E-mail Etiquette

Face time still counts. Though the ease of e-mail is tempting, be careful not to perform these e-mail etiquette crimes.

The inappropriate use of e-mail and texting is widespread and its effects are far-reaching. This ethical issue has the power to threaten the personal and professional development across all ages and industries if left ignored.

To be clear, I am a firm believer in technology and the wonderful advances we’ve made in communication. This is certainly not an attack on “progress.” Instead, what I find troubling is the degree to which people hide behind electronic communication in an effort to:

  • Go about their work lazily
  • Insulate themselves from the reactions of others
  • Avoid confrontation (though e-mail usually creates it)

You see it at work and you see it on the job search. But it doesn’t make it OK.

Lazy letters

A common example job hunters can relate to is the disturbing frequency with which companies send e-mail rejections — even after a candidate has invested several hours (or more) interviewing at the company. When I speak to people in transition, this is one of the complaints I hear most frequently. I don’t think companies have any idea what a terrible impression they make on potential employees by taking the easy way out.

What’s important to remember for employers and job seekers alike is that not taking the time to courteously address someone can and will ruin your name.

Interviewing for potential jobs ? Take time to research how other candidates have been treated. Reach out to contacts in your network who have had run-ins with representatives of that company. Or use Google or Glassdoor to find reviews of recruiting experiences.

Unfortunately, job seekers are guilty of this as well.

I have heard more than a few stories of job hunters who responded to rejections with scathing e-mails criticizing the process, the company or both. Even if your feelings are justified, your actions are not. You have no way of knowing who will eventually see your e-mail and how it might be viewed. There are at least as many interpretations as there are people who will read it. Don’t take the chance. If you feel you must respond, take at least 24 hours to cool off before you pick up the phone.

Insulating yourself from reactions

A few months ago, I was on a business trip and woke up early to get an update on the financial markets. Shortly after I tuned in, two popular anchors started to discuss a large bank deal that fell through when one bank rescued another and was subsequently outbid by a third. One of the anchors offhandedly asked a rhetorical question like, “How would you like to get THAT call in the middle of the night and find out the deal was off?” Without missing a beat, the female anchor said, “Oh, I wouldn’t have called. I would have texted.”

Absolutely horrifying.

What makes it particularly disturbing is the woman’s complete sincerity — as demonstrated by her automatic response. Sadly, she obviously doesn’t see anything inappropriate or she wouldn’t have mentioned it to millions of viewers. This took away from her credibility as a news source.

If something like a deal falling through can’t be handled in person, for whatever reason, a real-time alternative like telephone or videoconference may be acceptable. But don’t send a text, e-mail or voice-mail and pretend you are being honest and responsive. The only acceptable use of an e-mail or text in this scenario would be a message like this:

“There have been some unexpected developments we need to talk about at your earliest convenience. This is urgent. Please call.”

Creating confrontation by trying to avoid it

Even in less extreme examples, it’s amazing how the sender’s actions — whether they are motivated by laziness, insensitivity or a desire to avoid conflict — only serve to escalate the tension. For example, one of my colleagues, Tamara, recently received an e-mail from a company that frequently sends her on contract consulting assignments that said they would be giving some her work to another freelancer. When she confronted the assignment handler, Barbara, about the disrespectful way in which the situation was handled, Barbara defended her actions saying, “That’s just how business is done.”

That may be how some companies choose to do business, but it’s notgood business. If people like Barbara continue to do business this way, her behavior will almost certainly haunt her next time she finds herself in transition — if not sooner.

Whether you are operating as an individual or as a representative for a company, think — and speak — before you write. Consider how the person on the receiving end of your e-mails and texts may respond in a given situation, because your behavior will ultimately impact your reputation. It probably already has.