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How to avoid communications that can hurt professional relationships and careers
Email has one grand purpose: efficient communication, with a traceable written record as a bonus. That’s it. You write a message and send it. You can address one person or millions. You can attach documents, files, pictures, and web links. The process is totally efficient, and best of all, free—well, not always free. If used incorrectly, email can incur heavy costs in hurt feelings, damaged relationships, failed goals, and lost jobs.
Some people think of email as personal, informal communication. On the contrary, electronic messages usually come across as formal and official, much like memos written on paper. This can be true for texts and social media posts, too. Email is always one-way communication. Although recipients can respond to senders, no true dialogue occurs during exchanges. Furthermore, messages lack eye contact, posture, tone of voice, personality, and many other human qualities that add meaning to conversation. Thus, email often does not convey the true sentiments of the sender, and frequently misrepresents a sender’s feelings, tone, and intentions. This can lead to people being perceived in a way that does not accurately represent them. Below is an example from Harry, an executive planning an awards banquet. He has already asked his managers to send him their list of award winners. Some have not responded, so he sends a follow-up email:
To All Managers,
I am trying to finalize our order for the award plaques. Some of you still have not sent me your list of awardees. You know who you are. I need all lists no later than this Thursday. IF I DO NOT RECEIVE THESE BY THURSDAY, YOUR WORKERS WON’T GET A PLAQUE. Also, I hopefully don’t have to tell you how annoying it is for people to have their names spelled wrong when receiving an award. Let’s get this done already. These are our best people, and I shouldn’t have to bug you.
Although his frustration may be justified, the tone of Harry’s message makes him sound harsh. You would never guess that Harry is respectful and charming—in person. Unfortunately, his email technique not only makes him seem abrasive, but may also undermine his goal of getting people to act. His managers may feel so annoyed at his tone that they further delay responding. Certainly, they are not inspired to cooperate. Following two email “golden rules,” Harry can motivate his staff to act without alienating them.
Email Golden Rule #1: Write a brief, polite message without emotion
People get tons of email, so short messages are always more effective. In business, email is for information only, short and sweet, FYI. It is not a forum for venting frustrations, story-telling, performance feedback, or in-depth training. Humor often gets lost in email, too. In person, Harry can get away with comments like “You know who you are” —his social skills reassure people that he means no disrespect—but it doesn’t work electronically. All-capital words (LIKE THIS) can also offend readers, who may perceive that the sender is yelling or hostile.
Email Golden Rule #2: When emotions run high, avoid email
Instead of emailing his rant to all managers, Harry can call those who have not yet sent their lists. If phone calls are not practical (i.e. if most managers did not respond), then his best course is to vent his frustrations before composing, write an emotionally neutral message, strive to be polite, and have someone edit it for angry tone before sending.
A more effective message might read:
If you have not yet sent me your list of awardees (checked for accurate spelling of names), please do so by this Thursday. I must have all lists before placing the order. I appreciate your cooperation to help our best employees feel valued.
This message clearly explains what the unresponsive managers need to do and why, and inspires cooperation in a strong but polite manner. It also spares the managers who responded on time from any concern or burden. If any are in danger of missing the deadline, he can call and confront them.
To further enhance the effectiveness of your email communication and avoid costly mistakes, consider the following tips:
1. Take great care to avoid emailing the wrong person
Imagine how disastrous it would be if sensitive business data were inadvertently sent to a competitor, or if co-workers exchanged critical emails about their boss, one of them hit “reply all,” and their boss (and everyone else in their office) saw the message. To minimize these risks, avoid “reply all” responses. You can also avoid forwarding messages. It’s safer to copy a message, start a new one, and paste. In addition, double-check the To:___ and Cc:___ fields to ensure you are sending the message to the intended recipient(s). Finally, if you send to a group of addresses (e.g. the people in your office), make sure to remove the names and addresses of anyone who is no longer employed, so they do not continue to receive emails with information about your organization.
Before sending or posting any electronic content, proofread the text carefully, and check for any attachments or links you may have promised. When reading over your message, pay special attention to tone, and consider replacing any words or phrases that could possibly be interpreted as harsh, critical, judgmental, sarcastic, hostile, patronizing, etc. In addition, try to avoid tone that is too familiar or “chummy,” especially with supervisors or people in high positions. Finally, check carefully for language that could be perceived as flirtatious or sexually inappropriate, and edit out anything questionable.
3. Respect privacy
First, take care not to share others’ email addresses without permission. If you send or forward a mass email, with others’ addresses in the To: ___ or Cc: ___ fields, you are compromising their privacy and risk alienating them. If you have the slightest doubt about exposing addresses, put them in the blind carbon copy, or Bcc: ___ field. Another potential breach of email etiquette is emailing people you don’t know, unless you can name someone they know that referred you to them.
4. Avoid sensitive information via email
It is imperative to work with the mindset that email is not a secure form of communication. I assume anything I email could appear on the front page of the L.A. Times. Messages can be hacked in cyberspace (or with a stolen password), peeked at over a shoulder, subpoenaed, intentionally leaked, or inadvertently sent, forwarded, or printed.
5. More talk, less email
Mix in more phone conversations and face-to-face meetings, so people remember your true personality. Also, try to avoid discussions via email. After two responses from each side, switch to a conversation in person. Some companies mandate this rule.
6. Use a screener for hostile senders
If someone you can’t ignore (co-worker, business associate, boss, ex-spouse) consistently sends you emotionally volatile emails, ask a trusted, neutral person to screen their messages and summarize the main points. This allows you to receive and respond to essential information, without exposing yourself to negativity.
7. Personalize your messages
If you email a group of recipients to assign a task, people will tend to wait for others to respond, resulting in a non-response. Some people may also overlook, skim, or outright ignore messages that are not addressed directly to them. If you’re trying to accomplish something and want a response, then send email to individual recipients and include their name in a heading.
Final thought: Always be nice
Sometimes peers or colleagues joke about or criticize others via email. Even if people take supreme care to send such messages to the proper address, can they guarantee that recipients will not accidentally forward the message to the wrong person, that wandering eyes will not peek at a screen, or that a computer wiz won’t hack into the message? Heavy sarcasm, roasting, and gossip are precarious habits that eventually lead to hurt feelings and damaged relationships. These practices are even more dangerous in a work setting. They can be fatal (to job status) in email. There are safer, more effective options for expressing feelings. However, if you feel compelled to blow off steam, for your own career survival, don’t do it via email.