EMAIL PROTOCOL: When and how to best use email

Most of the articles on the web about the inappropriate use of emails refer to security, personal use issues and sharing offensive material in the workplace.  In our work with family and closely held businesses, we know that their concerns are far more reaching.  They center on “courtesy” vs. “rudeness” or downright “hostility.”   So here is our attempt to capture some “dos” and “don’ts” around email usage.  Please let us know if you have suggested additions to this list and we will re-circulate them.

  1. Resist using email when a phone call might be better.
  2. Keep the “subject” line brief.
  3. Keep the formatting simple.
  4. Have a courteous greeting and closing.
  5. Be concise.  Make it easy for the reader to grasp the content quickly.  Break your message into paragraphs if appropriate and use “headers.”
  6. Type in complete sentences.  Cryptic messages are easily misinterpreted.
  7. Neither tone, nor volume, nor inflections, nor body language are available to the reader.  Be aware how they might be interpreted from your choice of words.
  8. Sarcasm is exceedingly dangerous.
  9. The reader may read your email more than once.  Consider how your message might be interpreted when re-read at a later date.
  10. It’s easy to hide behind the screen and send rude emails when you are angry.  Be polite.
  11. If you receive a nasty email (in email lingo called a “flame-a-gram”), resist replying immediately- if at all.  Think about addressing the email, not responding to the email.
  12. If you must reply to a nasty email wait at least 24 hours to do so.
  13. Don’t hide behind email.  Ask yourself if you would say the same thing face-to-face.
  14. Be careful with the use of CAPITAL LETTERS.  They are typically interpreted as shouting.
  15. Your email may be forwarded to others.  Be sure this is how you wish to be perceived.
  16. Caution when using the Cc: field.  Many people do not wish to have their email addresses passed around with lots of others whom they may not know well (or at all).  It can also be perceived that you are ccing someone to throw the recipient under the bus (like ccing his or her boss).
  17. Only reply to those who need to see your reply.
  18. Reply in a timely manner.  In this world of iPhones and Blackberries, we tend to assume that our emails are read by others within a minute of our sending them.  Then, of course, we expect an instant reply.  When we don’t get one, we assume the recipient is ignoring us and then we wonder “why.”  If you need a quick reply, let the person know that when you send the email.
  19. Use the Return Receipt only when it is critical to know when the email is opened.
  20. When forwarding emails, be sure to delete other email addresses and commentary from other forwarders.
  21. Use spell-check for possible spelling and grammar errors.  Spelling errors are perceived as sloppiness, laziness or lack of education.
  22. Establish a company policy on email use.  Specifically address personal use, abusive or offensive material, policy on receiving offensive material from other employees, etc.
  23. Use appropriate signoff.   If replying, you may wish to mirror the signoff of the sender.  Some gurus suggest that “Sincerely” is always safe.  Same with “Yours truly” and “Regards;” reserve “Best” for only those whom you know well.
  24. Don’t keep “thank you” as a permanent part of your signoff.  Sometimes it may not apply.
  25. Your emails are a reflection of yourself- your personality and style.  Re-read emails before sending them with this in mind: “Is this how I want to be perceived by the recipient?”
  26. Resist bombarding people with single thoughts or questions email after email.  It might make more sense to save an email in drafts and simply add thoughts/questions to it as the day goes along and then send it at a later time.

Here are some mini case studies about emails:
Father and Son
A father and son work closely together in their business.  Their relationship is very open with one another.  One evening dad wanted to speak with his son about an important matter that involved a meeting on the following day, so he sent his son a crisp email with nothing in the subject field and in the body of the email simply typed, “Call me.”  When Son read the email, he interpreted Dad’s message as “anger” and for a while pondered what he might have done to make his dad angry at him.   When he called his dad, he asked if he was angry with him.  Dad’s reply was, “No, not at all” and explained that the brevity (perceived by son as curt) was simply because he was tired but didn’t want to initiate a call to Son wanting to respect his family time.  Fortunately, Father and Son have the kind of relationship that allows this type of dialogue.  Imagine how easy it is to misinterpret a simple act without questioning it further and how Son might have reacted to Dad the following day had this not been clarified.

Jane and Charlie
Jane and Charlie are business colleagues charged with planning a company retreat.  An enthusiastic Jane is clear in her ideas around the format and content and after much research sends repeated drafts of her plan to Charlie seeking his support.  Charlie, who has lingering doubts about the retreat in the first place, keeps sending Jane’s plans back finding fault with detail after detail.  Exasperated, Jane sends Charlie an email telling him it’s time for him to create a plan since he is not satisfied with hers.  After 4 days of no response from Charlie, Jane is infuriated.  She has put significant time and energy into this and now storms into Charlie’s office where a battle ensues.  A more efficient and effective mode of communication is the old fashion face-to-face type where Charlie could have addressed his concerns with Jane before she even started drafting plans.

About Transition Consulting Group

KarofskyTransition Consulting Group is a family business that consults to other family businesses.  The father-son team of Paul and David Karofsky offer a dual generation approach to working with family businesses around the transition and succession of ownership and leadership.  We focus on helping clients build alignment and address challenges ranging from communication and conflict resolution to strategic planning and governance.

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