The message in ALL CAPS sets your teeth on edge. A colleague's attempt at wit comes across as snarky and sarcastic. A hastily written note sounds brusque and abrupt.
Rude e-mails are the bane of the workplace and can have major consequences.
"In a nanosecond, that e-mail can raise blood pressures, be misconstrued, leave too much room for misunderstanding and cause offense," said Rachel Wagner, a Bixby, Okla.-based consultant on corporate etiquette and international protocol.
And while e-mail is an important and effective communication tool, e-mails that "push our hot buttons are often e-mails that should have never been sent," she added.
Gracefully Handling E-Mail
Here are some tips for handling e-mail—from co-workers or customers—with grace and professionalism:
1. Consider the time of day. "Be mindful of how late or early you are contacting the people you work with," said Matt Baglia, CEO and co-founder of SlickText in Jamestown, N.Y. "A simple question could be perceived as really rude if it's sent at 6 a.m."
2. Be conscious of your message's tone. "Words have to be chosen carefully and thoughtfully to help avoid erroneous inferences and prevent miscommunication. Always reread an e-mail before sending," Wagner said.
Strive for a tone that is positive and reflects well on you as the sender and on your organization. When appropriate, ask someone to read your response before you send it, she added.
"So often, people respond to e-mails too quickly, too carelessly and with a poor tone."
3. Practice restraint. "Communicate what you need to communicate and only what you need to communicate," advised Braden Perry, litigation, regulatory and government investigations attorney with Kennyhertz Perry LLC in Kansas City, Mo.
"Think before you write and make sure that sarcasm and jokes are left for verbal communications. You should always think that any e-mail you write could be published on page 1 [of a newspaper] for all to read."
4. Don't respond to an e-mail when upset. "Remember that e-mail is forever and can be copied and distributed," said Miguel A. Suro, an attorney at the firm of Suro & Suro in Miami. "I always make a conscious effort to be polite and diplomatic, no matter how angry or offended I may be. If need be, I'll take a cool-down break before responding."
Even if you dash something off in a fit of pique, save it as a draft instead of hitting "send" and then reread it the next morning, Wagner said.
"Chances are you'll reword it to reflect on you more positively or you'll pick up the phone instead to respond."
5. Consider templates for customer e-mails. "We recognized the propensity for e-mails to come off wrong in a variety of scenarios and strove to rectify it," said Samuel Johns, HR manager at Resume Genius in Wilmington, Del. The company, an online resume builder and reviewer, provides employees with a range of templates they can tailor to meet their needs when dealing with customers.
Most employees don't receive workplace training around e-mail etiquette. Guidance from an employer can be beneficial.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Communication]
That's what Jacob Dayan, Esq., discovered. He's CEO and co-founder of Chicago-based Community Tax and Finance Pal, and his staff is taught how to handle angry e-mails and calls from clients and business partners.
"We find that having a system in place that deals with this has been very effective at mediating the situation. We train our staff to be calm and collected and to do their best to not let their emotions get the best of them."
6. Consider using other forms of communication. "Many topics are better communicated via a phone call or face-to-face conversation," Wagner said. Subjects that are sensitive or negative in nature or that require a lengthy discussion or brainstorming are better handled verbally.
The most serious consequence of a rude e-mail could be legal liability. E-mail can be used as evidence if an organization is ever sued, Suro pointed out.
"Much of my e-mail communication is with opposing counsel in cases that are currently before the courts. Any e-mail could potentially be brought up before the presiding judge as proof of something I said or a comment our client made," he said. "If I am rude or uncivil, it could not only make me look terrible and unprofessional before the judge, but also lead to sanctions in more extreme cases."
Apart from being rude or disruptive, e-mail can be—and often is—the smoking gun in any business-related litigation, Perry said.
When he was an enforcement attorney for a federal regulatory agency, "we routinely asked for e-mails and other communications in investigations because that was ordinarily where the evidence existed," he said.
Some sophisticated backup programs can retrieve e-mail messages deleted from your inbox or trash, Wagner said.
"There are many platforms of communication," Perry added, "and most are available in civil discovery, criminal investigation and regulatory inquiries, so nothing is ever safe."