Monday Mornings with Madison

Avoiding Email Blunders

Email is a key tool that allows business professionals to communicate very quickly in writing in great detail.  It has replaced traditional phone calls and long-winded memos.   Emails have also greatly reduced the need for group meetings just to share information.  Emails also serve as written proof or validation of past requests, instructions and discussions.  Practically no business today operates without email.

However, like any tool — when not used properly — email can be detrimental. Even old emails and ones that are thought to have been deleted can still be resurrected from computer memory and used in legal proceedings.  Email mistakes can (and have) cost companies both business and money.  That is why it is imperative that business emails be thoughtfully composed and vetted before sent.  While that may seem obvious, companies continue to deal with email blunders by staff at every level.  Given the increased demand for privacy and security of information in many industries and the major financial consequences that can be on the line when emails go awry – think of the embarrassing emails that surfaced when Sony Pictures’ computers were hacked — email best practices are vital for every organization’s survival and success.  Here are eleven of the most common blunders and how best to avoid them.

Email Blunders Abound

There is a litany of ways that email can go awry.  Hopefully, you’ve never made any of these email mistakes.  But, chances are that anyone reading this has committed at least a few, if not all, of these blunders.  While it is normal – in an unfortunate and unavoidable way — that people make mistakes, email errors can be particularly costly, complicated and embarrassing.  The best way to minimize the number of email blunders is for every business to prepare, share and implement Email Best Practices for the company.

Don’t Write Inappropriate Emails

Inside jokes.  Snide or catty remarks.  Harsh criticisms about coworkers, bosses, leadership or clients.  Gossip.  Discussions about questionable business practices.  None of this type of content should ever be included in an email.  Thanks to the ability to Forward an email, no email is ever really private. Even deleted and retrieved emails live forever, especially on computer memory, servers and the Cloud… and can be used in legal proceedings

Best Practice: Write every business email as if it were going to be posted on the company bulletin board or published in the Wall Street Journal.  Self ask:  Is there anyone I wouldn’t want to read this?  If the answer is yes, rewrite the message in a way that communicates only the information needed.  For example, if a project is being assigned to one employee over another, it is better to indicate that “Mary is best suited to handle this detail-oriented project.” instead of writing “John’s work is sloppy so it’s better to assign this Mary who is more detail oriented.

Forward an Email with Privy Information in the Thread

Forwarding e-mail is a great way to damage relationships and destroy credibility. When an email is sent to you, that person is not expecting it to be passed on to others. The e-mail might make its way back to the sender, who will see that their original message was shared. That person will make a mental note that you can’t be trusted.

Best Practice: When forwarding an email, check to see if any information in the thread is sensitive and should either be deleted or the email should not be forwarded.

Use Reply All Judiciously

This can be a major faux pas.  It is not just embarrassing.  Depending on what was in the e-mail, it can ruin a relationship with a client, colleague or vendor.

Best Practice: Take extra care whenever responding to an email that was sent to many people to determine who should receive the email reply.  Before clicking Reply All, self-ask:  Does everyone that received the original email need to read my response?  It is meant for everyone’s eyes?   If the answer is no or uncertain, hit only Reply (not Reply All) and then delete the email address from the To box.  Once the email is composed, decide who should receive it and add only those email addresses in the To box.  The rule of thumb for Reply All should be “When in doubt, leave them out.”

Don’t Hit Send by Mistake

Hitting send before you intend can result in an embarrassing misfire, such as sending an important or confidential e-mail to the wrong person or e-mailing a half-written note.  This can happen to anyone, and does happen often especially with certain email programs that allow keystroke commands for sending or when using a phone with a small keypad.

Best Practice: Just because the “To” box is at the top of an email does not mean that it must be filled out first.  For new emails, do not enter the recipient’s e-mail address until the end, after the e-mail has been double-checked and is truly ready to be sent. For reply emails, remove the person’s email address from the “To” box before beginning to type.  Then, when the email is ready, retype or paste the email address in the To box.  While this may be annoying and a bit more time consuming, it is an important safeguard against erroneously sending an email.

Don’t Attach the Wrong Document

Attaching the wrong document to an email can range from a minor embarrassment to a major breach of confidentiality.  For example, a lender sending one client’s loan documents to another client by mistake can be a major breach of security and privacy for the client’s whose information was shared by mistake.  Loan documents typically include a person’s full name, address, date of birth and social security number.

