Most working people have been using email to communicate with friends and family for long enough not to give it a second thought. Where a handwritten letter once required thought and planning, we fire off emails as soon as we sit down or, since most of us carry smartphones now, as soon as we find, borrow, or steal a moment of our day. In the workplace, though, this can create hazards that leave you embarrassed, disciplined, or even looking for a new job. Tread carefully when sending work email, and watch for potential pitfalls in the following areas.
Know Your Audiences
Yes, audiences. By now, most of us know the danger of the “Reply All” button when using work email. On the flip side, we must look at who is copied on an email so we know who may be waiting for a response. A co-worker or manager who copies someone higher in the company hierarchy has done so for a reason, whether it is covering hindquarters or keeping an interested party informed. You need to be aware of who may be waiting for an answer.
Beyond this, some people in your organization do not need to be copied on your email to read it. The CEO, managing partner, compliance department, or myriad others may be monitoring your email. If you are using company computers or even a company-provided smartphone, your employer has every right to monitor its use, and will do so. Never assume that private communications exist within your company.
Know When to Write Your Mind
Once you start thinking about who may be reading your work emails, the perils of sending a top-of-mind email become clear. How you feel about a situation, co-worker, or supervisor should not be part of what you write. Instead, focus on what you think, and why. A work email, once you send it, leaves your control, and every person who reads it has an opportunity to interpret it. Do all you can to exclude side commentary and emotion that can send signals you don’t want to send.
Some advocate drafting the work email you want to send, then deleting it and writing the email you know you should send. While this has some cathartic value, it also leaves open the potential to send inadvertently. Anything you write can create problems with a single misclick. Better to save it for conversation at home, or in your car with the voices in your head.
Organize Your Thoughts
Similarly, your organization helps remove interpretive issues in your work email. Think of every email as laying out the issue, showing your mental process, and revealing a solution or conclusion. No one should be able to read your email and fail to understand its purpose. Even if someone ultimately disagrees with what you write, showing clear thought demonstrates the value you provide when you express what you think.
Spellcheck and Autocorrect
We write work emails on the fly. If a large part of your job is communication, you may send 200 work emails in a single day. Working on smartphones allows us to send them from the car, the elevator, or even the restroom. This opens up two perils that can affect clear, professional communication: typos and errant autocorrects. Either one can create spelling or grammatical errors that suggest not a busy worker, but rather a careless or ignorant one.
Step one in avoiding this is to utilize spellcheck. This catches many errors, but not all of them. You still must read through your email before hitting “Send.” This may add a minute or two to your busy day, but a well-crafted, accurate email will prove more efficient than a poor one that leaves you with a thought to clarify or a negative impression to overcome.
Every workplace has politics and personalities to navigate. While clear communication cannot eliminate all perils, there is no reason to shoot yourself in the foot by writing poor work email. Take a little time to get it right, and you give yourself at least one advantage over many of your colleagues.
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