A manager reading an email.

Avoid bcc’ing the boss

17 September 2018

The article at a glance

People who bcc the supervisor in emails are seen as “less moral” and “less fit” to be team leader, finds study led …

Category: Insight

People who bcc the supervisor in emails are seen as “less moral” and “less fit” to be team leader, finds study led by Cambridge Judge Business School researchers outlined in new Harvard Business Review article.

What’s an office worker to do if he or she needs to update the supervisor via email without alienating co-workers? Avoid bcc’ing the boss at all cost.

People in offices think colleagues who bcc a supervisor are “less moral” and “less fit to be the team leader”, but cc’ing the supervisor also carries its own baggage in reducing trust. A better bet is to rewrite the email as a separate “update” to the boss, concludes a series of studies led by Cambridge Judge Business School researchers outlined in a new article in Harvard Business Review.

People consider bcc’ing a supervisor as “more secretive, and more intimidating” than cc’ing the boss. And while work colleagues accept there are valid administrative reasons to bcc a supervisor (to update the boss so he or she knows a reply is not required, or avoid sharing the boss’s contact information), that still doesn’t cut the mustard. “Somewhat surprisingly, our results revealed that when the sender retroactively mentioned either of these two ‘administrative’ reasons for using bcc, recipients’ negative perceptions did not soften,” the article says.

The article reported results of a series of five studies on various aspects of bcc use, involving 694 working adults as participants. The studies examined, among other aspects, how co-workers feel when they later find out that a boss was bcc’ed.

David De Cremer.
Professor David De Cremer

The article – “Why bcc’ing the boss is a bad practice” – is co-authored by David De Cremer, KPMG Professor of Management Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School; Jack McGuire, Research Assistant and Experimental Lab Manager at Cambridge Judge; and Dr Tessa Haesevoets, postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University in Belgium.

There are some situations when for organisational interests an email needs to be shared with someone higher up without other recipients knowing, the authors say. The study found that in such situations people “significantly prefer” the practice of forwarding emails to the boss after sending it to other recipients (rather than bcc’ing the boss) and find such a practice less harmful, “even though recipients continue to perceive the sender as having immoral intentions.”

The practical implications of the findings are clear: bcc’ing the boss should be avoided because recipients perceive the sender as “having immoral intentions and being willing to harm their interests” – and attempts to justify the practice simply don’t work.

While the studies found that cc’ing the supervisor is a better option than bcc’ing the boss, previous research by Professor De Cremer found that when workers team together on a common project cc’ing the supervisor carries its own set of problems by undermining trust within the team.

So what’s the best option? The article suggests that rewriting the email to personally address the supervisor might do the trick: such an email can be “framed as an update”, thus achieving the administrative goal of keeping the boss up to date without alienating co-workers.