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Jan 05

E-mail Rules of the Road

Posted by: Steve Marr

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If Dickens were to have written *A Tale of Two E-Mails,* he might have concluded that "it was the best of communication- it was the worst of communication." Electronic mail is cheap, quick, and easy, but it may also be perceived as impersonal and its ease of use may lead to sloppiness, lack of discretion, and inappropriate expressions of anger. What often spells the difference is a person's willingness to observe some basic rules for e-mail usage.


The first thing to remember is that every e-mail, no matter how short, is a reflection on you and your professionalism. Don't be lulled into complacency by the casual nature of the medium. Make sure that your communications are businesslike in every respect. Think through everything, from the subject line to the overall tone. And don't hit "send" until you're certain that everything you've said is exactly what you intend.

E-mail should be used sparingly, and always with a specific purpose. Get to the point quickly--and stay there. Proofread and spell-check every message, no matter how short. Copy others only when you have a compelling reason, and never use copies (or, worse yet, blind copies) to get others in trouble or to send your message to a long list of people who really don't need to see it.

Avoid sending negative messages or anything you wouldn't want others to see. Consider that everything you send or forward may also be forwarded, copied, or posted on a bulletin board. As King Solomon once wrote, "God will bring every act to judgment, . . . whether it is good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:14 NASB).

E-mail is best used for short, one-subject messages. Most recipients prefer to deal with a single subject at a time, and short, to-the-point messages are easier to respond to. Consider sending short, separate e-mails for each topic, unless you know that the other person prefers a long laundry list. Quick and snappy typically works best.

"E-mail Ping-Pong" is a common "sport" in some offices, and messages can grow to several pages as the parties volley back and forth. A good rule of thumb is that after an e-mail exchange has gone back and forth three times without resolution or clarification, it's time to pick up the phone or walk down the hall and meet face to face.

Almost inevitably, you will end up on somebody's broadcast e-mail list, or you'll receive forwarded messages. Avoid the temptation to forward these messages to "everyone in your address book." Be a responsible steward of your own work time and the time of others. If there's no good business reason to forward a message, don't.

Beware of sending e-mails when you're angry. Entire careers--from top managers to newly hired employees--have been derailed by an angry or inappropriate e-mail. The ability to hammer out a message, or a quick reply, and have it gone with one click, isn't always a good thing. If an incoming message ruffles your feathers, don't respond right away. Cool down first and then compose a reasoned response. Use the "draft" or "send later" feature to protect yourself from sending e-mails you might later regret.

Depending on the message, e-mail is not always the best mode of expression. Always deliver bad news, criticism, or other strongly worded communications in person, to avoid having your words be misconstrued. Face to face communication allows you to temper your words or rephrase your message if you see that it is not being well received. Personal contact can defuse anger and resentment that might otherwise grow into a major conflict.

There's no doubt that e-mail is an effective and efficient method for transmitting many types of business communication. If you can utilize the strengths--and avoid the weaknesses--of e-mail, you will improve your workplace interactions and keep your career on track.

Steve Marr, Your Christian Business Coach

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