E-mail: good, bad and ugly

Next time you write an e-mail, ask yourself the following questions: are you an e-mail saint, sinner or somewhere in-between? Do...

Next time you write an e-mail, ask yourself the following questions: are you an e-mail saint, sinner or somewhere in-between? Do you go out of your way to be friendly like a decreasing minority of others? Are your e-mails so aggressive that they drip venom to all who have the honour of receiving them? Or are they a mix of the two?

David Taylor

Inside track

We have all seen examples of the latter,"Mike, why is your department so appalling and your people so useless? Kind regards, Tom."

The biggest concern about e-mails is also your largest opportunity - namely its impact on communications. E-mails feed our reactive, rather than responsive behaviour, often failing to make the points intended and too often used as an alternative to other means of contact. As one of the most public, powerful and prevalent forms of corporate communication, there is a need for caution, care and clarity.

Be aware of the impact of the written word: it is always far greater than other forms of communication. It is direct, to the point and comes across as aggressive.

To overcome this, make your e-mails friendly (write Dear name and always end on a friendly note), use the term "we" rather than "you" and always put yourself in the place of the recipient - reading through what you have written before sending.

Never send e-mail replies when you are angry. It starts a negative spiral that can be difficult to break. Write out the mail but rather than sending, hold on to it until you are calmer.

It is one thing to misunderstand the sender's intent, quite another to deliberately attack someone by e-mail. Business bullying is now recognised by industrial tribunals as illegal behaviour in itself.

Avoid "CC:" disease. There is nothing worse than receiving an angry, attacking e-mail, copied to the entire board, if not the entire company.

A friend of mine calls these the "three hour" e-mails - it takes her three hours to sort them. If you are sent one, hard as it may be, only reply to the person who wrote it. E-mail is not a substitute for interpersonal communication or even phone use. Most certainly, never give bad news by e-mail. Do not include information on other companies in e-mails. Such detail can be, and has been, used in courts of law.

Do not use e-mail to discuss competitors, potential acquisitions or mergers or to give your opinion about another company. The word "confidential" does not apply; somebody can always access it.

Beware of information on individuals. Take great care, even with facts. Also avoid providing references by e-mail. Many companies are concerned about the growing numbers of non-work related correspondence. Often these will be through in-house bulletin boards. The key words here are guidelines and trust.

Put in place a clear policy that gives freedom, but where people know their boundaries on time and content. But also remember there is a difference between personal e-mails and personalising business correspondence. This latter approach should be encouraged to make e-mails more friendly.

Electronic methods of communications are no different from every other form and there should be no need for complex guidelines, rules and restrictions. As long as everyone is clear on your company's policy, none of these potential dangers will grow out of hand. People must take personal ownership of their e-mails, even after pressing "send".

There are two final areas of growing concern:

  • The cases of sexual harassment and stalking over e-mail are growing. It is now so easy to reach intended recipients. Company policy must be extended to include this area and lead to dismissal.

    Encourage people to come forward with evidence and make it clear that all e-mails are held on the mainframe or network after they have been written. This statement will discourage most people.

  • Chain e-mails is another growth area. These are unpleasant and destructive in terms of time, traffic volume and personal well being. Treat these very seriously, root out their origin and put in place an address where staff can send these. Or staff can send them to me at david@davidtaylor.co.uk.

    David Taylor's Inside Track, a provocative insight into the world of IT in business is published by Butterworth Heinemann. Tel 01865-88180

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