Ombuds' corner: Code of Conduct and e-mails

In this series, the Bulletin aims to explain the role of the Ombuds at CERN by presenting practical examples of misunderstandings that could have been resolved by the Ombuds if he had been contacted earlier. Please note that, in all the situations we present, the names are fictitious and used only to improve clarity.


Luke* holds a key position in the coordination of a large project. He is also a recognized expert in modeling complicated structures. Because of his expertise in the field, he receives a considerable number of e-mails every day which he has trouble responding to in addition to his responsibilities of management and development. Constantly interrupted, he tends to answer his emails quickly, sometimes even in an instinctive way, which leads to somewhat laconic messages.

One day he receives an e-mail from Dave* challenging some of the decisions taken by the project’s management. Luke agrees with Dave’s remarks, which seem justified given his own expertise of the subject. He then expresses his own criticism towards the responsible persons of the project, going so far as to say in disrespectful terms that the project management would be better off not mixing themselves with such delicate technical questions given their incompetence in the domain. He automatically hits “Send”, believing the sent message to be confidential between himself and Dave, a long time colleague. Luke immediately notices that, in his haste, he instead sent the email response to all the recipients of the original message… including the project managers themselves!

The fallout was immediate; replies flooded his mailbox, all addressed to the original recipients. The ‘machine’ has come to life and Luke is terrified by his careless actions. How is he going to extinguish this fire? His words were not in agreement with the Code of Conduct and moreover, everyone was aware of it in the project.

After a call for help to the Ombuds, Luke began the painful search for the suitable words to excuse the language he used in the email. In the end, he sent a conscientious apology to his colleagues, but alas, the harm had already been done.

Using the “Reply all” option is an action that merits close attention, since this kind of trouble may some day arise. Candid discussions should always be conducted in person before resorting to e-mails, which leave tracks and are not favorable to any positive or interactive conflict resolution. A large part of misunderstandings are due to misinterpreted emails. While emails clearly have an important use, they simply cannot replace direct human relationships, which encourage harmony within the Organization. Think before clicking “Send” or “Return”!

* Names and story are purely imaginary. 

Contact the Ombuds early!

by Vincent Vuillemin