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3 Do’s and Don’ts for Work Emails

Dear Readers,

Like you, I probably get over 50 emails a day. And after years and year of receiving and writing emails and hearing feedback from clients,  I see a pattern of what works and what doesn’t work with emails. Here goes:

  1. Make it Short – If it is a long, complicated message, consider a phone call or in person talk, if possible.  When people open an email and see paragraphs and paragraphs of stuff, honestly, they are not happy. In the context of having many emails to open each day, they want the messages as short and sweet as possible. And they want the subject line to let them know what to expect. If it’s an email about a current project, name the specific project, and put the word ‘update’ in front of it. This is called a kindness to the reader. It focuses them on what the topic will be, and gets properly directed to the subject.  The other reason to make emails short is to avoid misinterpretation. The more information you put in, the more a chance of misunderstandings. If you are telling them that you are not able to make certain deadlines and you keep adding reasons for the delay, they might have reasons to doubt you or question you. Yes, keep in mind that the email you are writing will most probably be considered in the context of more than 50 other emails. Make it short, to the point and actionable.
  2. No blaming, no shaming.– Remember that emails come without any facial expressions, tonal qualities or the ability to take back what’s written. Emails are not the place to discuss anything that could be construed as hurtful, accusatory or embarrassing. People are very sensitive when they see that their personal information included, especially in a group email. I had an client who was very hurt that her colleague wrote that she was not going to be at a meeting because she had a dental appointment and was getting a root canal. I didn’t think anything of it, other than feeling bad for her needing that procedure, but she was embarrassed and hurt that her colleagues would be discussing what she considered her very private business. This situation escalated and ended up resulting in a long term poor relationship between the writer of that email and the woman who had the root canal. Always think twice before writing anything in an email that could be perceived as personal or private information. Another time a client was pregnant and she was going to take some extra vacation time off during her maternity leave. Her manager wrote a group email about her departure and it turned out she was very angry that people knew she was taking extra time off! In this case, the manager should have discussed going public with the information before putting it in an email. And with work projects, you might not think that a chart of roles, responsibilities and deadlines could be troublesome in an email, but it can be. If you see your name and a task you were to do and you see that it is not completed by the deadline date, you could be upset that the team could construe it as your tardiness and your lack of work completion. But you might have extenuating circumstances that your task was dependent on another task not in your control.  so before you ever put in an email that someone’s work is late, talk to them and find out what’s happening.
  3. Who to include. Who not to include. -This is vital. There have been so many workplace hurt feelings, arguments and disagreements based on inclusion or exclusion from an email distribution list. Spend time to make sure you have included the right people. Check with your manager if you are unsure. Sometimes your manager wants to make sure their boss is copied. Other times they emphatically do not want you to copy their boss. This could be for many reasons. They might want to take credit for your work! They might not want their boss to know the details or the projects. There could be many reasons. And make sure to include all of your relevant colleagues and partners. One client of mine got in a lot of trouble when she included vendors from outside the company on a project email. Turns out the company did not want the vendors to know too much about their products, services and processes. Always ask about including individuals or groups from outside your organization in your emails.

Remember that emails are just one form of communication. You typically can also pick up the phone, perhaps see the person live, text them or discuss the item in a group meeting.

When you do choose to write an email, think it through strategically.  Consider the other modes of communication before you settle on writing an email. Who should and shouldn’t be included. If you included the right people and if you said anything that could be misinterpreted. Read your email over at least twice. Listen for anything that could possibly be misinterpreted and edit accordingly. An ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure. This saying applies perfectly to the dos and don’ts of writing emails.

Onward to the best of your communications at work!

Coach Joan

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