Lesson 1

Know What Is and Is Not Appropriate



This lesson teaches the following competencies:

  1. Know the appropriate and inappropriate uses of e-mail.

  2. Always respond as quickly as possible to e-mails.

  3. Always remain courteous, direct, and professional; write nothing you wouldn't say in a face-to-face business setting.

  4. Communicate negative issues focusing on the issue, not the person.

  5. Use a businesslike tone and address the reader directly using "I" and "you."



E-mail is certainly a useful tool. For private users, it's a way to keep in touch with friends and relatives. E-mail at this level is often informal, uses emoticons :) and slang, and in many ways resembles casual, conversational communication.

At the corporate level, e-mail allows professionals to solve problems, conduct business, collaborate, and keep in touch in a manner sometimes more convenient than phone calls, faxes, and in-person contact.

Business people should not confuse the two uses. Writing and content appropriate for personal e-mails may not be appropriate for corporate e-mails. This lesson focuses on the appropriate uses for e-mail and some conventions any writer should follow in an e-mail message.


1. Appropriate and Inappropriate Uses for E-mail

The purpose of workplace e-mail is to communicate ideas and information among departments and individuals. E-mail accomplishes business objectives. If a message is not limited to business activity, it becomes another message clogging an already overloaded system. Follow these guidelines:

  1. Don't send personal messages. Office e-mail is the property of the company that pays for the e-mail system and should be used for company business. If you want to meet for lunch, call.

  2. Don't send a message in an e-mail that really should be spoken directly to the person. E-mail has become a convenient way of avoiding having to look someone in the eye when the writer delivers the bad news. If the content is about a personnel issue that is sensitive or likely will cause some negative feelings, talk on the phone, talk sitting with the person in the office setting, or talk over lunch--but talk. Leave e-mail for non-personal business issues.

  3. Don't send confidential information by e-mail. E-mail is more like a postcard than a private letter. Always assume that e-mail may be misused, misdirected, or intentionally forwarded by others. If you must convey confidential information, send a letter or speak in person.

  4. Don't send unnecessary e-mail. Remember that taking time out to read e-mail is always a distraction that becomes worse as the amount of mail sent increases year by year.

  5. Remember that your e-mail messages become your image, professional and otherwise, in the reader's perception of you and your company.


Exercise: Appropriate E-mail Uses

In the boxes below are situations that might be used for e-mail. Based on what you have learned so far, state under each why it is an appropriate or inappropriate topic for e-mail. If it's a shade of gray rather than black or white, explain that. Then click on the "See an explanation" to see why it would or would not be appropriate.

An e-mail that sets up a staff meeting.

An e-mail that attempts to resolve a human resources issue with a difficult and uncooperative employee.

An e-mail criticizing another person's performance at a meeting.

An e-mail offering a contract of employment.

An e-mail contacting a potential candidate about a new position.

An e-mail saying the new manager was fired from her previous job.

An e-mail informing a customer of the status made in resolving an issue involving order fulfillment.


2. Always Respond as Quickly as Possible

You probably have received e-mails you've put off responding to or did not respond to at all. Perhaps these mails were unclear and wordy, or dealt with unpleasant or unnecessary subjects. Or perhaps you simply didn't have enough information to respond at the time.

However, you should always respond to your e-mails. To ignore an e-mail is unprofessional and rude. It also wastes everyone's time, since the sender may have to contact you by phone or in person. Always respond to your e-mails, even if it's only to acknowledge you can't provide a meaningful response right away. An e-mail saying "I can't write much now" is far better than no response at all.


3. Always Remain Courteous, Direct, and Professional.

Always be courteous, direct, and professional. Remember that electronic transmissions are NOT private. They could be circulated around the customer's company, a competitor's company, or upper management in your own company. They have been and will continue to be used as evidence in court cases. If the topic of your communication is sensitive, use a more secure form of communication.

  1. Don't say anything you wouldn't say in a face-face meeting in a business setting. Corporate e-mail is not a place to vent frustration.

  2. Don't use irony or sarcasm. Because the subtleties of voice or body language are missing, your message may lead to misunderstandings. Be careful about humor when it could be misinterpreted.

  3. Don't put your anger into writing. It leaves a permanent record you may be sorry about later. E-mail can be a tempting forum for venting since it allows you to express anger without having to confront someone face to face. But it is an inappropriate medium. Use the real strength of e-mail that allows you to cool down and consider what you say carefully to communicate messages that let the reader know your point, but don't burn.


You receive the following e-mail from someone in the company:

Hey Melissa,

Whatever were you thinking in the meeting today? That report of yours . . . what was that all about? You were off the track without a train, in my opinion. Disorganized presentations like that will never get off the ground. Get a clue.


The writer should not have been abrasive. However, your response should be professional without being stiff, direct without being confrontational:


I understand why you saw my comments as disorganized. When we were asked to bring in creative ideas for brainstorming, that's what I did. To me, creative means imprecise (disorganized) ideas that aren't yet set in stone.

I value your input on our committee report. So, let's get together for one more work session before our next meeting.


