September 23rd, 2009
05:24 AM GMT
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Nearly 10 years after doing my first story on e-mail etiquette in the workplace, I thought I’d seen it all until I noticed this item in a New Zealand newspaper: “Emails spark woman’s sacking.”

I expected to read another example of inappropriate virtual behavior – a racy forwarded e-mail or some such specimen. But the story was about a New Zealand accountant who successfully sued her former employer for wrongful termination. Why was she fired? Because her notes to colleagues WERE ALWAYS WRITTEN IN CAPS: the e-mail equivalent of shouting. The company claimed it created “disharmony in the workplace.”

It seems we still have some distance to cross regarding e-mail and its impact on the workplace. New research from the University of Queensland in Australia shows that ambiguous e-mails are a major source of workplace stress – even more than volume of e-mail. They leave colleagues and direct reports to wonder: What did she or he mean by that?

Through years of reporting on the topic (and my own bitter experience) here are my golden rules when e-mailing.

Avoid premature e-mailation

Add the address of the e-mail last. Often it is the first, as a reply or “all reply.” This can be deadly because the “save” and “send” buttons are often dangerously close to one another. By putting the e-mail address last, it creates an automatic pause to rethink sending the note, or make sure you are sending the note to the intended parties. It also helps eliminate slips such as dishing dirt by e-mail on a colleague or boss and then accidentally sending it to that person.

Never drink and email

Back in the day, I used to be a party-hardy character, and paid for it with hangovers and e-mail regret (how I wished someone would develop a USB breathalyzer that locks the computer if inebriated).

I eliminated this problem by eliminating alcohol from my diet (which solved many other problems as well). But if abstinence isn’t for you, then at least abstain from drunken e-mails: No machinery, not even computers, should be operated while impaired.

Keep it short

One study by Vanderbilt University shows you can tell the company level of an employee by their e-mail: Top executives are short and to the point (a result of the volume and speed - it  says “I’m busy” ). Middle management is wordy (a result of trying to influence higher ups) and lower-rung e-mails are chatty (more a social function of the work place).

Here, the top execs got it right. Email is a very inefficient tool to sway opinion. Straight forward is the way forward.

Reader responsibility

One study I read forever altered how I view and use e-mail.  It showed that the tone – funny, sarcastic, serious – of e-mails is misinterpreted half of the time. That means unless the sender has the talent of Ernest Hemingway to convey emotion with an economy of words, it’s a coin-toss whether the feelings the note produces in the reader are legitimate.

Anytime I get an e-mail that causes an emotional response in me, I stop and remember this study. And rather than react, I simply write “Thanks!” Or I pick up the phone. Or I press ‘delete’ and go about my day.

Got any e-mail advice or war stories? Share your story with CNN.

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