May 20, 2016

4 business email etiquette tips

By Jim Annis


"As I said before, I'm sorry if this touches a nerve because I just know you people never read this column all the way to the end." - The Annoying One

How did you react? The sentence encapsulates everything that can go wrong in workplace email communication. It floors us how much energy we spend (as HR experts) daily on adjudicating the damage that poorly written or poorly thought out emails cause. Are your emails driving business to your company, or sending people running to a competitor? How do you ensure a positive outcome? Set the bar high. Establish an expectation that open, honest and appropriate communication is mandatory. We are so email-heavy that we have to nitpick down to the detail. Our employees need to be good at email, because largely that is our product. What is the percentage of job function that email captures at your company? Here are some high level points to share with your employees at your next office meeting or training:

Bullets: Bullet points and numbered lists are easier to read, creating structure and white space. Recipients appreciate the option to comment on individual issues. Arranging bullets carefully prevents endless email chains if you ask for a specific action, versus leaving open-ended thoughts.

Language: Words like "just," "you" (accusatory), "but" and "I said" create trouble fast. Absolutes like "never" and "always" tend to polarize. Calling out someone by name or throwing them under the bus will be counterproductive; instead, use broad language to focus on action-oriented quality improvement process. Say sorry when you mean it to ensure the genuine nature of the apology remains intact.

Edit and proofread: Check the overall structure and flow to ensure easy understanding and appropriate response. Spell- and grammar-check are essential, even for short messages.

Tone: Emotionally provoking language alters perceived meaning even if your words are "perfect." To set the appropriate tone, ask yourself this question: Who are you in this email? Adult, parent or child? A great frame of reference is a structure created by Eric Berne called transactional analysis. This method for studying interactions between individuals asserts that a single individual can display three “states of being." I bet you've been all three in one email at some point:

  • Adult: Reasonable, logical, rational, non-threatening, non-threatened
  • Parent: (Positive) Keeping safe, nurturing, calming and supportive. (Negative) Controlling, patronizing, critical and finger-pointing.
  • Child: (Positive) Curious, playful, spontaneous and creative. (Negative) Rebellious, tantrums, difficult and insecure.

If you can get to your "email adult," smooth communication results. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Test that. Go to your sent files and analyze them. Are you wagging a parental finger? Giving marching orders? Whining that it was not your fault?

The goal is to mirror what we would like to see from others. The more polished we can be, the hope is that we will receive that level of professionalism back.

Jim Annis is president/CEO of The Applied Companies, which provide HR solutions for today’s workplace. Celeste Johnson, Applied's COO, contributed to this article.

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