Watch What You Put in that Office E-mail

As the dark side of messaging comes to light, here are some do's and don'ts to avoid landing in trouble

Kellie Pelletier loathed many things about her boss in her former job as an associate at a division of the Smithsonian in Washington. There was the way he was allergic to putting away anything on his desk, stuffing her in-box with his stapler lest he strain his shoulder returning it himself. He also insisted that she fetch his coffee every day--in the underground mall six floors below.

The worst, though, was his habit of flaming Pelletier with e-mails jabbing her performance, which so exasperated her that she finally forwarded one to a friend, adding: "I hate him, I hate him, I hate him" in bold across the page. Then she got a sinking feeling. Was that "forward" she had pushed? Or "reply"? She found out soon enough--after her enraged boss hauled her into his manager's office. There, they were both called to task for their virtual gaffes.

Will we never learn? To those in academia who study us, we office e-mailers have become a rude, uncouth lot--epistolary primitives in dire need of an injection of etiquette. Indeed, seven years after it gained widespread acceptance in Corporate America, e-mail is encountering a backlash, fueled by a rash of research now emerging about its dark side: creating corporate embarrassment, undermining teamwork, draining employee energy, and breeding "toxic worry" by spreading miscommunication.

What a reversal. The tool was once lauded as the communication cure for the masses--a miracle medium that would make a Moore's law of productivity. It would expedite projects at warp speed, open up a brave new world of multitasking, and revolutionize the way business got done by smashing corporate hierarchies. founder Jeff Bezos swears he answers every missive sent to Many of the promises have come true.

The criticism comes because so many of us are using e-mail improperly. Now it's blamed for fueling "conflict spirals" that escalate ill feeling at double the rate of face-to-face communiqués. Experts say this is due to the anonymous, remote nature of e-mail: It serves as a kind of psychological sandpaper that strips away the social veneer that keeps people in check. E-mail can also be a crutch for lame managers leery of confrontation. "It's an introvert's dream," says Ken Siegel, president of Impact Group, a human-resources consulting firm in Los Angeles. The harshest critics of e-mail go even further. All the electronic hyperconnection, concludes Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, is changing our workplaces into wastelands of isolation, where we toil alongside people without knowing them, bereft of the "human moment."

True, every technological innovation has its adolescent hazing period. The telephone was once blamed for provoking wars and breaking up the multigenerational family. Yet the increasing desire for some Netiquette has companies scrambling. Although some 95% of large U.S. businesses now have e-mail policies, up from 30% just five years ago, many are only now in the process of adding an overlay of Miss Manners to their directives.

It's no wonder. Interpersonal conflicts are hardly the worst of it. Since e-mail messages are stored on backup tapes for years, they can easily come back to haunt companies in legal actions. Just think about the way former Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget trashed as "junk" in internal mails a company called Infospace--one that Merrill was recommending. Hewlett-Packard recently axed two employees and suspended 150 more for swapping downloaded porn via the company's e-mail.

While those may be the most egregious offenses, the subtler ones can also inflict damage. Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make, experts say, is replacing conversations with e-mail. One of e-mail's drawbacks is that it masquerades as communication when it is best used for informing, broadcasting, or scheduling. That's because real communication about job activities often depends upon real-time, face-to-face feedback, along with the vocal nuances that clarify intent. Interestingly, Siegel's research at large corporations has found that senior executives are the worst offenders in this regard. They often use e-mail to wield power--issuing orders, handing down edicts, and nitpicking workers' performance.

Experts advise people never to put anything sensitive or critical in an e-mail that touches on employees' self-esteem or job competence. Nor should you use it to give direction about a job activity or desired outcome if there is a risk of misinterpretation or political sensitivity. And when angry, remember: Keep your hands off your keyboard. E-mail's stripped-down, free-form nature sets off workers' hair-trigger responses and lends itself to venting rude behavior, much as road rage overtakes people in the bubble of their cars. "People say things in e-mails they'd never say face to face," says Steven Currall, management professor at the Rice University Graduate School of Management in Houston.

When it comes to negotiations, it's far better to pick up the phone--or better yet, pay a visit in person. Harvard Business school professor Kathleen Valley found that 50% of e-mail negotiations end in impasse, while only 19% of face-to-face ones do.

The ever-mounting volume of e-mail is also a vexing problem, with managerial in-boxes typically swelling with hundreds of messages each day. Occupational spam alone, estimates Gartner Group, accounts for 30% of traffic and eats up three hours of work time a week. You'll win few friends in your office if you do as this secretary did: She tried selling all of her belongings, one by one, via e-mail, treating her company's network as the classifieds: "Did anyone get married in 1981?" read one. "I have a cute Christmas ornament that says `First Christmas Together--1981'--any takers?"

You also don't want to make the common mistake of treating your account as if it were your personal mailbox. In other words, don't write anything to anyone unless you'd be happy having it blown up as an exhibit in court.

Which leads to the next indictment--e-mail spawns multitasking, in which you gab on the phone and read or write e-mail simultaneously. Memo to everyone: We can all hear the click-clack of the keyboard. We feel the dead zone on your end of the line. If you really want to convey the sense that you care about something at the office, give the matter your full attention and focus. For all e-mail's benefits, that's one message it can't convey.

By Michelle Conlin

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