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Email in the Workplace: Do’s and Don’t’s

Recently, I did a coaching project and an investigation, each of which arose primarily due to the misuse of email. And the resolution of each partially involved developing some guidelines about email communication.

I am sympathetic to our use of email over other forms of communication given how easy and convenient it is. Plus, unlike a phone call, you can control when you read and when you send.

For many reasons, however, using email for anything beyond basic communication is risky. First, most email writers are busy and when drafting an email, don’t take the time to be precise and clear. Many of us don’t really even know how to be precise and clear: writing is difficult! The result: miscommunication.

Second, email writing tends to be flat: it does not convey the range of meaning that body language or one’s voice conveys. Again, the result: miscommunication.

Third, email is simply not the appropriate medium to discuss complex or sensitive issues because, again, that only invites miscommunication. And worse: it can lead to hurt feelings, resentment, and even complaints. Because many of us are uncomfortable with complexity and emotion, however, we are relieved to not have to talk about such things in person or by phone – and therefore use email.

Finally, many of us don’t read most emails very carefully. So even if it’s clearly written, fairly straightforward, and not on an sensitive or emotional topic, some readers will miss the point.

And we’re not even talking about emails with inappropriate subject matter such as sexual jokes or racist comments.

So, what can be done, given email’s ubiquity and usefulness? I’ve come up with some rules. Ideally, employers would communicate these in advance to all employees who use email in their jobs. Reminders don’t hurt either.

  • If an email involves anything substantive, take the time to ensure that it is clear and complete. Do not just dash something off. Take a minute or two to think — and then proofread.
  • If an email string is developing, stop and decide if it makes more sense to talk in person about the issue. Go to the other person’s desk, pick up the phone, or send a reply that says, “Let’s talk about this” with a suggested time.
  • If a topic is complex or sensitive, consider communicating in a different way. A meeting, a phone call, a memo — one of these will often work better.
  • Keep your sentences and paragraphs short and your font reasonably sized. (Fie on Gmail for its small, boring font!) Do what you can to ensure that your readers will actually read and understand your message.
  • If you’re a manager, do not criticize subordinates in email. Talk to them. And if a writing is necessary, document the problem in an appropriate way.
  • Do not copy people into emails unless it is necessary. First, it clogs up people’s email boxes. Second, you know why you included a particular recipient, but that person  may not know why you have copied them in or may not be paying attention. Finally, if the message is the least bit negative, the direct recipient may feel that you’re defaming or undermining them with others.
  • The previous rule applies doubly strong to “Reply All.” Think before hitting that button.
  • Do not rely on long email strings to communicate a point. Restate the point or if appropriate, at least indicate where the relevant information can be found, e.g., “Please check so-and-so’s email of [date and time].”
  • If you think the other person is in error or has forgotten something, do not say, “That’s incorrect” or “You have forgotten X” or the like. Instead, say something along the lines of “My recollection is that we decided to do X” and then explain. Better yet, talk about the issue in person.
  • Keep emails will polite and respectful. No accusations or snarky or rude comments. Emails last forever.

Do you have any other email rules? ~Amy Stephson

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