Ten Email Pitfalls for Unwary Employees
There are many ways for business email to go bad.
From using an employer’s email for an improper purpose to simply making careless mistakes, it’s easy for an employee to get tripped up with email or other electronic communications. At one end of the spectrum, a bad email can be embarrassing. At the other end, it can create legal liability for the employee or the business.
Before you send your next business email, ask whether you are falling into one of these common email traps.
Pitfall 1: Disregarding the fundamentals.
Dale Carnegie once observed that we are classified and evaluated by the four ways in which we have contact with the world: “what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it.”
When you send an email instead of picking up the phone to call a client or walking down the hall to speak with a colleague, that person has only one way to evaluate you: by what you say, not what you do, how you look, or how you say it. In other words, you will be judged by the words on the screen. They better be good.
Put yourself in the best possible light by writing in a direct, concise manner. Follow the conventional rules of grammar and punctuation, apply an appropriate level of formality considering your relationship to the recipient, and proofread your work before sending it. Remember:
Get help with the fundamentals
- USE OF ALL CAPS LOOKS LIKE SHOUTING
- Use exclamation points sparingly!!!!!
- OMG, think B4 u use shortcuts, slang, and emoticons. :)
The bottom line is that a failure to follow the conventional rules of punctuation and capitalization may imply laziness or even disrespect. You have one shot to make a good first impression; don't sell yourself short with a sloppy email.
Tip: Don't rely on spell check programs; proofread an email yourself before sending.
Pitfall 2: Forgetting that your tone can’t be heard.
Nonverbal cues communicate 65 to 93 percent of your meaning. Without hearing tone of your voice or observing your body language and facial expressions, it’s easy for the recipient of an email to misinterpret your message. Left grasping for clues as to your meaning and intent, the reader often assumes the worst:
- Criticisms seem harsher.
- Humor and sarcasm may offend.
Before sending your email, read it from the intended recipient’s perspective. Is there anything that could be taken the wrong way? If so, adjust the email's tone for the audience and the situation.
Tip: Reread for ambiguity from the recipient's point of view.
Pitfall 3: Expecting privacy
Never expect anything you say in an email to remain private.
For one thing, emails are easily forwarded. All it takes is one click of the forward button for your email to land in the inbox of someone you never intended to see it. A few more clicks, and thousands of people you don’t even know are reading it. Marking an email as confidential doesn’t help; the recipient may still send it on, by accident or intentionally.
Also keep in mind that anything you send on a computer or system owned by your employer is fair game for your employer to read. Employers generally have the legal right to review emails that are sent and received on their equipment and systems. Many employers routinely monitor employee email as a course of business. Many others won’t hesitate to retrieve and review employee emails as part of a workplace investigation.
Employers also may be compelled to turn over employees’ emails in the course of litigation or government investigations. Even an employee’s non-work-related emails may be subject to disclosure. In cases involving employee claims of workplace harassment or discrimination, it is common for plaintiffs’ attorneys to seek email and other communications for evidence of unlawful conduct. In such cases, your careless or inappropriate use of email could result in liability to your employer!
Don’t think for one minute that deleting an email will keep its contents private. Deleted emails may be recovered from backup files or their contents and metadata restored through computer forensics.
Tip: Think of email as a postcard that anyone can read.
Pitfall 4: Using email in an unprofessional manner
Given email’s lack of privacy, propensity to create misunderstanding, and impact on how one is perceived by others, this next pitfall should be a no-brainer. Yet many employees fall into the trap of using their work email in an inappropriate and unprofessional manner. Such conduct often leads to discipline or even discharge.
Take, for example, the case of three Iowa Civil Rights Commission investigators who were fired in 2011 for sending emails to one another in which they referred to their co-workers by derogatory nicknames like “Monster” and “Psycho.” The three women were unsuccessful in their subsequent claims for unemployment benefits because their behavior was deemed to be misconduct justifying their dismissal.
Many employers have email policies setting out what is and is not allowed on the company’s email system. If your employer has such a policy, read it and follow it. But even in the absence of a written policy, it is best to observe some basic rules:
- Limit personal emails.
- The content of an email should be appropriate for the workplace.
- Don’t forward chain letters, virus warnings, or jokes.
- Don’t violate confidences.
Tip: Remember that every email you send impacts your professional reputation, for better or for worse.
Pitfall 5: Emailing when angry
Have you ever fired off a nasty email to someone in anger? Did you feel a strong sense of satisfaction as soon as you hit the send button? Did you later feel some regret?
Maybe your boss called you out for your bad behavior. Maybe you received an equally nasty reply and things escalated from there. This all-too-common scenario brings us to business email rule #5: Never email when angry.
Don’t use email to send angry or inflammatory messages. It’s easy to be mean from behind the safety of your computer screen. But never say something in an email that you wouldn’t say to the person’s face. Once you hit that send button, the message can’t be taken back. That nasty-gram could come back to bite you later.
Have you ever sent an email that you later regretted?
Tip: If you need to vent in an email, leave the address line blank (to prevent sending the email by accident before you are ready). Save the email as a draft and reread it the next day after you’ve had a chance to sleep on it.
Pitfall 6: Not knowing when it’s best to pick up the phone
Email is great for a lot of things: getting a quick answer to a simple question, confirming the time and place of a meeting, providing a status update to a large group of people, etc. But it is important to be mindful that email is not right for all occasions.
