Avoiding Office Email Gaffes

Avoiding Office Email Gaffes

Just because e-mail is an everyday part of life in the office doesn’t mean it’s something you don’t have to think carefully about. Sending or receiving ill-conceived or improper e-mail via your work account can lead to everything from embarrassment to disciplinary action.

Or both. Consider the case of one London couple, who had their private e-mail correspondence forwarded around the world after the young man involved forwarded a sexually revealing e-mail from the young woman to some pals at work. In addition to the resulting ignominy both suffered, the young man involved became the subject of an investigation by his law firm.

Of course, your e-mail gaffes are most likely not going to turn you into a global laughingstock. But office e-mail, when used improperly, can undermine your efforts to get ahead in your career. Following are some tips to help you use e-mail to your advantage rather than detriment.

Keep it short and sweet. E-mail is not a form of communication that lends itself to long missives. If you do send a long e-mail—if you send a product description to a potential client, for instance, or if you send a clarification of departmental policy to your colleagues—make sure you go over the details in person as well as in your e-mail, since relying on your e-mail to communicate all the details often fails. And use paragraphs—readers have a much easier time deciphering longer e-mails that impart information in discrete, readable chunks than in endless-seeming blocks of text.

Avoid discussing sensitive information. Despite the seeming harmlessness of e-mail, it is not really private; just ask the London couple mentioned above. It’s way too simple for the recipient of your e-mail to forward it to others. And remember that your company can access any e-mail going into or out of your account. Rule number one for e-mailing sensitive information: Assume that any e-mail you send will be read by people other than its intended recipients.

Another reason to avoid including sensitive information in e-mail is that you might change your mind about whether you want to let that information be known. Michael Eisner, for instance, once sent financial information about Disney to journalists without realizing it had not yet been publicly released. Rule number two for e-mailing sensitive information: Think before you hit “send.”

Know when to use e-mail and when to have a discussion in person or over the phone. These days people like to use e-mail for all kinds of purposes for which it is usually not ideal. If you want to brainstorm, or to manage or critique others, it’s usually best to do so in person—or, failing that, over the phone.

There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, e-mail does not communicate unspoken nuances the way personal communication does. For another, people are often not as “present” when they read e-mail as they are in a real-time meeting. Think about it: How many times have you thought you communicated something perfectly clearly via e-mail, only to have to go over it all again later in person?

Don’t send e-mail while you’re angry. You may say things you don’t want or mean to—things that can come back to haunt you later. Just ask the CEO of Cerner Corporation, who saw his company’s stock fall 22 percent in 3 days when a harsh e-mail he sent to his managers made its way public.

Send e-mail only to those who will want or need to see it. Don’t cc: e-mails about your company’s Widget Version 4.0 to people who are not involved in the Widget Version 4.0 project. Don’t hit “reply all” if your message is really meant just for the person whose e-mail you’re responding to.

And don’t send that forwarded joke about the pope, the rabbi, and the e-business consultant to everyone in the office. Those who don’t share your sense of humor—or are too busy to laugh—will lose respect for you over time. Far better to try to spread cheer to a select few who will appreciate it.

Give your e-mail context. A message without context is a message that’s likely to be deleted as soon as it’s read. There are a number of ways to avoid this. For one thing, you should use your e-mails’ subject lines to make it clear what they’re about. Don’t say “FYI” when you can say “FYI Widget Version 4.0 Q3 revenue estimates.” For another, you should use a salutation at the top of the body of your e-mails, and include your electronic signature at the bottom; that way, those who are forwarded or cc:ed the e-mail will have an easier time understanding who is speaking to whom and why they are being involved in the conversation.

Finally, try to respond to e-mails by cutting and pasting so that your e-mail contains snippets of earlier e-mails followed by your specific response to each snippet.

Spell recipients’ names correctly. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how often people misspell their coworkers’ names. If the person you’re sending an e-mail to is named “Kerry,” make sure you don’t address her as “Kerri.” It shows that the recipient is not important enough to you to take the time to address correctly.

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