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HR Magazine: Don't Touch That 'Send' Button!

HR Magazine, July 2001Vol. 46, No. 7

Managers need to bone up on their e-mail messaging skills to improve communication in the workplace.

When Marnie Puritz Stone worked as an account executive at a Dallas-based public relations firm, nearly all intra-office communication was done via e-mail—no matter how sensitive.

“All communication regarding hiring and firings were sent via e-mail,” Stone explains. Her managers may have felt they were being efficient, but she and her colleagues thought the managers were rude.

“I think that the callousness with which [some] e-mail delivers news—good or bad—is a poor way to show leadership,” she says. “And it creates a lot of resentment.”

Stone’s manager created even more resentment when it came to providing feedback, which was done mostly through e-mail. “I was reprimanded via e-mail, which was really bad,” she recalls. “Criticism via e-mail leaves you very belittled since you can’t respond.”

Indeed, the lack of interactivity that e-mail affords people has introduced more communication problems in the workplace. While the writer may believe he can tell his complete side of the story through e-mail—because it’s not a live conversation with interruptions—it can leave the recipient feeling ambushed and powerless.

In addition, e-mail is incapable of creating tone, which increases the potential for misinterpretations. Things that may be cleared up quickly in a face-to-face conversation often fester when the recipient misinterprets an e-mail message. Managers may think everything is rosy, when just the opposite is true.

The lack of etiquette and rules for e-mail communication also poses problems. Rules for phone conversations don’t apply because e-mail is not an interactive conversation. Nor do the rules for written correspondence, which is more formal and not instantaneous. So, e-mail falls somewhere in the middle of a phone call and a letter, which is why ts etiquette is confusing to people.

E-mail has its own rules, says Perrin James Cunningham, president of Ethologie, a business and protocol consulting firm in Colorado Springs, Colo., and co-author with Sue Fox of Business Etiquette for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 2001). “Using all caps is considered screaming on e-mail. And, though unintentional, [it] can be offensive,” Cunningham says.

Therefore, training on e-mail communication should not be overlooked. Managers would never hire a customer service representative or a receptionist without sufficient phone training. And, companies often have standards on how to compose formal letters. Managers should apply the same care and attention to e-mail communication, experts say, not just with e-mail leaving the office but with intra-office e-mail as well.

“How you communicate with each other affects productivity, morale and retention,” maintains Kenneth Pritchard, a human resource and management consultant in Lusby, Md.

“Electronic communication is too important to ignore,” adds Rick Barry, president of Barry Associates, an Arlington, Va.-based information management consulting firm. “Companies need to be very specific about what they expect from employees.”

Formal Training or Suggested Guidelines?

While all employees can benefit from help with e-mail, managers need it most. After all, they are the ones responsible for representing the company to other employees, and they also regularly must distribute important information.

“If you want to establish good e-mail communication skills, managers have to set the example for other employees,” says Carol Beaudu, president of CJB Associates, a Seattle-based HR consulting firm specializing in technological issues.

The fact that managers most likely have used e-mail for many years may create some resistance if you suddenly introduce mandatory e-mail training, says Beaudu. One way around that is to make the training optional. Beaudu suggests giving brown bag lunches with catchy titles such as “10 Biggest E-mail Blunders” to attract people to the class.

Or, you can follow the example of financial services firm Merrill Lynch in New York, which identifies key people who need the training due to their job circumstances. Merrill employees and managers who want to exercise a telecommuting option, for instance, must demonstrate that they have strong e-mail communication skills and can handle less face-to-face contact. Communication skills are measured through performance reviews and managers’ recommendations of potential telecommuting candidates.

“If they don’t have the skills they need to [communicate through e-mail] successfully, we turn that into a development discussion, put them in training and re-evaluate it after they’ve taken a course,” explains Janice Miholics, vice president and manager of global and telework strategies at Merrill Lynch.

The New Jersey Hospital Association (NJHA) in Princeton, N.J., gets the job done as soon as employees come through the door. E-mail etiquette is handled under an umbrella Internet training session required of all new hires. They are taught the basics: how to communicate quickly but with courtesy, how to refrain from putting into writing anything that could come back to haunt them and the importance of proofreading e-mails before sending them.

Monster Labs, a web developer in Nashville with a staff of 10 people, relies heavily on in-house e-mail. That’s why the one-year-old company brought in a consulting firm to work with its vice president, and others, on e-mail etiquette.

“We decided to be proactive about it before any problems arose,” explains Jeanne Roland, who in typical start-up fashion has no formal title and does a variety of jobs from technical writing to HR for the company. The company brought in Ethologie to work one-on-one with the vice president and other managers to enhance e-mail protocol. Training included nuances—such as refraining from sending out e-mails to everyone when only a single person or small group needed the message—to rules, such as the requirement for greetings and salutations even to those you know well.

