LIKE most desk jockeys, Kim spends a big chunk of her time on e-mail.
Once, an intern asked her if it was OK to leave work four hours early to get a haircut. “This was just the latest in a string of requests: ‘Can I take Friday off? It’s homecoming at my college.’ ‘Can I take Monday off? My friend is in town,’” recalls Kim, a Williamsburg resident who works in publishing. “I fired off an ‘Is she serious?!’ e-mail to a colleague, only I accidentally forwarded it … back to the intern.”
Mortified, the 33-year-old used the gaffe to start a conversation with the intern about honouring her responsibilities to the job, what her lack of commitment says to her managers, and how that could affect her ability to get a positive review. “She’s doing well in the field now,” says Kim, who asked not to use her last name for professional reasons. “But I still feel horrible about it.”
The average business worker sends and receives 112 e-mails per day, according to a February report from the Radicati Group, a technology market-research firm based in California. “E-mail is the most dangerous piece of equipment in the office,” cautions Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How To Do It Better.
Branding expert Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success, agrees. “E-mail is more damaging now than ever before,” he warns. Why? Anything you write may be forwarded and go viral — in the office or, worse, out in the blogosphere — and ruin your reputation forever.
So before you shoot off another e-mail, make sure you’re not making one of these career-killing mistakes:
BEING TOO VAGUE
Every message should follow this formula: Here’s what you need to know, and here’s what I intend to do about it, says Schawbel. If you want a specific co-worker to complete a task, make sure he’s the only one in the “to” line. (If you send the request to seven people, each one will assume someone else is handling it.)
CHIMING IN ALL THE TIME
Some people use “reply all” as a way to one-up colleagues on the e-mail chain, says Dawn Michelle Baude, author of The Executive Guide to E-mail Correspondence. To spare everyone’s inbox, she suggests replying only to the sender, not to the entire group. Schwalbe suggests getting into the habit of not replying when you’re CC’d. “A CC means someone wants you to know something, and you’re kept informed,” he says. “If you don’t have something to add to the conversation, don’t reply.”
“If you consistently get tone wrong, you create a lot of enemies and hard feelings, and people don’t want to do things for you or with you,” says Schwalbe. Start all your e-mail conversations a bit more formal than usual — in case they get forwarded — and as your correspondence progresses, mirror the other person’s tone and length. If you’re emailing with the same person throughout the day, it’s fine to drop niceties like the openings and closings and treat your correspondence more like an instant-message conversation.
USING TEXT ABBREVIATIONS AND EMOJIS
Better safe than silly-looking. “You don’t want an e-mail kicked up the chain of command with a pouty face in the first paragraph — it sends the signal that you can’t communicate in words and have to use pictures,” says Baude, who also cautions against too-casual abbreviations such as “LOL.”
Don’t always fight e-mail with e-mail. “If complicated or emotional, it doesn’t belong in e-mail,” says Schwalbe. “Schedule a call, or stop by that person’s office instead.” If what you’re outlining is long or requires bullet points, put it in a document and attach to the e-mail for easier reading. And if you’re trying to schedule a meeting with more than three people, use a calendar app instead.