds and is a beautiful habit to cultivate. Be someone who gives kudos and ask for them when you need that boost. We are all stronger when we raise each other up. 


Why do I feel like if I have to tell you not to take credit for other people's work that maybe you’re the problem

We’ve all been witness to the sly regurgitation of something you just said in a meeting, an idea you shared in a casual conversation in an elevator, a pitch you wrote on a cocktail napkin at the bar — these are all your gorgeous ideas. Yes, thoughts fly around our collective consciousness, and people quickly adapt, steal and forget that an idea wasn’t theirs in the first place. Sometimes it’s innocent. Sometimes less so. Ideas and your work can’t truly be taken, only you can deliver them your beautiful way. However… 

Pro Tip: The other day I was relaying an idea to a colleague: We were talking, and I shared a big idea to get some feedback. Another person walked up and said, “What are you talking about?” My colleague said, “Oh we were talking about this idea to…”, instead of “oh Heather just shared this cool idea to….” Sure, this may be a small nit to pick, but it makes a big difference in how we respect each other. If this idea shows up on said colleague’s blog or they steal it outright, I will feel disrespected and not trust that person again. I shouldn’t have to put something in writing with a claim on it to be recognized. 

Simply put, give people credit for their ideas — repeat them with that person’s name attached — and expect the same for your ideas. We’ve all seen what happens in the classic movie 9 to 5 (if you haven’t seen this movie, you should) when the boss takes credit for Lily Tomlin’s ideas. Let’s say it doesn’t end well (for him). We should celebrate and collaborate with people and their big ideas — they are what makes our world collectively better; the good juju that builds trust between people. 


Where does the buck stop? I’ve worked for many companies, on projects of all sizes and scopes. Millions of dollars go into product launches, website launches, content creation, marketing campaigns, and software deployments. The last sign-off is what I call the “final-final,” and I have the whole team give the job one last good look before the work goes out live to the public. The final sign-off is a big deal in campaigns, launches, design, graphics, signage, and branding. It is also a big deal on a personal level when we trust each other with the essential happenings in our lives. 

Pro Tip: More than a decade ago I worked on a large collateral piece — 10,000 pieces were being distributed to launch a new campaign. The “part number” on this piece was changed at the last minute, and a colleague sent it to both the client and me for sign-off. Both the client and I signed off as “Approved.” Unfortunately, the part number was missing a digit. We both missed it. 

Whose fault was it? I assumed my team had done their due diligence (fail) and my client didn’t double-check our work (second fail). It was an $8,000.00 mistake that I ended up covering. Would digging out our CYA email, saying “you approved it” have helped me? Should I have argued, saying the client signed off and it’s not my problem? No, (and I didn’t) because when things go sideways, investigations often start and end at the paper trail, which doesn’t always tell the whole story. Everyone makes mistakes. It happens, and someone usually gets blamed. Establishing a “final-final” review makes it everyone’s job to read, check, test, review — not because you don’t trust the team, but because everyone wants the piece/project to be as perfect as possible. By the end of any project, people are burning the candle at both ends and under a great deal of pressure. Make the “final-final” a group activity, not leaving any one person holding the bag. It’s the ultimate CYA, but it is done in a positive light that I like and have implemented with all my teams. Ownership must always take precedence over passing the buck. 


As a technologist, I believe the CYA email is one part of what keeps most corporate cultures so email heavy. For now, email is still easier to pull up and attach to prove one’s case. SMS and instant message (WHERE did we say that?!?) are simply not as weighty as their email cousins. Verbal agreements are the most easily forgotten. 

Remember, the overall goal is visibility, which as I said is mostly about reporting, but also about asking for help early, remembering and setting due dates, stopping to review the work, and trusting colleagues. I recently missed a registration deadline (a rare occurrence), which completely mortified me. No CYA or excuse-ridden email needed with that one — I simply screwed up, begged for forgiveness, apologized, and got it handled. But it was a great reminder to my whole team about communication. Had I set up a failsafe reminder with them or myself (using the task tools that are at my fingertips), I probably wouldn’t have missed that deadline — mea culpa. 

I believe culture is the key: learning to delegate, asking for help, and learning to communicate more openly and directly with each other. Yes, we need to hold each other accountable, but we also need to course correct. People who steep themselves in a negative CYA mentality have probably been burned, so they are practicing this behavior out of fear, which is the single most toxic element in our workplaces and the world. Establishing protocol early by politely asking colleagues to communicate and work with you without copying your or their manager on everything should be enough, at least to start. 

To close, write CYA emails when you must, but also try incorporating these strategies: 

  • Work on establishing trust with your colleagues and managers 

  • Build one on one relationships with strong communication 

  • Work together on creating due dates, goals, and milestones that everyone is aware of and signs off on 

  • Give others credit and celebrate each other’s victories and accomplishments – KUDOS 

  • Own it. Be someone who can always be trusted and responsible (no throwing others under the bus if the mistake was yours) 

Maybe then the need will diminish, and we can kick the negative CYAs to the curb so we can concentrate fully on creation, innovation, excitement, positivity, and the big one — trusting each other. 

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