I think if I’m ever in charge of team or have people working for me, I’m going to make it my mission that they all know how to use email effectively. Too many people don’t. I don’t. But I’m getting there. As such, I have a few rules for email that I try to keep in mind. Some of these I’ve picked up from personal experience, some I’m sure I learned from other email greats, but here they are:
1. Thou shall make sure the Subject Line ALWAYS tells me exactly what the email is about. If bringing up a new subject, though shall start a new email thread. Emails are great for not having to remember things, or at least not having to remember things beyond “I know that person sent me an email about it a week ago…” If I’m searching my email for important information, I should be able to look quickly through all of the subject lines to find at least the top 2 or 3 contenders that might have the info I’m looking for.
Relatedly, email chains are evil. Sure the chain might start out about how Mr. Bob isn’t attending the conference but 6 emails later its about an important contract or agenda chain and 12 emails later, its about the office Christmas party. But the subject for all of these mails is still Mr. Bob. How am I supposed to find the one you sent me about the important contract, or the office Christmas party for that matter?
2. If it can be asked over IM/Skype/the phone and doesn’t require a written record, it shouldn’t go in an email. This also goes for the “Thanks :)” emails that I myself am all-too-often guilty of. Some things you send in an email because the decision needs to be recorded for posterity (or at least your own multi-tasking brain), some things are better taken care of without email. Plus, too often email lets us hide from people we should really be reaching out to more personally. Which brings us to…
3. If you are angry, you shouldn’t be sending emails (unless you have a non-angry person proofing them for you). It amazes me how relatively often I see passive-aggressive or just all out aggressive emails fly through my inbox (usually directed at someone else, thank goodness!). Some of these folks are obviously lashing out because they are under stress and some are legitimately (and often justifiably) angry about something or the person they are send the email to. But no matter how justified the sender might be in their feelings, an angry or passive-aggressive email always makes the sender look petty and unprofessional.
I find a better strategy when I receive an email that really ticks me off is to simply walk away and not think about it for awhile. Or, I draft up the meanest email I possibly can (without any email addresses in the “To:” box just in case my hands slip!), read it and then delete it. Most times, that’s enough for me to realize I am being silly and move on.
Other times, the email warrants some sort of clarification. I find this is best done in person or over the phone by bringing it up matter-of-factly saying something like “I was surprised by that email from you when you said…I wanted to be sure I understood your email correctly and so just wanted to check in with you.” This has two advantages. First, if it was just a miscommunication, I can find out, laugh about it with the person and stop losing sleep without ruining a good work relationship. Or, if the person was trying to be a little nasty over email, it gives them a chance to apologize and save-face or tell me what’s wrong if they feel they still have a legit complaint.
There are times when an email does warrant some sort of sterner response back, if only for the sender’s sake.
When I first started working, I wasn’t always as professional as I should have been in my email correspondence. Never offensive, but I would do things like start emails with a “Hi” instead of “Dear,” that sort of thing. It was part of my evolution from college student to a working 20-something and I’ll never forget when a colleague of mine called me out on it (very nicely) in an email. It was a minor transgression and her email was the perfect way to get the message. Rather than being embarrassed and tongue-tied in front of her, I was able to process her suggestion and then find her later to thank her and ask for follow-up advice.
Ok, I have other rules but this post is getting long so I’ll post part deux tomorrow.