When is it okay to use email?
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Don’t use email for complicated topics that need explanation or negotiation. Those discussions require the give and take of real-time communication. Email also should not be used for emotionally-charged subjects due to the heightened potential for misunderstanding (see Pitfall 2) or for anything that you want to remain private (see Pitfall 3). Finally, remember that email is never appropriate for delivering devastating news.
Tip: Don’t use email as an excuse to avoid difficult conversations.
Pitfall 7: Not paying attention to the distribution list
Early in my career as a corporate employment attorney, I received a call from a human resources manager to ask for my advice about how to handle a sticky workplace situation. It seems an employee had sent a sexually explicit email to an entire division of the company, hundreds of employees in total. From the greeting, it was clear the missive was meant for a single employee (“Allison”) and not the division-wide distribution list (“All Employees”) to which it was sent. Indeed, the two employees in question (both married to other people) had been rumored to be having an affair, and the note’s contents certainly seemed to confirm all the speculation.
To make a long story short, the employee who sent the misdirected love letter (and I am being generous with that characterization; Keats he was not) was disciplined for multiple violations of company policy, while the employee believed to be the intended recipient was treated to what I’m sure was an embarrassing interview with human resources to make sure she wasn’t being sexually harassed. (She claimed she received the note in error, just like everyone else).
So you don’t think something like this could happen to you?
Think again. Even though you may never attempt to send a pornographic love letter to a co-worker, keep in mind that email is easily misdirected, especially if you don’t pay close enough attention to the auto-fill function. You may think you are sending a note to one person when you really are sending it to someone with a similar name, thanks to auto-fill. Check, and double-check, the “to” field to make sure your note is going to the right person.
Likewise, take care when clicking on “reply all.” If there is someone on the original distribution list who shouldn’t see – or doesn’t need to see – your reply, take them off. Consider who needs to be aware of your reply to conduct business. Don’t unnecessarily clutter others’ email inboxes with irritating replies like “thanks,” “okay,” or “me too.”
Tip: Take a “need to know” approach when sending or replying to email and modify the distribution list accordingly.
Pitfall 8: Letting an email thread spiral out of control
Closely related to the problem of “reply all” abuse is abuse of the forward button to the point that an email thread spirals out of control. How does this happen? An email sent to a handful of people gets forwarded on to others who add their own replies and forwards. Before too long, the thread grows so long that someone has to scroll through pages and pages of replies to read it all. The main point of the original note gets buried and the more recent messages in the thread may no longer pertain to the original subject.
Fortunately, there are a few simple rules you can follow to get an email thread back under control (or keep it from spiraling out of control in the first place):
- Start a separate thread for new topics.
- Don’t forward someone else’s email without explanation or permission.
- Summarize long discussions.
- Highlight or quote the relevant portion in your response.
- Cut what is not relevant (but don’t change the wording of the message you received.
- Give proper attribution.
Tip: An email thread generally should not be any longer than three emails.
Pitfall 9: Using "Bcc" to be sneaky
When you use the “Bcc” (or blind carbon copy) field, the email addresses of the recipients specified in the field do not appear in the received message header and the other recipients will not know that a copy of the email has been sent to those addresses.
Bcc is a useful feature in certain circumstances. For example, I have used it when corresponding with opposing counsel on a matter by blind-copying my client so the client could see my communication without disclosing to the opposition the client’s contact information.
It may be tempting to use Bcc in a sneaky manner. For instance, say you have a co-worker who is late in getting you some information you have requested. So you send them a note pointing out the missed deadline and politely requesting their immediate response. And, for good measure, you blind-copy the boss so she knows how diligent you are and what a slacker your co-worker is. Is this a good idea?
Suppose the boss clicks on “reply all” and provides her two cents in the matter. In seeing the boss’ reply, your co-worker now realizes you blind-copied the boss on what your co-worker thought was a private matter between the two of you. You have created distrust and bad feelings that are likely to spill over into other interactions between the two of you. Was it worth it?
Again, probably not.
Tip: Use “Bcc” only to protect privacy of your mailing list.
Pitfall 10: Disguising your email as spam
What good is a well-written email that never gets opened and read? Do you want to increase the chances that your email is read? If so, take the time to construct a well-written subject line.
The subject line is arguably the most important line of an email message and is often the determining factor as to whether the email will be opened, or even get to the recipient’s inbox. A poorly constructed subject line may result in the email being flagged as spam or otherwise ignored.
Consider a harried business person quickly scanning the contents of her inbox to determine her workday priorities. Which email subject line is more likely to capture her attention?
- Re: Information for Monday’s board meeting
- Re: Meeting
If you said #1, you are correct. The more specific you can be in the subject line, the better.
Also take care that a subject line doesn’t come across as spammy. Consider the following actual email subject lines. What do they have in common?
- “Please read ASAP”
- “Unbelievable news”
- “FW: New business”
All three were non-spam emails that ended up in this author’s spam folder due to poorly written, spammy-sounding subject lines.
Tip: Write subject lines that are specific and match the content of the message.
Test your proficiency: What's wrong with this email?
How many errors do you see in the email above?
Deborah Neyens is an attorney and freelance writer who teaches Business Communication and Protocol at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.
© 2014 Deborah Neyens