I know several well-intentioned early-career professionals who get themselves in a jam regularly because of their written communication.
I don't believe they intend to be rude. Instead, I think they are trying to be efficient by using fewer words. Unfortunately, they sometimes choose the wrong words.
As a result, their audience doesn't have the context to understand the message, and, most important, they are not consistently leveraging written communication that builds and maintains their personal brands.
An online Forbes article highlights the importance of communication in the workplace: "Being able to get information across clearly makes work more efficient, understandable and less frustrating."
A report from the World Economic Forum on the top skills required for jobs in 2020 lists communication as one of the top 10.
And employers have identified communication skills as the No. 1 trait they desire among recent graduates, as shown in data from the Job Outlook survey sponsored by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Communication was ranked higher than working in teams, decision-making and planning or organizing skills.
Given the importance of communication in the workplace, it's critical to carefully consider the words you are using.
Keep in mind that when someone reads your message, interpreting tone, intent and meaning is difficult. There are certain phrases that should not be included in any message, including the ones listed below. I pulled these phrases from e-mail I received from early-career professionals with whom I have worked.
"What specifically do you want?" Even if there are words that appear before or after that question, this phrasing is just not good. That question makes the person with whom you are communicating feel like he or she is bothering you.
"I can't," "they can't," "it can't," "unfortunately we can't," "I don't," "we don't," "they don't" or "I am unable." Don't get into the habit of saying no over e-mail. When an employee writes "I can't," I don't read anything else in the e-mail and instead start wondering if I made a mistake in hiring that person.
If you need to say no to something, try to do it in person. Reach out to the person and explain why you are saying no.
"I've been in meetings." This phrase suggests that you are more important than the individual with whom you are communicating.
The only way to use that phrase is if you apologize for the delay. And if you apologize, you probably don't have to explain why it took you so long to respond.
Try something like this reply: "Your message is important, and I apologize for my delayed response. Do you have a few minutes to talk?"
If you communicate with the person frequently, set an expectation that you will respond to e-mail during specific times of the day so he or she doesn't wonder where you are. Encourage your stakeholders to reach out to you via text or phone if they have something urgent to discuss.
"I am unavailable." Everyone at work is unavailable at times, not just you. If you can't meet with someone, just tell him or her when you are available.
You can write something like, "I can meet on Monday or Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Is either of these days good for you?"
In addition, sometimes people include the phrase "I am unavailable" in their out-of-office reply. That's redundant.
Try something like, "I am out of the office for the next two weeks, but your message is important to me. I appreciate your patience with my delayed response."
See how that just sounds better?
"This is too late." You are telling someone he or she missed a deadline but in a very negative way. Don't close the door on a possibility.
Instead of focusing on the fact that this person was too late (i.e., exceeded what you consider to be a reasonable deadline), why not write something similar to this: "I am very interested in your insight and help on this project. Is it possible for us to grab 15 minutes and discuss next steps?"
"Do you have … ?" "Can you … ?" or "You should." These statements are too abrupt.
Here are a couple of examples of the exact phrases that were included in e-mail I received:
- "Do you have any turnover data on Millennials in our organization?"
- "Can you send me the latest turnover data for Millennials?"
There was nothing else in the e-mail besides a data request.
If you are using written communication to ask for help, data, research or resources, please acknowledge the person with whom you are communicating: "Hi, Sheila. I hope all is well. I was wondering if you have any data that will help me understand Millennial turnover at our organization? If it's easier, perhaps I can set up some time for us to meet, and I'll share details about the work I am doing."
Remember, any time you communicate with a co-worker, you have an opportunity to strengthen or build the relationship. Giving orders isn't the way to do that.
"Let me know if there's a further issue." Don't end a communication with the expectation that the person will have a problem. When I received this message, I no longer felt confident about the information included in the e-mail.
Make sure your e-mail expresses a tone of confidence, not uncertainty: "Please let me know if the information included in this e-mail is helpful."
"Dear [misspelled name] … " While people may overlook typos in texts, it's hard to ignore your name misspelled in any communication.
Reread and spell check your communications, and pay extra attention to people's names. Ask a colleague to check your presentations.
Full disclosure: I know about misspelling names because I've done it at work more than once!
"Are the results in?" Imagine receiving this message without a salutation. The person writes just "Are the results in?" Reaching out without a "Hello" or "Good afternoon" is in poor taste.
Remember, any contact you have with a person is an opportunity to build or enhance a relationship. Anyone with whom you interact could be a future partner, stakeholder or customer.
"As I mentioned" or "like I said." Stop. Right. Now. Say those phrases out loud.
Both phrases immediately make people defensive. Your readers will ignore what you've written and instead focus on how you've made them feel. When someone writes "as I mentioned" or "like I said," in my mind that person is calling me an idiot, either subtly or forthrightly.
Try repeating what you've already communicated with the person, and end with "Does that help?" If you believe the person has an unaddressed concern, pick up the phone and talk about it.
Think about using written communication in a way that is different from how you've used it in the past.
Sometimes we use e-mail when we want to be efficient, are multitasking, don't feel like talking to someone, anticipate pushback or are scared to tell someone no.
Instead, use written communication to accomplish these four goals:
- Build and maintain relationships.
- Build your professional image.
- Demonstrate consideration for others.
- Share context.
Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.