Top email calamities to avoid … and how to make an impact instead

Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. In this column he addresses the appropriate use of email and how to avoid nightmares in electronic communication.

“My fiancée had bought me a string tanga birthday present. For a fun ‘thank you’ message, I took a selfie in body builder pose, just wearing the tanga. In the subject line I put: ‘Would you like to see more? …’
Five minutes later my boss replied: ‘I don’t think so. But thanks for the offer.’

The web is full of anecdotes about emails gone wrong. While some of these blunders read funny, inappropriate emails can lead to serious damage for the business as well as the individuals involved.

While it can happen to any of us who use email routinely, it can cost professional credibility, reputation and sometimes even an entire career. In recent years, emails, text messages, social posts and other electronic communication have been admitted as evidence in courts around the world. Nothing you write or post, regardless of channel or audience, should be considered ‘private’ any longer.

There might go your career …

Take Spirit Airlines’ CEO Ben Baldanza, who faced a fire storm back in 2007 for accidentally hitting “reply all”. Which directed an internal email about a passenger complaint to that very passenger, instead of only instructing the in-house communications team: “We owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He’s never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”

Despite soaring social media engagement, email still is the number one communications channel of most corporations large and small. Because we spend so much time on it, using email appropriately and purposefully can help enterprises conduct business in a responsible manner obeying applicable laws, guidelines and ethical standards. And what’s true for the use of email usually applies to other forms of electronic and social engagement, too.

Let’s not forget that employees don’t own their company email. Employers can monitor electronic communication, and people have been fired for violating related policies. Violation of email policy and messages containing inappropriate or offensive language are the two most common causes for email-related firing in the US. While workers may be disciplined or terminated because of inappropriate messages, companies can face the risk of lawsuits.

How email is best used

Over my years in the corporate world, I learned to use email primarily for brief clarifications, asking simple questions and providing short answers. It can be effective for saying “yes” or “have you also considered x?” In these instances, it’s usually best to direct it to just the person in charge and spare others the time and trouble of having to wade through information not directly relevant to them.

In a large organisation context, it’s also a great vehicle to provide fairly straightforward updates to bigger groups, especially when recipients are based in diverse locations and time zones. When using it that way, always make sure to mark the subject line as FYI or INFORM so that people know it’s not time-critical nor does it require a response.

What’s not for email

Email is not, however, a tool to lead complex discussions. If you have to say “no”, share sensitive feedback, settle an issue or for other discussions that require sufficient time, tact and the exchange of comprehensive information, do it in person, pick up the phone or schedule a video conference.

Nor should difficult personal news ever be broken by email. Whether someone’s job is at stake, their performance review terrible, or a loved one or co-worker injured, that personal impact should always be conveyed in a respectful, personal manner, and ideally face to face. Imagine how you’d like to be communicated to under similar circumstances and apply the same curtesy to others.

As a general rule, avoid questionable behaviours and opinions especially when you’re representing your company or institution. Don’t post anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing quoted in the public domain. What consequences might it have if your email were leaked to the wrong audience?

Never respond when you’re mad

Emotion is a bad guide. Never write or respond to emails when you’re mad at someone. If you need to get it out of your system, draft the note, then let it sit for a few hours or overnight to revisit the draft the next morning, in a calmer state of mind. If you’re not sure, don’t send it!

Confidential and sensitive content doesn’t belong in emails, not even internal ones. Apart from the possibility of human error by misdirecting the original to an unintended audience, recipients might forward your message or otherwise disclose or publish it. Beyond business strategies, revenue targets, competitive analyses etc, this also includes speculating about a colleague’s or customer’s illness, income, religious belief or political affiliation, plus a lot more.

Never express yourself disrespectfully to or about others or make fun of people, present or absent, via email. Avoid commenting on your own or a competitor’s executives, products, services or decisions.

In general, don’t put anything in email that could be misinterpreted, misconstrued or used to discredit or jeopardise people or businesses if it landed in the wrong hands. Don’t put in writing what you wouldn’t say to a person. How would you convey the same message in a spoken, personal conversation?

Know your organisation’s policies. Regardless of level or role, the policies apply to your digital and virtual communication, too. Don’t engage in conversations that may conflict with your professional responsibilities, laws or ethics.

Reduce your readership

Keep distribution to who needs to know. Stamp out “reply to all”. It’s considered unsophisticated and lazy. Make a habit of leaving the “to” field blank while creating your message or response. When ready to send, consider who really needs it and consciously add those names. Not only will this help communicate to the right people, it’ll also prevent the premature sending of incomplete emails.

Don’t trust “auto-complete”. As soon as an email recipient is suggested – check. In most email software you can switch off the auto-complete function.

When you receive emails, consider whether a response is required. Even a one or two-word answer like “great” or “got it” can cost the recipient up to 30 seconds, causing distraction and interrupting their workflow. “Thank You” emails should be used sparingly to acknowledge a job well done and kept to the person or team it concerns.

Save time – yours and theirs

Keep short and simple. Always remain constructive, accurate and polite. Details are better saved for a conversation. And don’t be offended by a short response: it’s a sign of efficiency.

Help recipients prioritise by adding keywords at the beginning of the subject line, like: FYI, ACTION, APPROVAL or URGENT.

State the specific reason for the email and what action you need in the first sentence. Avoid open-ended questions requiring a lengthy response – where possible, provide choices to select from.

Summarise essential context in few simple words or bullets. Don’t expect readers to wade through multiple previous email threads to figure it out. Think twice before attaching files the recipient must open. If you’re just sharing a slide or two as an FYI, consider simply copying and embedding them in the cover email.

It’s okay to disconnect

Set an example by spending less time on email. If we all reduce the churn, everyone benefits. Consider blocking offline time in your calendar to get other work done; it may help to deactivate email pop-up notifications during those hours.

To get short answers quickly, consider alternatives: pick up the phone, walk down the aisle, send a text, use Office Communicator.

Help establish a culture where it’s ok to disconnect. Unless critical, leave email for when you’re at work. Enjoy your weekends. Be on vacation properly.

If you’re a team manager, never send emails to your subordinates in the middle of the night, during weekends or holidays. The signal conveyed is for them to feel guilty if they cannot react instantly at 3 am on Sunday morning. If you need to phrase your message off-business hours, tag your draft for later delivery and release it during office hours. Your team – actually, everyone around you – will respect you for role-modelling behaviours that respect people’s private space.

If worse comes to worst, get support from the communications department in case your (leaked) communication attracts social comments and external enquiries. They will typically partner with you to help mitigate the situation and prevent it from going viral.

• Drop content you don’t wish to see quoted in public
• Never break difficult personal impact by email
• Consider the worst case – what if your email got to the wrong audience?
• Never engage in conversations when angry or emotional
• If you’re not sure, don’t send it
• Don’t email confidential or sensitive content
• Avoid disrespectful comments
• If you wouldn’t say it, don’t put it in writing
• Don’t compromise your professional responsibilities, laws or ethics
• Limit distribution to those who must know
• “Reply to all” only when absolutely necessary
• Fill in the “to” field last and consciously
• Don’t trust the auto-complete function
• Abstain from unnecessary responses
• Keep short, simple, polite and constructive
• Set clear subject and required actions
• Summarise context, avoid voluminous threads and attachments
• Consider alternatives to email
• Set an example by spending less time on email
• Refrain from emailing outside business hours

About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.