Office Email Etiquette When You Can't Communicate Face to Face
Learn more about the pitfalls of communicating with your employees via email instead of face to face.
Be careful when communicating with your employees via email instead of face to face.
Managers often rely on email to quickly communicate important information to their staff. But if not used prudently, managers who rely too much on email when they should be having face-to-face conversations with their employees can do more harm than good. Follow these simple tips to avoid common email pitfalls that undermine your authority and alienate your staff.
Write your emails as if they'll be plastered on a billboard one day.
What are some common mistakes managers make when dealing with employees by email?
In most offices, email is the dominant method for interoffice communications when face-to-face meetings are not possible. That said, there are some situations where the use of email communications between a manager and a subordinate is inappropriate.
Here are some common email mistakes to avoid if you want to retain good relations with your employees.
Don't use email as a way to avoid someone.
Hiding behind the email: Never use email for disciplinary actions, performance reviews or other sensitive issues. Communicating bad news by email undermines your credibility as a leader. You want staff to know you can be relied upon to deal with difficult issues in person. Give your employees the respect they deserve, even when you're disciplining them, and have a face-to-face meeting.
As a manager, if you receive a confusing email message from your subordinate, instead of reacting by sending another email, pick up the phone or intercom and ask your subordinate to clarify their email in person. If email messaging is not meeting your communications objectives, as a manager it is your responsibility to stop the cycle of circular emails and start communicating clearly.
Is an email the best way to deliver that message?
Overlooking the permanency of email messages: Don’t forget that whatever you write in an email becomes a permanent record of your communication, complete with a date and time stamp. Anything you write in an email can be used in court for wrongful dismissal suits. Emails are much easier to dig up, print off and/or forward outside the office than traditional paper memos are.
For email, the old postcard rule applies. Nobody else is supposed to read your postcards, but you'd be a fool if you wrote anything private on one.— Judith Martin (Miss Manners)
Using passive aggressive language in an email: If you feel yourself reacting strongly to an email or a phone call or discussion at a recent meeting, sit with your feelings for a few minutes. Then decide if writing and sending an email is the most appropriate response. (When emotions are charged, it usually isn't.)
When you must respond to a difficult situation by email, watch the tone you use. Treat your email communications as you would a memo. Avoid flaming, passive-aggressive language and sarcasm at all costs, unless you want to severely demoralize your staff and create insurmountable communication barriers further down the road.
In order to avoid using passive aggressive language in your email and improve receptivity after your message has been sent, state your feelings clearly, in the most positive manner possible, right at the beginning message. Effective managers know that positive reinforcement is just as important as constructive criticism. But if that positive reinforcement is too vague, or buried at the bottom of the email message, your employee might not 'hear' it.
Don't bring other people into an email conversation without asking permission from the original participants first. If you're having a back and forth email conversation with another staff member but somewhere in the ongoing thread, you think another person might need to be involved, before just CC'ing them, let the person you've been communicating with know before you send the message. Make sure that you explain why you want to invite that person brought into the discussion and be clear about what you intend to say. For example, you could write something such as: "I really think that Jane might be able to help us find some solutions to problem X. She's been working in the XYZ department for 10 years now and I'd like to get her insights. Can I forward her a copy of this email thread and ask her ABC?"
Use BCC carefully. The BCC (blind carbon copy) function should be used to keep other people's email addresses in a group email confidential. It shouldn't be used to secretly send a private email conversation to someone else without the other party's knowledge. Unless you have a justifiable reason (i.e. someone's safety is at risk if you don't send a BCC message) for not being transparent about where you are sending a message, using the BCC function is somewhat like whispering behind someone's back at work. It's impolite and unprofessional. And in some cases, forwarding or copying a message to unintended recipients could get you into a legal mess.
Effective managers always seek to be fair: If you're a manager who cares about dealing with your employees in a fair, empathetic, and yet firm manner, you'll see that email messaging is not always the best way to reach your employees.
Lee Iacocca has this advice on giving feedback to others:
When I must criticize somebody, I do it orally; when I praise somebody, I put it in writing.
This is apt and timely advice when applied to communicating with employees by email.
If you want to be an effective leader and communicator, pay close attention to the language you use when emailing your staff. There are some phrases that can undermine your message and waste your reader's time. The phrases were featured in a handy infographic posted on Inc.com: 21 Sentences You Should Never Include in an Email Ever.
- "Can I ask a question?" Just go ahead and ask the question. Don't preface it by asking permission to make your inquiry. If you are using the phrase "Can I ask you a question?' as a way to bring up a delicate topic, then that's a sign that your question is much too personal for an email. If you must ask the personal question, do it face to face; not via email when your recipient might have legitimate concerns about what might happen to their response it gets shared by email.
- "This might not apply to you?" The why are you sending it to me, the reader may wonder.
- "Does that make sense?" If you aren't sure that what you have written in an email to staff is going to be understood, that's a sign that you need to rewrite your email until you are certain that what you are saying is clear and direct.
Have you ever had to discipline a subordinate for sending an inappropriate email at work?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2012 Sally Hayes