by Megan Casserly
"We had been emailing back and forth all morning," Maria Cutrone, 30, a Baltimore-based web designer recalls. She and a coworker couldn't see eye to eye on a project. Should they ask the client to postpone the deadline in order to complete testing or should they deliver a product that wasn't quite there? "By the time 10 emails had been sent, I was seriously beyond frustrated. We weren't getting any closer to resolving the situation. I had to do something."
For Cutrone, that "something" was cc'ing their direct supervisor. "It really felt like the right thing to do. The way I saw it, he would see what was happening, step in and make the decision we were unable to make. End of argument."
Wrong. Unfortunately, Cutrone's "cc'ing up" was a bad career move. Her coworker was furious and her supervisor was not just let in on a revealing email chain, but saw Cutrone's decision to do so as both self-serving and immature. Shortly after, Cutrone left the company, embarrassed, she says, but much wiser.
A decision she made with the best intentions had been perceived as the worst. Instead of efficient, she was seen as undermining. Instead of gracious, petty.
According to experts, she's not alone. Email makes up the majority of our daily communication—especially in business. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of employed adults (62%) use the internet or email in the workplace. And yet social cues and etiquette are often overlooked.
The problem, it seems, is that communication through email can bring out the worst of competitive or controlling behavior. "It's a very weird dynamic that has happened," says Cherie Kerr, the founder of EvecuProv, an executive coaching seminar series that borrows from improvisational comedy and the author of The Bliss or "Diss" Connection: Email Etiquette for the Business Professional. "People do or say things via email that they would never do in person. They'd never upstage a higher up in a meeting, but in email there's this disconnected feeling of not having to look anyone in the eye that emboldens people to act in competitive or even arrogant ways."
"Emily Post was not around when email began," agrees Marsha Egan, author of the book Inbox Detox and the Habit of Email Excellence. "So people have to make up their own rules. What one person might see as absolutely fine, another might find offensive. That being said, the basis of all etiquette is respect." Respect, she says, is what Cutrone was lacking in her decision to invite her boss into her disagreement with her coworker.
Here, Egan and Kerr take on Cutrone's misstep and other serious email faux pas—to explain how even the best intentions can be misread—and what the better tack to take might be.
The Crime: When you're having an email exchange with a co-worker, and s/he escalates the conflict by sneakily cc'ing a higher-up.
Egan says it's about respect: "What happened here is that she didn't respect her coworker enough to give her the heads up about letting the boss in on the email." Kerr agrees wholeheartedly. "If she's going to cc anyone she should be upfront about it because it might come back to bite her," she says, intuiting Cutrone's dilemma without my tipping her off. "If her "higher up" for instance goes to the person with whom she was emailing, it will cause friction and distrust. Be upfront" she says, "And classy, always."
The Crime: Preemptive auto-responses a la "Thank you for your email. I get an overwhelming amount of email, but I care about each one of them! I will respond as soon as it's convenient."
Kerr and Egan both recognize this as a no-no. "An auto response all the time can be seen as officious and arrogant even though the good intention is there," says Egan. The offender may be thinking they are being polite in warning you that their response may be slow, but it comes across as condescending. "It's a very aloof way to interact with people," says Kerr. "An automatic email should only be used if you're out of the office on vacation or unable to respond to email because you're on a safari or something! A robo-response can distance someone and who wants that?"
The Crime: The instant follow up
You want to make sure a coworker or client has received and read your email—calling or emailing seems like the logical way to find out. Right? Wrong, again. "Oh, the Double-Checking Billy," sighs Egan. "They send an email and 10 minutes later call to make sure you've got it." She describes this as entrapment, or a "gotcha" move. "And gotcha is not effective in business. It's akin to sending a direct mail and calling to follow up." The etiquette, she says, is to call prior to sending the email. "Let them know what you'll be sending them and when." Not only are they more likely to respond, she says, but more likely to read it in the first place.
Bottom line, Cutrone and Egan concur, is respect. And the golden rule. Stop and think about how you'd react if you were on the receiving end of your email. Would you be pleased? Motivated? Or would you feel affronted and wronged?
If the latter, check yourself. For no matter how distanced or protected from the dreaded face-to-face interaction email can make us feel, there's one certain design flaw that can make arrogant, selfish or even nefarious behavior come back to haunt you.
It's all in writing.
5 Email Habits That Send the Wrong Message:
Abusive Subject Line Behavior
Intention: By typing the word "URGENT," "ACTION ITEM" or "READ ME" in the subject line, she is hoping to stress the actionable items of her email. Her message is clear. Perception: Her subject line implies that she presumes her message is more important than any other correspondence you might have received. The perception is that she is over-confident and thinks very little of your time.
Answering The Wrong Question
Intention: When a colleague on a group email answers questions that are under your purview before you have a chance to. He's saving his colleague the hassle of answering—hey, he knows the answer too! Perception: It's the online version of shouting out the answer without raising your hand. His colleague might think that he is undermining their authority or worse—out to get their job.
Copyediting A Coworker
Intention: He wants to ensure that the higher ups see a clean, well-spoken document. By editing his coworker's email and resending it, he ensures that the grammatically correct email is higher in the supervisor's inbox. Perception: Public shaming of a colleague is never going to get him anywhere. Both the colleague and the supervisor are made aware of this one-upsmanship. And neither of them like it.
Intention: When you're having an email exchange with a co-worker, and s/he escalates the conflict by sneakily CCing a higher-up. She's resolving the issue efficiently by letting a higher-up in on the conflict. Perception: She's sneaky, conniving and out to make them look bad. Even more nefarious: the BCC.
Instant Follow Up
Intention: He wants to make sure you've received and read his email—calling or emailing right away seems like the logical way to find out. Perception: Give me a break! If you expect an instant response to a query, the more efficient route is to pick up the phone. Following up shortly after sending an email makes you seem impatient and self-righteous.
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