Avoiding the Pitfalls of Email Blunders

Email can be a powerful tool, or it can be the source of an embarassing faux pas... one that could land you, and your job, in hot water. For IT pros, who need to connect with business, there are a few pointers to keep in mind.
Have you ever written something not-so-nice about a colleague in an email? Have you ever hit 'Reply to All' when you only meant to hit 'Reply'? Have you ever thought someone was 'yelling' at you because they wrote you an email in 'ALL CAPS'?

Most likely at least one of these scenarios hits close to home with you... probably a little too close to home.

Email has become such a relied-upon business tool that your average worker would probably wrestle anyone trying to take it from them. According to industry analyst firm the Meta Group, email overtook the telephone at least two years ago as the preferred communication tool in the office. A Meta survey showed that 74 percent of businesspeople said being without email would present more of a hardship than being without phone service.

For IT professionals, especially, email is a critical tool. Industry analysts are telling IT workers to become part of the business team, to learn to communicate with co-workers outside of the IT box. Email is a primary tool for making that happen. That means good email skills could kick-start your business ties, but it also means that a few bad emails could tarnish your efforts.

If not handled just right, email can get you into a lot of trouble, warns Janis Fisher Chan, author of the new book Email: A Write it Well Guide.

''When you're sending an email, you're creating an image of yourself to this other person. Sometimes, it's not such a good image,'' says Chan. ''So many people, in this global industry, are communicating with people all over the world, and they're projecting an image of themselves and the organization that sometimes isn't credible or considerate or polite.''

Chan says workers often find themselves in hot water because they wrote something snide or catty about a colleague in an email and then accidentally sent it to the wrong person... or someone, playing political games, forwarded it to the person you were talking about. Or they might be in trouble for accidentally putting more information than they were supposed to in an email, revealing critical corporate information.

These are all email accidents that could cost you not only your reputation, but your job.

''People hit 'Reply to All' and they send messages that not everybody should have,'' says Chan. ''People don't stop to think that whoever gets your message can forward it on either accidentally or deliberately. Things you say about people can be passed on. Trade secrets could be released. It can land people in court. If somebody feels that something in an email is libelous, all the disclaimers people put at the bottom of a message does no good.

''The worst thing is when email is called in as evidence in a court case,'' she adds. ''People don't realize email is considered written documents that can be retrieved and used in court. Even if it's deleted, it can be found on computers.''

Creating Perceptions

Even if it's not serious enough to land you in court, Chan says any one of the emails you shoot off every day could affect the way people perceive you. And that alone can affect how well you can get your job done, and if you'll move up in the company.

''I just got an email from someone I do not know and it was written in 'ALL CAPS' and I have this very negative image of this person that he's rude and abrupt,'' Chan explains. ''He may be a very nice and efficient man, but that's not the image I got from that email.''

Chan says a big part of the problem creates bad emails is that people just don't like to write. They would rather whip something off quickly than take a minute to make sure it's well written, to the point and heading off to the right person. It's simply done all too quickly, she adds.

''People need guidance in writing,'' Chan says. ''They tend to write without thinking. They see writing as a chore. They tend to not be clear. When it comes to email, which is the most prevalent form of business communication, they bring all of these problems with them. They write without rereading it. They write things that shouldn't be written. They really need help in stopping and thinking about what they want to say, what information readers need and the tone they should take.''

Here are some of Chan's tips for writing better emails:

  • Think before you write. Think about what your message is, who is the reader, and should the reader have the message. Is this appropriate to write? What if this was published in the newspaper?
  • Respect the reader. Respect their time and respect them enough to make sure the message you send is useful. Look at what they're writing from a reader's point of view. We see writing as something we're doing. But it's a communication.
  • Read it before you send it if it's sensitive or difficult or important. Save it as a draft and go back to it the next day and look it over before you send it.
  • Stop and think about what would happen if someone else sees a copy of this. Sometimes you don't send an email. Sometimes you pick up the phone or walk down the hall and speak with someone directly. It's not always smart to put something in writing and it's not always smart to put something in email. Even a letter is more confidential because people aren't as likely to make 2,500 copies and send it out. But with email you really don't know where it's going to end up.
  • From the managing side, people let all these messages build up in their inbox until it's overwhelming and then they can't find messages that they need. Spend a few minutes a day to clean it up and stay on top of it. That makes it a more useful tool.
  • Try not to let email interrupt other activities. Checking what's in your inbox can be much more interesting than whatever else you're doing. You want to check it every five minutes or every time you hear that 'ding'... but don't. Don't be the person in the meeting who has one eye on his inbox. Don't let email keep you from getting the rest of your work done. Curb email interruptions.
  • Keep the jokes to a minimum and make sure you don't send out anything that could be construed as offensive.

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