When e-mail has to say it all

While at times it can seem more like a curse than a blessing, e-mail is an essential business communications tool. Lacking the body language, facial expressions, and voice tone that typically help us figure each other out, e-mail, while useful, is not without hazards. Meanings can, and often are, misinterpreted. Wrong or confusing data may be conveyed when messages are carelessly composed. Sloppy grammar and spelling, including all upper or lower case, creates bad impressions. And information intended only for the recipient gets forwarded to others, embarrassing the original sender.

Such problems can be heightened in virtual teams where members have little or no “real-life” contact. For example, if you haven’t witnessed Bill’s devilish sense of humor in face-to-face meetings, you may take something he says via e-mail seriously when it was meant in jest.

Potential e-mail gaffes can be avoided by following these suggestions:

Take It Seriously. Many people operate under the mistaken belief that grammar and style aren’t important in e-mail. But poor grammar and heaps of typos send a bad impression about your professionalism. Perhaps even worse, sloppiness may tell the recipient that you don’t care enough to take the time to do it right. Also, a carelessly written e-mail often leads to needless back and forth exchanges as the recipient tries to determine what exactly you meant to say in the first place.

While brevity is important in e-mails, clarity is critical. Don’t just dash off thoughts off the top of your head and hit send. Make sure you’ve said exactly what you mean to say and that you’ve done it in a style that shows your professionalism and your respect for the recipient.

Take Time for Niceties. Establishing business relationships with people you may never meet in person is a challenge. You’ll do better in this regard if you take time in your e-mails to be polite and pleasant. Instead of just saying “Hi,” use the recipient’s name in your greeting. End with a kind word. For example, if it’s Friday, wish the person a happy or relaxing weekend.

These little things are not a waste of time, especially if you are part of a virtual team or if you’re communicating with clients or customers. In situations where you’re working face to face with people, you would probably never pass someone in the hallway without saying “Hi” or “How are you?” Even though the only place you’re “passing by” each other is in cyberspace, carrying on these conventions of polite intercourse is still important to forming and maintaining good relationships.

Avoid Emotional Outbursts. No doubt you have every right to be upset with a co-worker whose mistake is going to double your workload or cost the company money. But dashing off an e-mail in which you convey your anger is never advisable. Not only can such a message immediately damage team dynamics, it can also come back to haunt you later. Always take time to cool down and respond thoughtfully, so you never have to worry that an angry outburst may be forwarded to others or saved in print form to be used against you at some future time.

Be Discrete. I tell my public relations clients never to say anything to a reporter that they wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper the following day. The same can be said of e-mail. Never convey information in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want to tell your whole organization–or the outside world.

Disaster stories abound of the bad things that have happened to individuals or to companies when someone hit the forward key, either with malice or without thinking of the potential harm that could result. Discretion is crucial in all aspects of business but never more so than when you’re composing an e-mail.

Following these simple guidelines will benefit the entire organization. You will prevent e-mail hazards and help to create a positive work environment.


  1. Carie Hohlt says:

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