Remember, reacting to someone else's anger will only lead to more anger. Your best bet is to defuse the anger as much as possible. Make the buck stop with you.

Don't Gossip

You lose your personal identity when you sit in the company's chair at the company's computer to respond to the company's e-mail. Remember that you are not buddies with the reader, even if you have been working with him or her for ten years. Reserve gossip for your time having coffee after work.


You receive this e-mail from a friend in the company:


I'm so glad you finally got this mess straightened out! You seem like the only sharp shooter in your whole company. I didn't believe for an instant that Human Resources lost my forms, but that's what they told me yesterday. I think it's an out and out lie! At least I can count on your honesty. I don't know how you can stand to work here.


You respond:


It does seem incredible that Human Resources could have lost your forms. Perhaps they were just filed incorrectly. I know from working with them that they handle thousands of personnel files daily and are overworked.

Thanks again for writing. I appreciate your kind words and am always happy to help a friend!



4. Communicate Negative Messages Focusing on Issues, Not the Person

Always prefer to communicate about negative issues in person or on the phone rather than in an e-mail. However, if you believe that the issue is not negative enough to require face-to-face communication, or if the circumstances are such that you are not able to communicate face-to-face or on the phone, follow these guidelines for writing e-mails containing content that the reader may receive negatively.

One unfortunate consequence of using e-mail rather than the phone or face-to-face conversation is that e-mails have become an easy medium for venting anger. The person isn't on the other end of the phone or standing before you. It becomes much easier to write things you wouldn't say.

If it hasn't happened to you, it will eventually. Someone will use harsh and blaming language to set you straight in an e-mail rather than calling or speaking to you in person. After all, it's a lot more comfortable to dash off an e-mail so you don't have to talk openly with someone. That makes it easier to be harsh because the person isn't wincing in front of you when you write the words.

Be tactful and remember that you will have to work with this person. Make the issues clear, but focus on them without being harsh and blaming. The e-mail medium makes it too easy to be abrasive. Consciously avoid it.

The strength of e-mail is that you can consider carefully what you communicate before sending it. You can calm down and delete the harsh language but make sure the issue is clear. Use that strength to build the relationships you want in the company. Use e-mails to help people become more competent and to build your relationship so you can work together more easily.


You receive this e-mail from a new intern in the mailroom:

Mr. Garcia,

I can't believe this. I found that contract you've been asking about. It was stuck under a seam in the mailbag. I'm really sorry. I hope this has not caused you any panic. From now on, I'll make sure I shake the bag upside down real good before I start my daily mail sorting.


You respond:

To: Anthony Holden, intern

Mail Room Staff:

Yes, Anthony, that letter was a very important contract, as you know. I'm certainly glad to learn that, in fact, it was mailed as my client confirmed.

I'm thankful you found it. Now, everything is in place to start negotiations. Again, thanks for updating me, and thanks for your effort to double-check in the future. That's all anyone can do.

Carlos Garcia

Remember that mistakes do happen and that the person reading your message is someone you work with on a regular basis. Don't say anything in the e-mail you wouldn't say in person.

Exercise: Using E-mail to Communicate Mistakes

Assume you're an account manager for a software company. Your company is working on a project for a client, and you are the direct liaison with the client. They're expecting a finished product by the end of the week. The finance department of your company is to send you some test data so you can test the program. They haven't done it for two weeks. You've asked for it daily. The department manager, Francis Daschell, tells you it's your problem because the timeline was too tight and her department has other things to do. You know it's a power struggle between her and your boss.

You receive this e-mail from Francis:


I would appreciate it if you would stop sending e-mails about the data. We'll get it together when we have time. Just get the backbone to tell your client the data will be delayed a week or two. Then next time consult me before you set deadlines that involve my department.


In the box below, respond to Francis.

Derrick keeps his response businesslike and cordial. Showing frustration or being defensive won't accomplish his business goals, and he'll have more difficulty with Francis in another day when he needs her help. A calm, positive response always has benefits for both the writer and reader in the future.


5. Use a Businesslike Tone and Address the Reader Directly.

Address the reader directly. You are writing to an individual, not a committee or the public. If you are writing to a group, you should still refer to the reader as "you."

Maintain an informal business tone. Avoid being chatty and too informal. Your writing can be cordial and friendly without being overly loose and informal.

This e-mail is too informal:

Hi Ben,

Well I guess this is April Fools Day in January . . . I can't believe we didn't send the form you asked for. You know how it gets when you're buried up to your eyeballs in paper, sorry. We'll shoot it to you el pronto.


This revision uses the personal "I" and "you" stance, is cordial, but maintains a professional, business tone:

Hello Ben,

I'm sorry you didn't receive the form we promised to send to you. I'm not sure what happened to your request, but I am sure I'll put the form in the mail right after I finish this e-mail. You'll receive it in two or three days.

Again, accept my apologies for your not receiving the form. If you have any questions about it, call me at 412 555-3234 or e-mail me at Florence.taylor@motioncorp.com.