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Email habits that lose friends at work

Not everyone is savvy when it comes to email etiquette. Workplace columnist Diane Stafford shares advice including: keep to the point, know your audience and watch your tone.
Not everyone is savvy when it comes to email etiquette. Workplace columnist Diane Stafford shares advice including: keep to the point, know your audience and watch your tone. Knight Ridder Tribune file

Here is what busy workers don’t have time to tolerate:

Any email that fails to include a subject line. People don’t go to their inboxes for treasure hunts.

Any email that only says “Hi!” There’s too much danger behind that fake friendship.

Any email WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS – hard to read. Ditto a gray blob of italics or other odd scripts.

Decades after email became the common conveyance for workplace messages, a lot of people still are clueless or uncaring about how to use it appropriately.

A new Robert Half survey of executives said they reported wasting 17 percent of their time on “unproductive emails.” But here’s the thing: You often don’t know whether it’s unproductive until you’ve opened it and at least given it a cursory glance.

Company spam filters do a decent job of filtering out foreign language spam, porn and, usually, direct sales pitches. But annoyances still pile up in the inbox.

One of my biggest peeves is the rambling message that – as we say in the news business – buries the lead. I need a brief, descriptive subject line and an initial sentence that tells me exactly what the email is about.

Two paragraphs is a good limit. Be respectful of your readers’ time. If you need to convey more detail, include an attachment or propose a follow-up phone call.

Know your target audience. If you’re writing only to industry insiders, it’s OK to use insider language. If you want anyone else to understand, translate and simplify.

If your email is going in house, there’s good reason to be clear and simple, too. Mostly, though, try to avoid unnecessary group emails or blind copies.

One of the most common offenses is abuse of “reply all.” An email may start off with an appropriate notice to eight people about a meeting but get bogged down in a chain of group responses when the response really only needed to go to the original sender.

Whatever the original topic, be careful about “reply all.” Careers have been killed when “private” emails were shared. And thumbs down on wading through a long response chain. Better off starting a fresh new email.

The old “sit on it for a minute” dictum applies. You don’t have to answer immediately after opening it. I’m often embarrassed when I reread something I sent in a hurry. A message with typos or a mismatched subject and verb doesn’t help one’s professional image.

Another great email danger – common to Twitter and Facebook, as well – is the inability to control tone. Humor, sarcasm and other nuances are understood when heard, but not necessarily when read.

Finally, send your pet or kid pictures or latest joke only to those who have expressed prior interest.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. stafford@kcstar.com, 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford, kansascity.com/workplace

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