Allison poked her head into my office and said, “I made a big mistake.” Not exactly the words you want to hear first thing in the morning.
Her frustration had been building with a co-worker, Jack, regarding his work ethic. He had just sent an email to the team saying he was leaving early again for personal reasons. This was becoming a habit that I was about to address (really I was). Turns out, Allison forwarded his email to another co-worker saying “Must be nice to be a slacker and get away with it.” Only problem was the other co-worker’s first name was Jack also and she didn’t pay attention to the address auto-filled by the email program. Needless to say the Jack that received the message was not the intended recipient. Oops!
I actually warned of this potentially embarrassing scenario in my “A Manager’s Guide To Email” column, but I guess Allison didn’t read it. In response to that article I received a ton of feedback with various pet peeves people have regarding email in the workplace. The overall theme was that people didn’t treat email with respect, which is how disasters like Allison’s email happen. Before the days of email, she would have just picked up the phone — and hopefully dialed the right number.
Back when memos were typewritten, you can be sure a memo was gone over with a fine-tooth comb, potentially going through multiple approvals prior to distribution. Today, communication is very immediate, whether it be an email, instant message or even a blog. It’s usually impossible to take back something once it has been distributed, especially at the lightning speed of digital media.
To help you avoid “peeving” someone off with your next email, here are the top ten pet peeves I received from reader responses.
1. Unclear Subject Headings — Most of us have a very full inbox and just don’t have time to open every email the moment it arrives, let alone that same day. A survey of IT managers conducted by Ipsos-Reid (funded by RIM, the makers of Blackberry) found that they receive on average 48 emails per day, with 39% classified as time-critical. With this constant onslaught, you are more likely to immediately open an email with the subject “Water pipe burst in data center — need assistance!” rather than “Data Center.” Be informative in your subject heading, especially when quick action is being requested.
2. Unprofessional Salutations — For people you know well, it’s OK to skip a formal salutation because email is more like an ongoing conversation. However, when writing an email to an executive or customer, it is best not to start it out with “Yo!” or “Howdy.” If you have some familiarity with the recipient, using “Dear Bob” is not a bad idea, but don’t go with “Dear Bobby” unless you know using the diminutive won’t rankle that person. If you don’t know the person at all, go with Mr. or Ms. and their last name. Personalize your salutations and people will respond more positively.
3. Incessant Babbling — Instead of rambling on about insignificant details, it is best to write the most important information at the beginning of the email. This will grab and most likely keep the recipient’s attention. If you find yourself writing a book, create a separate document as an attachment and just use the email as an introduction to that document. Simply get to the point.
4. Confusing Responses — If the original email you wrote had a list of questions, it is very frustrating to receive a bunch of answers back without your original appended. To be clear about which question is being answered, it is better to include your answers right under each corresponding question, preferably in a different font color.
5. Cutesy Formatting — There is nothing more distracting than getting an email with pink background wall paper and gyrating smiley icons. It’s also important to remember that not all of us use email that interprets HTML, so even your bolds and italics will not display as expected. Your recipient may turn off HTML for security, others may have plain text PDAs, while some may just be using old email software. Save adding your personality for social emails.
6. When, Where, Huh? — Emails are commonly used to arrange meetings. If you aren’t using an automated calendar invite, just writing “Th @ 2, my office” can cause problems. Did you mean this coming Thursday or Thursday next week? Best to include all the details such as “Thursday, Oct. 14, 2007 from 1 pm to 4 pm in my office located on the 3rd Floor of Corporate Tower One.” And when scheduling a global conference call, be sure to include a specific time zone.
7. Inane Responses — Did you ever put lots of thought and effort into an email, only to receive the response “You bet” or “Sure”? If you simply don’t have time to provide the same level of response, at least have the courtesy to say “Thanks for the details. I’m swamped today. Let’s get together and discuss in more detail tomorrow.” Take the time to sufficiently acknowledge the sender’s questions or issues.
8. Inconsistent Signatures — Email signatures are a form of marketing for the company. Use the auto-signature feature to include a standard signature format created by the marketing department. At a minimum include full name, title, company name and office phone number. The recipient can deduce your web site from your email address and if they require more details they can always ask for fax, address, etc. A company slogan at the bottom, such as “Making Wireless Healthcare Happen,” helps brand the company. Consistent signatures will show your company is in sync and well-organized.
9. Vague Requests — You are just about to shut down when an email from your CFO pops in saying “Make sure you bring all the reports to the meeting.” Your mind (and heart) races … What meeting? What reports? It’s best never to assume the recipient knows exactly what you are referring to. This is another example of a need to be concise yet descriptive with actionable requests.
10. Embarrassing Slips — When your boss receives an email from Crazy_For_Vodoo666@comcast.net and it turns out to be from you — well, need I say more?If you periodically download work emails to your home computer, be careful not to use your personal email address when responding.
I actually experienced a more damaging embarrassing slip recently when I forwarded an apparently innocuous email to a customer, only to realize after the fact that in the long appended thread there was some unflattering, internal bickering about the very same client. Always check the entire thread before forwarding or be ready to eat some crow.
Speaking of eating crow, Allison had her share when she had to apologize to her co-worker. But apologies only go so far when true feelings are exposed via avoidable email faux pas. By using common sense, common courtesy and just slowing down before pressing send, you will avoid “peeving” off your co-workers.