While HR or IT staff can train in-house, Cunningham recommends bringing in outside help. “Otherwise, you tend to get a myopic view of things,” she says. “And people tend to open up more with a consultant” about any problems with an individual’s e-mail communication skills.

Another, less formal way to handle e-mail etiquette is to establish a set of guidelines or tips on how to compose and use e-mail. But, try to keep it light, experts say.

“We already had too many rules and regulation—pages of them,” says Michelle Volesko, director of library and corporate information services at NJHA. “We didn’t want to add to that. But we did want to give people some ideas.” The NJHA established netiquette guidelines to offer tips on effective online communication and posted them on the organization’s intranet site.

Barry suggests “annexing” the guidelines, rather than making them part of the actual policy. “Say something like, ‘We’d like staff to act in accordance with .…’ Then provide a set of general guidelines about appropriate e-mail communication,” he explains.

You Can’t Write Tone

There are real consequences of poor e-mail skills. Just ask Samantha Shepard, who works in the graphics department of a New York law firm. “A lot of managers don’t even bother to say please, or thank you, or even sign their names,” she says. “That doesn’t make you rush to do what they want.”

“A few niceties go a long way,” Cunningham agrees. “Sometimes all it takes is a little reminder to managers. Tell them that it doesn’t take long to be polite and that it can have a major impact on the workplace and relationships in the office."

Volesko encourages managers to compose e-mail the same as they would any other form of communication. If you wouldn’t give lectures that ended with “Do it now,” then you shouldn’t use similar language in e-mails, she explains. Just because someone can’t fire back in real time in an e-mail doesn’t give you license to go off on a tantrum.

Indeed, tone is a tricky thing in e-mail, and it is the main cause of misunderstandings via this kind of communication. How a message is read can be completely opposite from what the sender envisioned. According to a recent survey of 1,000 workers, more than half said that the tone of their e-mail is misperceived.

The reason is obvious, says Coralee Whitcomb, the Braintree, Mass.-based president of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. “There’s no body language, tone of voice, eye contact. So, people often leap to the worst conclusions,” she says.

To reduce the potential for misunderstandings, Pritchard recommends going over a few sample e-mails in training. “First, have everyone read e-mails silently. Then, have them read [the e-mails] out loud. They will see how they come across and how easy it is to misunderstand their intention,” he says.

HR should encourage managers to read e-mail messages a couple of times before hitting the “send” button. “I see it all the time in our office, how people dash off e-mail messages without checking what’s in there, if they’ve said what they meant and to see if the grammar is correct,” says Edie Hedlin, director of the Smithsonian Institute Archives in Washington, D.C. While the Smithsonian doesn’t yet provide e-mail training to cover these issues, Hedlin hopes it will. “We certainly could use it,” she says.

In addition, each e-mail message should be self-contained. “One subject, one message,” Beaudu says. “People don’t want to read long, winding e-mails and wonder what’s important.” “Teach [managers] how to be precise and focused so they don’t waste time and so they are sure they aren’t being misunderstood,” recommends Pritchard.

Don’t Overdo It

In addition to the content of e-mail messages, managers also should be aware of the management considerations of e-mail use. For instance, the sheer volume of e-mail messages—including mass e-mails that are of little or no concern to the recipients—causes much more frustration among workers than is necessary.

Scott Jensen, an instructor at Salisbury State University on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, says he’s bombarded with too many e-mails. “I get something from every office—HR, diversity, the provost’s office, the president’s [office]—and [from] my bosses,” he says. “It’s so frustrating to have to sift through e-mail for an hour or two every day.”

Managers shouldn’t contribute to the heavy load. “Managers, like everyone else, have to be respectful of other people’s time,” Cunningham says. “If you can get managers to be more efficient in sending e-mails, you’re going to save your staff time, which saves your organization money.”

Another way to improve efficiency is to encourage managers to use detailed subject lines so that recipients can decide quickly whether the message is relevant to them.

“I wind up deleting a lot of e-mail that’s probably important because there’s no subject or the subject line is misleading,” says Jensen.

Cunningham suggests being as detailed as room allows: “Say ‘Meeting on Tuesday at 9 a.m.’ That way, they don’t even have to open the e-mail to get your message.”

Know When Not to E-Mail

While e-mail is a fast, easy and convenient communication tool, it’s not always the best choice. Certain kinds of information such as layoffs and firings should be off limits to e-mails.

“Let managers know that you prefer they deliver important, personal information in person or by telephone,” says Cunningham.

Even Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, whose 13 board members are scattered throughout North America, turn to the telephone when discussing sensitive matters. “When there are nuances that need to be expressed, and when tone is important, we handle things by conference call because something gets lost on e-mail,” Whitcomb explains.

HR has a responsibility to be clear about what it expects from managers. “The more clear you are about what’s acceptable to communicate on e-mail, the better,” says Barry.

If you aren’t, managers may put convenience over common sense.

Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Easton, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues.


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