Email makes everyone’s work life easier. In fact, it’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t have the ability to just dash off a note or a meeting reminder or a thank you to a colleague, a client, or an entire team, with just the touch of a button.
But it’s also easy to think of ways that email can get us into hot water. By writing a critical email about the boss to a colleague – and accidentally sending it to the boss himself. Or by hitting “reply all” when sending a personal message to meet for drinks after work, then spending the day receiving funny (and not so funny) responses from the entire company asking “When?”, “Where?”, and “Haven’t you got work to do?” (that last one came from your manager…) And once you’ve sent that email, there’s no getting it back. Except in the form of repercussions.
Of course, there are far worse email scandals that have been splashed across the media recently. Does the name Hillary Clinton ring a bell?
Why do we keep making the same email mistakes?
Because email is so familiar to us, and so immediate, we become less restrained in using it. We also see email as less permanent than pen and paper, because it’s not physical – just a collection of bits floating in the cloud. Many people see email as a less anxiety-inducing form of talking and use it to do everything from say “Hi” and gossip to explain and complain. But email’s great failing is that it doesn’t convey emotion. If your intention is to be ironic or teasing, your recipient may not “get it” and may very well be deeply offended by your words which could cause a rift in your relationship.
In a face-to-face conversation, you’re more likely to recognize and respond to the psychological state of the person as compared to when you can’t see or hear them. But when we read an email, we can only attempt to read intention and tone into the words.
Here are a few tips to help you convey your intended email emotional tone:
- Assess your relationship with the receiver. Adjust your level of writing formality to match the relationship.
- Consider leading with a social comment as you would if you were talking face to face. For example, “I hope you enjoyed the long weekend,” or “I’m looking forward to working with you on this project.”
- If you think there’s room for misinterpretation of your message, take the time to craft the email to make sure your message is more likely to be received with your true intention.
- Don’t use text speak like “lol” or “BTW” unless you know the person well. Same for emoticons.
- And don’t type in ALL CAPS! It’s the same as screaming at someone.
- If you’re not sure about the tone of an email you’re sending, park the email in your draft folder and come back and re-read it a couple of hours later before sending it.
The importance of effective corporate email security
With Edward Snowden’s infamous leak of sensitive NSA files and the endless drip-drip-drip of WikiLeaks’ world-shaking documents, security has jumped to center stage for organizations.
A global survey of managers and information workers by the Business Performance Innovation (BPI) Network found that while most are concerned about cyberattacks, the top concern by far is an employee accidentally sending out confidential information. In fact, 6 out of every 10 respondents said they or someone they know have accidently sent out a document they shouldn’t have. Other top concerns were cyber breaches of critical documents (37 %), intentional leaks by employees (33 %), and sensitive documents shared without permission by outside partners (31 %).
Dave Murray, head of thought leadership for the BPI Network, says “Our study indicates that a wide range of information that could compromise businesses is vulnerable to inadvertent leaks, as well as intentional theft. Organizations need to do more to set explicit document security policies and educate employees on available tools and best practices in securing the confidential information they handle.
How employees can implement their own security policies
Other studies have shown that nearly 90% of both managers and employees admit to having used company email to send gossip, jokes, insults, and even “romantic” (or worse!) material. The result? A huge number of companies have seen their employee email subpoenaed and have been obliged to fire people exclusively for email misuse.
This is what Nancy Flynn, the founder of the ePolicy Institute and the author of Writing Effective Email, suggests: “Before you send an email, imagine you’re on an elevator with your clients, and your competitors, and your colleagues: Would you say it out loud? If you wouldn’t say it out loud, don’t put it in an email message.”
Flynn advises companies on email practices and also acts as an expert witness. “Email is electronic DNA,” she likes to say. And DNA never changes and can’t be erased. In a lawsuit, “it’s the first place lawyers are going to look.” But don’t forget the good thing about the permanence of email: the famous paper trail – say, in case you want (or need) to prove that you actually did send a colleague a report, a request, or a warning.
In short, if you use email with thought and care, you should be all right. But when in doubt, go old school – and just pick up the phone.