Ever since the first caveman burned his hand on a torch, we've known that technology can be a mixed blessing. E-mail has been an enormous boon for many businesses, but it has also caused all sorts of new problems. Now that everyone has it and is in the habit of using it, in-boxes are constantly filled to the max. But if you deleted the messages that were unnecessary or redundant (not to mention potentially offensive), the in-box might be nearly empty.
The problem: Because e-mail is such a new technology, not everyone has learned how best to use it. Many companies have policies to regulate illegal or offensive use of e-mail, but matters regarding the sensible and efficient use of the medium are much harder to manage. "I don't think you can regulate those issues," says Paul Pottinger, chief operating officer at Dallas-based Jobs.com. "Policies don't really solve the problem. The policy is more of an educational piece not a bureaucratic hammer."
Even companies that have policies on the use of e-mail rarely address the nitty-gritty details. Fortunately, employees and managers can sidestep most of the potential drawbacks of e-mail by thinking ahead and applying common sense. We've put together a list of the most common problems and some easy ways to avoid them.
The impersonality of e-mail may be the biggest problem of all: Even the best authors struggle to convey emotional nuances in print. Someone reading an e-mail may not know whether its meant to be funny, snide, or sympathetic and may misread an innocent comment. Marjorie Brody, whose Brody Communications trains and coaches executives, points out, "You don't have the vocal variety; you don't have the smile that softens the message."
"E-mail is impersonal," says Jim Hirsch, president of Security Metal, based in Los Angeles. "I don't think there's any substitute for meeting face to face." Employees should restrict e-mail content to facts and leave the connotations for later.
SPAMMERS ON SALARY
Mass e-mails are spam, even when sent to colleagues. They flood the network and irritate people who are already deluged with messages. Though ISPs and IT staff constantly fight against spam from outside marketers, many workers receive almost as much unsolicited e-mail from inside the company as they do from outside.
For instance, a project leader may be tempted to broadcast reports of recent accomplishments to top-level managers and colleagues in other groups. But if they don't work directly with those people, it probably isn't a good idea. "A lot of messages are not necessary," Pottinger says. "One person sends a message and it's very easy to copy several people. Sometimes it's just showboating. As the company grows, the e-mails grow exponentially."
What the spammers want to say probably doesn't affect most recipients directly and those recipients have plenty of messages they need to attend to. Furthermore, like the little boy crying wolf, those who constantly bother others with unimportant messages will have a harder time being heard when they really have something important to say.
Some general announcements are truly legitimate, but for questions such as "Who's in charge of getting the copier fixed?", the CEO probably doesn't need to be bothered. The office e-mail administrator should set aside a general mailbox. Employees can then scan the list of general announcements periodically, and when they write one, make sure the subject tells the whole message. Employees can also save everyone's time by replying only to those original recipients who actually need to see the response. For example, when a meeting is being set up, only the organizer needs to be notified that an individual is available.
WORK GROUPS THAT DON'T WORK
Of course, many team projects do require getting several people involved in an e-mail thread. But that requires tact, too. Discussions among multiple participants can be difficult to follow and can fill in-boxes in a matter of minutes. After an e-mail circulates for a few rounds with several people contributing comments, it can become difficult to remember who wrote what.
"Senders tend to copy a bunch of people, especially on a team-oriented project," Hirsch says. "Too many opinions delay the plan for action."
Often the best solution is to call a meeting to discuss the problem. That helps prevent clogged in-boxes, and lets people concentrate on other things. It also makes people get to the point more quickly. "Certain people in the group want to show you how smart they are, so they write a dissertation on line," Hirsch says.
THE GRAPEVINE, SQUARED
Employees should also keep in mind that they have less control over where their words go via e-mail than in spoken conversation. As Pottinger relates, someone at his company "somewhat innocently put a tasteless joke in an e-mail to a friend, that friend thought it was funny and sent it to two more friends, and before long it was all over the company."
Illegal, unethical, or just plain rude behavior is no less objectionable when it happens over e-mail. For example, harassing, flaming, or slandering colleagues; taking advantage of the company e-mail for private uses such as marketing a home business; or downloading copyright-protected software or documents are all actions that an employer has the legal right and often the responsibility to curtail.
The same problems often arise with confidential documents. Of course, employees have to share information with the appropriate colleagues and associates. But when working on something that is either covered by a nondisclosure agreement, restricted for legal or business reasons, or too preliminary to reflect the company's position, they must find out first whether the recipients are authorized. When employees send something confidential, they should be sure to tell the recipients that they must keep it secret.
Likewise, when you ask correspondents to send messages, let them know who is likely to see anything confidential. Brody recommends to her executive clients that they have an administrative assistant screen their messages, but she says, "People don't know that, so they could be sending personal information."
E-mail documents spread invisibly, plus they're legal records that can be dredged up in court proceedings; you just don't know who will read your words. "People have to understand that there is no such thing as whispering," Pottinger says. "In e-mail, you say it with a bullhorn." And what you say in e-mail can echo forever.