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I Regret to Inform You

Published November 22, 2009 2:36 PM by Glen McDaniel

I check email several times daily; because that is the way most of us communicate both socially and professionally. I feel lost without my Blackberry. However, recently I was under the weather and did not check my email (hold on to your seats) for a full twenty four hours!!

As I scanned the scores of messages all demanding my attention, one subject jumped out at me. It read "Glen, I regret to inform you like this."  A few months ago, I learned of my brother's death through email and so I immediately thought "Now what??"  With trepidation, I read that email immediately. It turned out to be a sales letter essentially saying the writer was sorry to tell me that  if within 24 hours I did not take advantage of an offer to buy a program that would make me a gazillion dollars, the offer would never be repeated.

I was annoyed, but could not help admiring the marketing ploy.  Then I started thinking of emails in general and how lacking they often are in terms of effectiveness, appropriateness and professionalism, even in the workplace.

Emails to family and friends can be very casual, titled with catchy subjects and be full of abbreviations and emoticons. But for work, one has to not simply ensure that their email gets read, but conveys the intended message and comes across as professional and non -offensive as well.

This is not always easy to accomplish, but here are a few tips to follow.

Select a subject that is short and accurately reflects the contents of the email.  Being cutesy or alarmist does not work in the workplace. Also since your colleagues are swamped with tons of email, they need all the help they can get deciding which emails should be read first.

Do not send all emails as urgent. After awhile, people will just ignore all your emails

Be careful of language. Never use language that might be considered offensive in any way. Stay away from quips about politics, religion, race, nationality and sex. After the last election, a senior member of staff at an institution I know sent business related emails with a "signature" making fun of the new president. Many staff members were offended.  As we all know by now, typing words in all capitals is considered shouting and is therefore rude.

In a professional email, use colors sparingly and avoid emoticons completely. This is a workplace not kindergarten.

Re-read your email before you hit send. Use spell check, but since spell check misses some words, double check spelling, grammar and tone.  Humor and irony are often lost in writing, so the recipient might be offended  by an "innocent" comment. These are best omitted, except in rare instances. Also, remember you never know where your email will end up electronically or in print. A "just between us" comment could easily become public, to your detriment.

Except in rare instances get permission before forwarding someone else's email correspondence. While the writer should expect their email to end up somewhere else, it is good etiquette to get permission to forward all but the most routine emails.

Keep emails short. If you find yourself writing a treatise, then you have not focused your thoughts enough; and it is both rude and selfish to expect someone else to wade through your stream of consciousness. Also, if your email keeps getting too long, consider if a telephone call or in person meeting would not be better. If you need to send lots of information, write a succinct subject, explain the reason for the email briefly, then attach a document that the recipient can read at leisure separately.

Reply to emails as quickly as possible. If you are not able to address the contents completely, at least acknowledge receipt and indicate when you will get back with the sender. And do it!

Remember emails sent from or to your work email address are the property of your employer. Yes, regardless of contents, recipient, or the subject addressed if it touches your work computer or server, your employer has a right to read it and act on it. Oh, deleting emails do not permanently remove them. Employers may, and often do, recover deleted employee emails.

2 comments

One thing that people should be aware of is that when they send email in anger it cannot be recalled. I know people who get upset and say things in email they would never say in person, or even on the phone.

Supervisors tend to be more direct and even downright mean in emails althought they would not be that way in person. If an emoloyee upsets them or breaks a rule they are much firmer and blunt in email. They just want to get their point across in very firm terms.

Employees will be rude to supervisors because it's in writing and not in person. They would never never dare speak to their boss like that in person.

But none of those can be retracted or "unsent" So think before you write and think before you send. That's my advice.

Deborah B November 26, 2009 4:46 PM
NYC NY

The quality of writing has gone down tremendously especially with younger folks, I am sorry to say. With texting and all that as the main method of communication, it seems we have forgotten how to spell and also use abbreviations and shorthand that would usually not be acceptable in regular writing.

Those sorts of bad habits have crept over into email. You should see some of the emails I receive from prospective applicants, vendors and even professional colleagues.

One good point you made that most people dont know is that Big Brother is watching. Employers know every key stroke you make at work and they do have the right to use disciplinary action or even terminate you based on email you send to someone else. You dont have to send it to IT or your boss to make it actionable. Remember that.

Janice Allison November 23, 2009 10:11 AM
Bedford MA

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