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POWER MOVES

Is it ever okay to express your anger by emailing someone else’s boss?

By Sarah Todd

A little after 9pm on Aug. 26, David Karpf received a surprising email. Bret Stephens, the polarizing New York Times columnist, was mad about a joke that Karpf had made on Twitter equating him with bedbugs. So Stephens had written to Karpf—and cc’d Karpf’s boss.

“My first thought was, This can’t be real,” says Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University and associate director of its School of Media & Public Affairs.

The exchange has since blown up, with Karpf sharing the email on Twitter and Stephens quitting the social-media platform and appearing on MSNBC this morning to explain that he’d found Karpf’s bedbugs joke “dehumanizing.” (Asked if this was the worst thing he’d ever been called, Stephens added that there was a “bad history of being analogized to insects that goes back to totalitarian regimes.”)

There are several elements that make the story noteworthy: The fact that Stephens, whose columns regularly criticize easily offended “snowflakes” and their need for “safe” spaces, was apparently so rattled by Karpf’s “bedbugs” insult; the fact that another Times staffer, editor Jonathan Weisman, recently caused a stir (and got a demotion) for a similar type of email, in which he wrote to author Roxane Gay to demand an apology for her comments about him on Twitter.

But one of the most vehement criticisms of Stephens in this case has been about his decision to loop in Karpf’s boss, potentially putting the professor’s job at risk. That raises the larger question of when, if ever, it’s appropriate to kick a personal problem up to a manager.

An abuse of power?

The tweet that inspired the email from Stephens was a wisecrack Karpf made after seeing a report that the New York Times office had a bedbug problem. “The bedbugs are a metaphor,” Karpf tweeted. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”

 

Karpf hadn’t thought Stephens, a public intellectual with more than 140,000 followers on Twitter, would even see his comment, let alone be shaken by it. The tweet received nine likes and zero retweets, and Karpf hadn’t bothered tagging Stephens, nor did they follow one another. What’s more, in Karpf’s opinion, “it wasn’t even that mean of a joke.”

Stephens, it appeared, felt differently. “I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to us for a few minutes, and then say ‘bedbug’ to my face,’” Stephens wrote in the email.

Stephens defends his decision to copy Forrest Maltzman, the George Washington University provost, on the email, although he denies that he wanted to get Karpf into hot water. He told MSNBC: “I had no intention whatsoever to get him in any kind of professional trouble.” But “managers should be aware of the way in which their people, their professors or journalists, interact with the rest of the world,” he added. (We’ve reached out to Stephens to invite him to comment further.)

For his part, Karpf says he otherwise would have been willing to engage in a private dialogue with Stephens about the bedbug crack.

“If he hadn’t cc’d the provost, then I would have granted the premise that this was actually about civility and civil discourse,” Karpf says. “Then [the email] is in the category of ‘interesting things to do while procrastinating on real work.’”

But bringing his boss into the mix changed the nature of the communication, Karpf says.

“I have tenure, but I doubt he knows that,” Karpf says. “Which means he’s trying to reach out to the provost and force me to face consequences for making jokes—and these are light jokes—about him on a public platform. That is an abuse of his power.”

An email from Stephens—who noted his affiliation with the New York Times in the email subject line—is categorically different from the kind of everyday complaints that provosts regularly receive, Karpf says.

“He’s trying to use the imprimatur of the New York Times to say to me, I have the power to shame you, and to say to the provost, You have to take me seriously, I’m at the New York Times,” Karpf says. “A good provost knows that when someone who’s got a perch at the New York Times emails you and is outraged, you’re supposed to stand up and take notice.”

Indeed, others on Twitter noted that, without the protection of tenure, a complaint from an influential person like Stephens could easily get someone in academia fired. “If Stephens had gone after an adjunct or a staff member, that person very likely would have lost their job,” wrote Melissa Hubbard, a graduate student at the University of Buffalo.

As it stands, the provost doesn’t seem to be worried about Stephens’ complaint. “As an academic, Professor Karpf speaks for himself and does not take direction from me,” Maltzman said in a statement released the morning after the email hit his inbox, adding: “I see on Twitter that you invited him to your home. I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to come to our campus to speak about civil discourse in the digital age.”

The ethics of kicking a problem up

In the fallout from the Stephens debacle, a number of commenters have observed that minorities and people from marginalized groups regularly deal with far harsher invectives than “bedbug” on the internet. “Only a white dude could get offended by this,” Karpf says.

“Stephens and his ilk would simply drop dead after being a woman, black, queer, or some combination thereof online,” Gay wrote on Twitter. “My day started with being called a rancid cunt and it’s just Monday.”

Slate’s Joel Anderson referenced the harsh comments frequently aimed at other journalists of color.

And journalist Elizabeth Bruenig shared an offensive tweet she’d received, noting, “See I still wouldn’t email this guy’s boss.”

That’s her call to make, of course. But given that online harassment is a severe problem for many people, it’s worth considering the ethics of dealing with objectionable behavior by getting a manager involved.

The commonly recognized threat of the “cc”

As management professor David De Cremer explains in a 2017 article for the Harvard Business Review, “even in very different cultures, copying the supervisor can be seen as a potentially threatening move.” People tend not to like it even when their own colleagues cc their boss on otherwise innocuous emails about projects, interpreting the move (often accurately) as indicative of a lack of trust.

So when someone emails the boss when lodging a complaint about their direct report, everyone knows—or should know—that it’s a big deal, with the potential to put another person’s job in jeopardy.

There are, however, conditions in which such an action is warranted. Writer Jill Filipovic notes on Twitter, “if someone actually harasses a writer, I have no issue with that writer telling that person’s place of employment.” HuffPost reporter Michael Hobbes echoed that assessment, noting, “It would be defensible if the dude had threatened violence or made some other extreme remark. Female journalists have forwarded their targeted harassment to people’s employers and I think that’s fine.”

Death threats, rape threats, and hate speech all clearly qualify as harassment. But what of comments or behavior that, while insulting, arguably occupy a grey zone?

A good rule of thumb for everyone

Management expert and workplace advice columnist Alison Green offers a rule of thumb when thinking of reporting a colleague’s problematic behavior. “Ask yourself whether you’d be telling your boss simply to get someone in trouble, or whether you’d be bringing an issue to your manager’s attention that’s impacting work that she’s ultimately responsible for,” she wrote in a 2015 advice column. The logic applies whether the person in question is a co-worker or a stranger. If your motive is revenge, it’s best to stay mum; if the other person’s behavior could cause real harm to yourself or others, there’s reason to speak up.

Karpf argues that if the person considering lodging a complaint is someone influential, like Stephens, there’s an added responsibility to proceed with caution and to be careful not to punch down.

A public figure whose professional position endows them with social authority should expect to face criticism, jokes, and comments that aren’t to their liking. Before they reach out to their critics’ bosses, they should think carefully about whether they’re asking to speak with the manager because the behavior in question was really so egregious, or if they’re simply throwing their weight around.

As for Karpf, he stands by his bedbug humor. “The reason why I think that joke is funny,” he explains, “is every time Stephens writes a column, my entire Twitter feed talks about him as that annoying presence that you just can’t get rid of.”

Had he taken Stephens up on the invitation to drop by the columnist’s house, Karpf says, he’d want to explain the joke and hopefully engage in civil conversation. “But I’m aware it was not a serious invitation,” he says. “Plus I’ve got a real job. I don’t get to spend all day Googling my name.”