Friday, March 9, 2007

Email Etiquette, Policies and Liability - What You Should Know Before You Send

I certainly don't mean to lecture. It's neither my duty nor my place, but I thought I'd share with you an interesting brief I received on a book called Email: The Manual by Jeffrey Steele. Yes, there is a book on email. Maybe if I do some investigating I'll find a book on proper telephone usage from the early 1900's. As trivial as it may seem (my apologies to the author), this form of communication that we all use on a daily basis brings with it a set of issues we rarely consider such as policies and legal liabilities.

It goes way beyond simple etiquette. Steele's viewpoint is that we've become lax in our use of this medium. The professionalism that existed before email such as crossing our "t's" and dotting our "i's", perfect spelling, punctuation and grammar has gone by the wayside with the establishment of email. However, Steele contends that our knuckles will not get whacked by the rules of policies and procedures in companies we work with or suffer legal liabilities with our words and actions if we concentrate on email etiquette. Unlike face to face communication, the content of email message can be interpreted in different ways by different people even if we have the best intentions at heart.

Here are some tips offered by Steele to ensure we practice good email etiquette:

  • Think about your subject line - most people scan the subjects to see if the message is worthy of reading. Put some thought into it and write one that is brief and describes the content of the overall message.
  • Use a salutation and a sign off - thanking your reader is being professional. Just sending messages may be fine with a friend or family member, but its far too informal in a business setting.
  • Be brief - your message should be on one screen, 25 lines or less. Don't overload your reader with too much information.
  • Get permission - if you intend to forward on an e-mail, get permission from the author. Sensitive or confidential information in the original e-mail can be traced back to its author and cause an embarrassing situation.
  • Know when not to email - if what you have to say can be done in person or with a telephone call, do it. We're all getting drowned in information and doing everything we can to keep our heads above water. Don't add to the problem.
Above all, Steele recommends to treat all email correspondence with business associates no different than a business letter. Other suggestions he offers includes doing blind carbon copy (Bcc:) over carbon copy (Cc:) if you use distribution lists to send out information. Folks feel that their address is being given out without permission if they spot it in the list. Also, don't be a pest. If you send an email to someone and don't get a response, send it again. If you still don't get a response then pick up the phone and call them.

As independent consultants we are subject to the same rules that govern email usage as our counterparts in companies around the country and around the world. We certainly don't have the same legal protections or legal resources as larger companies do. As we continue to use email as one of many primary forms of communication with our clients, we certainly don't want our words to ever put us in hot water.


Corey Smith said...

I tend to disagree, just a little, on the thought that we have become too lax in email messaging. In a business environment, the email is akin to the memo and not the business letter. In a member, the header contains the to: from: and subject:

Moreover, in a memo, according to business writing rules, you don't include a salutation or a signoff because that is contained in the header and does not require duplication.

I think that the bigger issue that we simple don't understand business writing and people would do well to practice just a bit more.

Justin Beller said...

Good points Corey. One thing I forgot to do was document my inspiration for this post. As I was thinking about our upcoming meeting topic for March 27th, I thought a discussion of email and its use in business (based on the Steele book brief I read) was a good lead-in to Peggy Jordan's topic on Business Writing Basics.

Thanks for bringing it up. Yes, we could all use some sharpening of our business writing skills from time to time. Including me.