Before You Hit Send

Crafting workplace e-mails to avoid mishaps

A decade ago, Barbara Pachter told students, “E-mail is a word document that can and will come back to haunt you.” “They [just] laughed. It was this new technology, and people didn’t know its implications,” she says. Pachter, an etiquette expert and author of New Rules @ Work: 79 Etiquette Tips, Tools, and Techniques to Get Ahead and Stay Ahead (Prentice Hall Press; $13.95), says no one is laughing today, because “they’ve heard enough horror stories.”
The possibilities for error via e-mail are endless, so conducting proper communication is key. “E-mail can enhance your professional image or work against you—you decide,” says Pachter.
With effective execution, e-mail “leads to better communication and responses, because you’re sending out great subject lines with clear, concise material inside,” says Peggy Duncan, personal productivity expert and author of Put Time Management to Work and Live the Life You Want (PSC Press; $24.97). “It’s not rocket science,” she asserts. “If you are having any issues, you can learn how to do better.”

Put you best keystroke forward with these tips:

  • Format The mini letter: In the business world, e-mail has evolved into a more formal context. Appropriate salutations and closings are suggested to start. (Think “Dear,” then “Hi”).
  • Tone You talking to me? Don’t send e-mails when you’re angry or to solve complex issues. Read it aloud before sending; if it sounds harsh to you, it probably is. Don’t write anything that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. “Some people hide behind e-mail, or that’s what they think they’re doing,” says Pachter.
  • Length: Short is the new long. General guidelines state that you write one screen (25 lines) and stick with one subject. Use short paragraphs and space blank lines between each. Bullets are also a good way to get your point across with fewer words. Use descriptive subject lines—leaving them blank leads to unopened e-mails.
  • Presentation How do I look? “It’s a document,” stresses Pachter. Do without typographical faces, multiple colors, and decorated backgrounds. All capital letters is the equivalent of shouting and when overused can be difficult to read.
  • Grammar S-P-E-L-L check: Set your e-mail to automatically check for errors; it may not catch everything, so proofread. Print it out if necessary. And double-check any numbers.
  • Privacy Security breach: “E-mail is not private, and people shouldn’t have any expectation that it is,” says Pachter. So be careful what you say and how you say it. And use blind carbon copy (BCC) when e-mailing a group of people, especially when they don’t know one another.
  • Sending TO: Input recipients addresses after you’ve finished composing and are confident it’s exactly how you want it.
  • Replying RE: “General guidelines say 24 hours, but let’s be real,” Duncan continues. “We live in a world that wants answers now.” Is it ever too late? Patcher says probably not, but do acknowledge the delay and be aware, “If you don’t respond immediately, you could lose business.”
  • Crisis Management Oops: “One punctuation error. One misspelling. Will people notice? Maybe, maybe not,” Pachter confesses. Acknowledging the mistake either in person or with another
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