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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soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Swapan Chakravarthy

    And you did not say that wives and husbands don't quarrel anymore. They just send harsh emails to each other. Better still sms' have replaced emails.

    September 23, 2009 at 5:45 am |
  2. Peter

    Another one:
    Never add potentially insulting remarks to an email thread (however funny they may seem at the time). Murphy's law dictates that the individual who is the subject of the insult will receive a copy one way or the other.

    Ridicule and insults are best saved for telephone conversations (be careful with speakerphones) or, even better, in the pub over a beer.

    September 23, 2009 at 6:11 am |
  3. Evans Gichomo

    Nice article,too sad for that accountant because i am one. Another point you need to be weary about is the forward button. Management may be sharing emails among clients and if the wrong forward is passed, it bares the whole email thread below,and this can lead to job loss of clients conflicts.
    Evans- Nairobi

    September 23, 2009 at 6:40 am |
  4. Mr Mojo

    I'm pretty sure it was a mafioso some decades before email hit the office environment who said put nothing in writing... Never been better advice

    September 23, 2009 at 7:57 am |
  5. Steven

    No, I disagree with your generalized advice of always “Keep it short”. I especially disagree with your attempt to tie the shorter-email-size with the higher-management-level of the sender!

    Top managers’ primary role is to set business agenda and make sure it is put it in practice. To do so, they often need to prepare and distribute a clear and detailed description of their vision to their mid-level management and beyond. This can be lengthy, (even in email form) full of links, taking the readers into even lengthier company reference books and catalogs.

    Writing short and concise does show word mastery, but top managements are hardly famous members of this group very select group. Just read about the level of detail Steve Jobs of Apple goes into, when he is communicating with his people.

    I started using email 35+ years ago, as a computer system specialist, and for years as a business executive, since years before internet. I never had to wait and place the email address last, and never had a problem of “premature e-mailation”!

    I believe your observation and expertise regarding the email etiquette seams too thin and shallow! I am disappointed, since I was expecting a more detailed and concise report on all email issues and perceptions, from all over the world, possibly including multilingual aspects…

    September 23, 2009 at 8:55 am |
  6. D Ghosh

    I agree with most of the issues raised in the article. I would suggest the other extreme tha we should switch back to handwritten posts or snailmail. When you have to handwrite something, your thinking and translation of the same into penforce is more congruous and the sending of the note is also not instantaneous. You have time to flatten your egoic and wrinkled thoughts by your own iron (mind).

    September 23, 2009 at 9:49 am |
  7. Doug

    The 'Keep it short' rule often doesn't apply because short emails can be misconstrued. In my company, if you are not 'fluffy' enough in your emails, you are sometimes misread as being rude or abrupt or demanding.

    September 23, 2009 at 12:20 pm |
  8. Priti

    A nasty habit my teammates developed is to frequently misuse the "reply all" and "forward" button. (including me, and after some errs I went back to "new"). Just 2 days back someone had sent a report to our delivery leads in Australia and some of the guys in the email list weren't meant to read it. I was effing pissed r when they replied saying to please remove them from the weekly report. Thank god it was just a "FYI report".

    And about the wordy emails part.I dont really agree with you. Im at a low rank position but since day 1 I have kept my emails short and straight. I laugh when I read my co workers emails. The most annoying guy in my office ends his sentences with a lengthy "Would greatly appreciate your feedback on this event & looking forward for your reply"

    I end mine with "Awaiting your feedback. Thanks"

    Pisses me off when I see unnecessary junk in an email. Makes it harder to read one email and gleen the facts from the rest

    September 24, 2009 at 6:03 pm |
  9. Andr135

    Oh...and please no emoticons ! You're not on Facebook

    September 25, 2009 at 1:25 pm |
  10. David

    So how does the "keep it short" rule correlate to the "good employee bad employee" article on about Cataphora? If top execs write short e-mails, then won't the Cataphora software flag them as unproductive?

    September 26, 2009 at 2:40 am |
  11. prince s. godwin mafo

    thanks,once again for the innovation,basically on emails, apparently i dont know where the heading of the discussion is on but i am just leaving my comment on the areas of email,precisely, the climax and the anti-climax. atfirst, i have to say this, email has help to merge diversity of people around the glo, much less,doing biz online.
    subsequently,the scam now is evolving into stages,something has to be done.

    October 12, 2009 at 5:04 pm |
  12. icons pack

    Even so


    September 23, 2012 at 9:56 pm |

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