We spend an extraordinary amount of time on email. According to Mckinsey.com the average worker spends 28% of their workweek reading and answering email. That’s more than 11 hours a week, sending and receiving an average of 124 work emails a day at 1.1 minutes each mail. With this amount of mail, mistakes are common, and bad mistakes can be disastrous. According to a survey by The Creative Group, 78% of people polled said they had mistakenly e-mailed someone the wrong message or copied someone on a message without intending to. In at least one case the mistake led to dismissal when someone made a nasty comment about their supervisor and sent it to the supervisor by mistake. Here are some of the responses:
- “A person called another employee an idiot in an e-mail to everyone in the company.”
- “One of our vendors accidentally e-mailed me information about their sales performance, so I gained some inside knowledge about that vendor.”
- “My receptionist sent a very gossipy and catty e-mail about another employee to the wrong person. It was so unprofessional that she was terminated.”
- “We sent an e-mail to a client that was meant for a vendor. It made it difficult when the client had seen our costs.”
- Confidential information about one client was sent to a different client. It was certainly embarrassing.”
“E-mail mistakes can be painfully visible and viral,” said Megan Slabinski, executive director of The Creative Group. “Professionals must be especially careful in this economy not to do anything that could cause employers to question their competence or judgment, and that means paying close attention when sending any kind of message, particularly if the information is sensitive.”
We’ve researched the top ways you can avoid reputation-damaging e-mail blunders.
Make sure it’s addressed properly
So many of these blunders happen due to incorrectly addressed e-mails. Saving the distribution list to last, once you have written the mail helps to make sure you don’t hit send on an incomplete mail. Giving it your undivided attention and double-checking before you send could save you a lot of embarrassment. Be careful when using Reply-All and double-check that everyone on the original distribution should receive your e-mail.
Only discuss public matters
Email is not private and can easily be forwarded and most companies reserve the right to monitor employees e-mail. This is why confidential and sensitive information should be avoided in an email. Judith Kallos, the author of E-Mail Etiquette Made Easy says: “One of the most important things to consider when it comes to e-mail etiquette is whether the matter you’re discussing is a public one, or something that should be talked about behind closed doors. Ask yourself if the topic being discussed is something you’d write on company letterhead or post on a bulletin board for all to see before clicking “send.” Should confidential information in an e-mail get into the wrong person’s hands, you could face serious – even legal – repercussions. If you’re sending a message to a group of people and you need to protect the privacy of your list, you should always use “Bcc.”
Don’t e-mail when you are angry
Rather save it in your drafts and review it when you’ve had a chance to cool off. Career and workplace expert Lindsey Pollack says: “E-mailing with bad news, firing a client or vendor, expressing anger, reprimanding someone, disparaging other people in e-mails (particularly if you’re saying something less than kind about your boss) are all major no-no’s. Because e-mail can seem so informal, many people fall into this trap. Always remember that e-mail correspondence lasts forever.”
Professional language and good grammar
Don’t just rely on your PC’s spell-checker – read the mail through thoroughly and check carefully for mistakes. Reading through it aloud helps check your tone, which can often be misconstrued in e-mail. It’s easy to come off as more abrupt that you might have intended. You meant “straightforward”, they read “angry and curt.” If it sounds harsh to you when you read it through, it will sound harsh to the reader.
Keep your greeting professional, “Hi” and “Hello” are fine, “Hiya”, “Yo”, “Hi Guys” and “Howzit” are not. It’s also not a good idea to shorten anyone’s name. Say “Hi Michael,” unless you’re certain he prefers to be called “Mike.”
Humour can easily get lost in translation without the right tone or facial expressions. In a professional exchange, it’s better to leave humour out of emails unless you know the recipient well. Also, something that you think is funny might not be funny to someone else.
Don’t use shortcuts such as “4 u” (instead of “for you”), “Gr8” (for great) in business-related e-mail. If you wouldn’t put a smiley face or emoticon on your business correspondence, you shouldn’t put it in an e-mail message.
Any of the above has the potential to make you look less than professional.
Have a clear subject line
Most of us have to compete with the hundreds of emails clogging our inbox every day, so the clearer your subject line, the more likely your message will be read. It should be reasonably simple and descriptive of what you have written about. Expect that any e-mail with a cute, vague, or obscure subject will get trashed. Also, proof your subject line as carefully as you would proof the rest of the e-mail.
Keep it short
The long e-mail is a thing of the past. Write concisely, with lots of white space, so as to not overwhelm the recipient. Make sure when you look at what you’re sending it doesn’t look like a burden to read – feel free to use bullet points. The person reading your e-mail should not have to dig through several paragraphs in order to figure out what you’re asking. You should state the purpose of the e-mail within the first two sentences. Be clear, and be upfront.
These are some key points that we have distilled from the wealth of information out there about e-mail etiquette, and if you take these guidelines on board it will help keep you safe from damaging e-mail blunders.
Every e-mail you send adds to, or detracts from your reputation. If your e-mail is scattered, disorganized, and filled with mistakes, the recipient will be inclined to think of you as a scattered, careless, and disorganized businessperson. Other people’s opinions matter and in the professional world, their perception of you will be critical to your success.