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Jennifer J. Halpern, Ph.D.





According to a recent article in The New York Times (4/8/01), over 6.1 billion emails have been sent since the system was set up. Email has become a basic tool for business. Unlike the carpenter's hammer, or the electrical engineer's soldering iron, there's very little agreement about how to use it. But, as with anyone who's grabbed a soldering iron without thinking first has learned, using email improperly you can get burned.

The Basic Rules

There are a few general rules to help avoid painful burns:

1. Email is a communication tool, not a substitute for communication.

Email facilitates the transmission of data, including dates and times for face-to-face meetings. It's faster than the phone for confirmations, and for making straight-forward inquiries.

Email is not, however, the same as communicating. It is too slow to allow the give-and-take of an actual meeting, or even of a phone conversation.

2. Use Email for facts, not emotions.

Expressing strong emotions via email is known as "flaming". It's not much admired. Even weak emotions can be misunderstood by the recipient. Emoticons (the little "faces" made up of colons, semis, quotes, and parentheses) help a little bit, but they look too cutesy for most professional purposes.

It's fine to say "I like this idea" in an email: but it's probably best to leave more negative appraisals to face-to-face meetings. Even if you think your recipient will understand your good intentions behind your negative words--don't count on it. In an actual discussion, you can react appropriately to their reactions--possibly saving yourself the account, the employee, the business friendship.

A real danger with email is that it is so "instantaneous". We tend to write the first thing that comes to mind and shoot it over to the recipient. It pays to pause first: or even to draft an email, and put it away for a little while, before sending it.

  • You may remember the one important detail you left out (much better than sending a mini-follow-up email);
  • you may think of a clearer way to express yourself;
  • the state of the world may change in just a few minutes, when something new appears on your desk (or in your email) that changes how you feel about what you just wrote, especially if you used strong language; or so on.

3. Email is your face to the world.

Use the spell checker. And double check your grammar. No one wants to spend time figuring out which clause the "it" in the next paragraph you've written refers to. And if they decide to guess, and guess wrong--zing!, there goes another sale/opportunity. You may never find out why.

Read your email--aloud, if possible--before you send it. If it's on a sensitive subject, have someone else read it too.

4. Hitting "Send" does not mean "Message Received"

You may have emailed an important message, but it could be sitting unopened in the recipient's mailbox. Or they may actually have opened it, but didn't really pay attention to it. Or they misunderstood it.

Email doesn't have the "gotta respond" factor of weightier letters or memos--so recipients often skim email, answer them partially, then put them aside for a "later" time that never comes. Even phone messages carry more immediacy--and executives have been complaining for years how other people never seem to get around to answering calls.

4. Respond to your email.

Even if everyone else grabs the soldering iron by the hot end, you don't have to. Respond to your email. Delete the junk, and actually read the other memos. Respond by interleaving your comments, rather than by opening a new document--you'll find it too easy to skip points in the latter case.

If you, like many other people, get dozens — or even over 100 emails — in a day, set a time each week to respond to lower priority emails. One executive I know sits down in front of the football (or baseball) game on Sunday evenings, props up his laptop, and answers emails during the game.

A simple "got it, thanks" or "will get back to you soon" goes a long way in improving people's view of you as a person, and of your company in general.

5. Your email style reveals your status.

Be aware that your email may reveal your status in the company. According to David Owens of Vanderbilt University:

6. Email is forever.

While there are new products on the market that will "shred" all traces of an email after a pre-selected period of time (like Disappearing Inc.), most email users don't have these programs. Computer-savvy programmers can find traces of emails even after you think you have deleted them: this was MicroSofts's problem in their recent law suit. And personal emails have cost individuals their jobs.

7. Email is not private.

According to a Society for Human Resource Management survey (12/2000), 74% of SHRM organizations monitor Internet and email use, largely because they are concerned about decreased productivity and inappropriate behavior. From a company's perspective, Michael Overly writes, the essence of a good email policy is:

"You are given access to our computer network to assist you in performing your job. You should not have any expectation of privacy in anything you create, store, send, or receive on the computer system...Without prior notice, the company may review any material created, stored, sent or received on its network or through the Internet or any other computer network."

Not only can your supervisors read email you have sent or received, with the touch of a button, a friend can help your "cute, private" email spread like wildfire--or a virus--throughout the world. Recently, for example, a young associate at the Carlyle Group in Seoul, South Korea, sent a message about his recent sexual conquests and bohemian lifestyle to 11 friends at his recent stomping ground, Merrill Lynch, in New York. In a vivid illustration of the potential of "viral marketing," or in this case, "viral destruction," the message was forwarded to hundreds of people on Wall Street, and eventually made its way back to the Carlyle Group. The young man was fired.


The Cutting Edge

Email's reach is spreading. All a CEO has to do to appear "cutting edge" is to make himself accessible to e-mail, according to the Times article. Email mediation to settle disputes among on-line traders on eBay and other on-line business and auction houses is growing: SquareTrade Network, the first on-line mediation service, now has competitors. These companies will probably soon be handling other types of disputes as well.

Business people are increasingly using email as a negotiation tool with clients and other businesses; but too often, they think of it as an extension of the face-to-face approach, without realizing it has its own specific demands and requirements.

As a consequence, the notion of "using email" now means knowing how to use it:. This tool is creating its own demands and expectations. Etiquette books for the 2000's will almost certainly have sections on email — perhaps preceding the old chapters on business letters.



  1. My Kingdom for an Effective Internet Policy! , 6/1/2001, LLRX.com. by Wendy Leibowitzhttp://www.wendytech.com; http://www.llrx.com/features/internetpolicy.htm
  2. E-Policy: How To Develop Computer, E-mail, and Internet Guidelines to Protect Your Company and Its Assets. Michael Overly. AMACOM publishers, 1998.
  3. HRWire, December 20, 2000. SHRM/West Group. 2000 Workplace Privacy Survey.

Copyright 2001 ZevGroup. Further information about the contents of this report is available upon request from Jennifer J. Halpern, Ph.D.