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Career Coach: How to use e-mail effectively, wisely and professionally

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, August 30, 2010; 24

Today, there are so many ways to conduct important meetings, conversations and negotiations. You can meet with the person face-to-face, talk over the phone, conduct business via e-mail, use videoconferencing and more. They are all beneficial methods for communicating, yet they also all have their drawbacks. E-mail in particular, seems to generate strong reactions from proponents and opponents.

I still get many questions from people in the work world about when and how to use e-mail effectively. In general, the research indicates that for important negotiations or conversations, it is best to meet face-to-face. For example, asking your boss for a raise via e-mail is probably not the best strategy. Your guideline should be: the more important and complex the issue, and the more important the relationship, the more you might want to consider using a face-to-face meeting rather than phone or e-mail. Even using the phone is more desirable in these situations than relying on e-mail.

Recently, someone asked me about using e-mail to tell the boss about leaving the job (after eight years on the job). While it might be easier to send the e-mail rather than facing the boss, having such a meeting shows professional courtesy. Plus, we need to remember that it's a much smaller world than we think. Our former bosses can often play a role in our future employment -- via references. Leaving a firm on a positive, professional note is important for your future.

The use of e-mail also seems to stimulate lots of discussion about what is appropriate and inappropriate to do. People have many pet peeves about e-mails, such as getting really long messages, getting messages in all capital letters, getting overly complex information via e-mail, receiving "urgent" messages that aren't really urgent, getting copied on messages that they don't really need to be included on, and the list goes on and on.

To address these pet peeves and the many more that are out there, here are some tips for using e-mail:

-- At the beginning and end of your e-mail message, add relationship-building content, such as "Hi, how are you doing? Thanks for your flexibility in working with me on these points," or "We have been making great progress together." This is important since you don't have the nonverbal expressions and tones of voice that you have in face-to-face meetings. Treat the e-mail exchange as if you were actually meeting with the person. You would always start with a friendly, social comment and end with one when meeting in person, so you should do the same with e-mail exchanges.

-- Use e-mail as a way to stop and think about something ("I will get back to you with an e-mail about that") instead of feeling that you have to automatically respond in depth at the present moment. E-mail is good if you need time to think between responses.

-- Make sure you already have trust established with the other side before using e-mail as a communication forum.

-- Establish rapport with the other side, such as by exchanging exchange pictures, background information, or personal phone calls first.

-- Make the messages clear and concise. Better to exchange a number of shorter e-mails than a few longer e-mails. Most people who get really long e-mails tell me they just don't bother reading them.

-- Watch the use of capital letters, color and symbols. What emotions are you trying to convey and do you really want to communicate those emotions?

-- Be timely. Let people know when you will get back to them with a response.

-- Watch your temper. Make sure it passes the "light-of-day test": Would it be okay if seen by your mother/boss/the world -- is it suitable? Make sure you are okay if it is printed out and shared with others -- because it might be.

-- Don't deliver negative feedback via e-mail -- better to deliver it face-to-face. Remember that people should be treated as human beings -- respect that. In addition, anything you send can be printed out and sent to anyone else. Would you want this?

-- Avoid using cute shortcuts or acronyms (e.g., "I am here 4 u") in professional exchanges.

-- Make sure you have a signature line so people know who is sending the e-mail. Of course, I have heard complaints from people when they get e-mails from someone with five titles under their name and a lengthy quote of the day.

-- Check the grammar, punctuation and spelling. Clearly this sends a message about your level of professionalism.

Sometimes, e-mail is the right communication forum to use. When that's the case, keep your message concise, professional and directed to a fellow human being. Remember that e-mail is a form of technology that has been designed to make our lives easier, not to replace our social connections with others.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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