The CYA Email — Will We Ever Be Free?

Heather Cook
9 min readApr 23, 2019
The making good on a mistake CYA

I’m with one of my clients, 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


We are adults, right? You would think 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.

Will we ever see a time when we no longer need the infamous CYA (Cover Your Ass) email?

I believe in trust, handshakes, verbal agreements, sunshine and rainbows, and realizing not everyone has our best interests at heart is often difficult. However, learning the why of why they happen and then the how of how to deal with this behavior allows us to rise above it.

Trust is the key word here, and unfortunately, work cultures can be steeped in politics. If you find yourself in one of these challenging environments, the best thing to learn is the art of banging out these emails/reports efficiently, quickly and quietly, so they don’t waste too much of your precious work time. And if you have timesheets, project reporting, and due diligence check boxes be sure to keep up with them. Humans are messy and imperfect, so perfect your CYA game until you level up on your reporting communication and and work towards a healthy trust-based environment where they are not necessary.

Why people send CYA emails:

  • To get the credit, they are due
  • To avoid blame for 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

In thinking about the why, I believe these are some of the hows in dealing with the CYA conundrum.

How to begin 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 and 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. 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:

  • As discussed
  • As a reminder
  • To keep you up to speed on
  • The workback schedule is

This many seem like overkill but the written record of what you are doing and how you do it will save you from many moments of “but I did tell you that” that make us feel terrible. There are many other task management tools out there but we don’t always use them, habitual practice and it is a practice, is the key.

Kudos Committee

Celebrate the goodness!! Most people complain 14 times more often than they compliment. Look at Yelp, Amazon, Trip Advisor, and Twitter for proof of this.

Pro Tip: Create a Kudos Committee with your colleagues. Reach out when you need a pep talk or a “hey help me get some visibility on this.” 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 asks for them when you need that boost. We are always stronger when we raise each other up.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

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 — are your gorgeous ideas. Thoughts fly around our collective consciousness, and people so quickly adapt, steal and forget that an idea wasn’t theirs in the first place.

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 is 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 take it outright, I will feel disrespected and not trust that person again. And I shouldn’t have to put something in writing with a claim on it to be recognized for it.

Simply put, give people credit for their ideas — repeat them with that person’s name attached. We’ve all seen what happens in the classic office satire 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, it is what makes our world better collectively, the good juju as it were and it build trust between each other.

The Final, Final

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” having the whole team give the job the once-over 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 with each of us 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 of this piece were being distributed for a launch of 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 with “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 and my client didn’t double check our work. It was a USD 8,000.00 mistake that I ended up covering. Would reverting back to our CYA email of “you approved it” have helped me? Should I have argued saying, the client signed off, not my problem. No and I didn’t because when things go sideways, investigations that start at the paper trail don’t always and shouldn’t end there. Everyone makes mistakes. It happens, but 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 a positive one that I like and implement. Ownership should always surpass passing the buck.

When Will It End?

As a technologist, I believe that the CYA email is part of what keeps most corporate cultures so email heavy. For now, email is still easier to pull up and attach, proving one’s case. Searching for an SMS or instant message (where did we TALK about that?!?) are simply not as weighty as their email cousins. Verbal agreements are also 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 fail safe 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 signed off on
  • Give others credit and celebrate each other’s victories and accomplishments
  • Own it. Be someone who can always be trusted and responsible (no throwing others under the bus if the mistake was yours)

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

If you like this share it with your friends, spark a conversation and hold that clap button down — hard.

Written by Head Maven & CEO, Heather Newman, Creative Maven.

Heather is a marketer, writer, playwright, Microsoft MVP and lover of culture and “the why.” She has worked for over 20 years in technology and the arts. Heather lives in Los Angeles, California and enjoys traveling the world speaking about Office 365, SharePoint and Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. She is a published playwright, was born and raised in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, is a graduate of the University of Washington School of Drama, Seattle WA and did a semester abroad at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Heather is always looking for an excuse to go to New York, New Orleans, London and the list of cities she made in her Dad’s Time/Life map when she was 11.

Follow her travels and writing on Twitter & Instagram. Catch Heather on Medium where she is a top writer in Inspiration.

Check out her IG Story for #TheCurlerReport, tales of a woman on the go who happens to love her hot rollers.

Listen to her podcast: Mavens Do It Better on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or the MDIB website. Interviews with extraordinary mavens who light a spark in our world. #mavensdoitbetter

Full disclosure on LinkedIn.

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Heather Cook

Community builder and marketing maven who wants to #FliptheScript — Posts on motivation, corporate culture, & healthy workplaces.