Anyone who thinks that only the inexperienced and inept are capable of committing such an email blunder, consider that an academic administrator at Oxford University, one of the preeminent universities in the world, made a first class blunder by emailing a list of the 50 students who performed worst on an exam to thousands of other students.  The names and grades of the bottom scorers were accidentally sent out, leaving the hapless victims humiliated and upset.

Best Practice: Double click / open any document attached to an email to confirm that what is attached is actually what should be attached.  Do this before hitting send.

Don’t Forget an Attachment

Possibly the most common email error is sending an email without a mentioned attachment.  Some email programs prevent that by asking the sender if an email should go if the email has the word “attachment” in the body.  But not all email programs do that, leaving many to follow up by sending an “Oops” email thereafter with the missing attachment.

Best Practice: To avoid this, attach the file to the e-mail before composing it or make a habit of attaching a document the moment it is mentioned in the email.  Also, review every email before sending to ensure that it is “complete”.

Review all Emails before Replying

Everyone has times when they are unable to check emails.  An afternoon in court.  A two-day business trip.  A three-day conference.  A week-long cruise.  Emails pile up as requests, questions and issues arise.  While the desire to start responding to those emails one-by-one is bound to be strong, don’t.  Chances are that work was done, issues were resolved and questions were answered during the absence.  Replying to something that was already handled by someone else can lead to confusion, errors, and/or wasted time.  It also shows some level of disorganization.

Best Practice: To avoid this, when checking emails after being away for a period of time, review all new e-mails first before composing and sending responses.

Don’t Compose an Email in Haste

Because email is so ubiquitous and inboxes can get flooded with new mail in a short time, it is tempting to open and reply to emails as fast as possible.  Unfortunately, email speed is often achieved at the expense of grammar, punctuation, syntax, spelling and courtesy.  The result is emails that can come across as terse, awkward, stilted, or rude.  Information may be misunderstood.  Worst of all, the sender may be perceived as illiterate or uneducated.  Just as it is important for professionals to speak clearly and eloquently, it is also important for emails to be just as clear and eloquent.

Best Practice: Write every e-mail as if it will be read at a Board of Directors meeting or published in the NY Times. Be respectful with words and take pride in every communication.

Don’t Use an Incorrect Subject Line or No Subject Line at All

Don’t underestimate the importance of the subject line. The subject line is the headline. It increases the odds of getting the recipient’s attention. Inboxes are cluttered.  It is important to help the recipient cut through the noise by making the subject line clear.

Not putting a subject line makes it harder for the recipient to put an e-mail in context. Even if the subject is clear in the body of the email, it helps to make the subject line clear so that the email can be located later. In this multi-tasking world, it’s easy for even the sharpest minds to lose the thread of a chain of emails.

Best Practice: Change the subject line when changing the topic of conversation. Better yet, start a new e-mail thread.

Don’t Email Angry

Just like one should never drink and drive, one should also never email angry.  Recall buttons are far from a perfect science, and sending a business e-mail distorted by emotion can be a costly mistake.

Best Practice: If there is a sensitive (read: upsetting) topic that needs to be addressed, compose it (without putting the recipient’s email address in the To box) and save the message as a draft.  Then sleep on it and reread it the next day.  Chances are that the email will need to be revised to remove emotion and make it more factual and to the point.  Better yet, don’t put that information in an email unless there is a specific purpose in documenting the matter.  Emotional issues should be addressed in face-to-face conversations, if possible.

Don’t Use BCC Too Often

BCC stands for “blind carbon copy,” and is a way of sending emails to multiple people without them knowing who else is getting the email. Any email addresses in the BCC field will be invisible to everyone else on the email. In other words, it’s like cc, but for spies.  Unfortunately, few secrets are ever truly kept secret.  So BCCing one person on an email is likely to be found out by others on the email that didn’t know that person was being BCCd in the first place.  This sneaky email practice usually backfires and erodes trust.

Best Practice: Blind carbon copy should be used sparingly.  The only good time to use BCC when sending an email is when sending something impersonal (change of address, selling a dresser) to a lot of people who don’t necessarily know each other. No one is pretending that this email is anything but informational, so it’s fine to hide the other people on it. Also, the number of people included on an email like this might number in the hundreds, and no one wants to scroll through that many names. As a rule of thumb, if the number of recipients exceeds 30 and the information is public but the recipient’s email information is not, then BCC.

Quote of the Week

“For email, the old postcard rule applies. Nobody else is supposed to read your postcards, but you’d be a fool if you wrote anything private on one.” Judith Martin


© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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