Email and your reputation

A couple of months ago, the CMO of a tech startup shared Surviving Email Politics at Work via LinkedIn.

Email is an extension of you, part of your reputation. What you say and how you conduct yourself over email is the professional “you.” Managing this carefully is important.

I couldn’t say it better. Today, I’m sharing some stories about the bad things that can happen based on what you put into your emails at work. (Tip o’ the hat to Erica over at LinguaDigitalis for sending many of these my way.)

no cap emailJeff Pearlman tells the story of a hopeful college intern who failed to get his dream job because he sent a thank-you via email from his phone. And didn’t capitalize the first letter of Thursday. This one hurts my heart. But the message is clear. Professional email sent via mobile devices is especially prone to make you look UNprofessional.

A financial controller in New Zealand was fired for sending email perceived as confrontational because she used bold, all caps, and red type. More on this story from The New Zealand Herald, which includes a cornucopia of entertaining stories about email blunders. As Leslie O’Flavahan says, “Back away from the caps lock” to create a professional impression.

emailstory1Business Insider published a collection of Infamous Wall Street Quotes that included this one from an email sent by an employee at Standard & Poor’s before the financial crisis:

Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of card falters.

I don’t recommend you spend too much time reading the examples at Business Insider. They’re depressing. But they make my point that what you put into an email represents you as a person–not just as a writer. I believe the S&P employee was a greedy jerk. And I’ve never met him/her. All I know about the individual is the result of that sentence from an email. So think carefully about how you want to be represented before you hit send.

For a more humorous slant, you can read about the BuzzFeed reporter who mistakenly emailed his entire company, explaining he would be late to work because the water heater at his apartment wasn’t working. This is the kind of thing you can get away with only once. (And then only if your workplace includes a lot of nice people.) It takes a long time to overcome the negative image such a mistake creates.

Bloomberg Businessweek produced a recent piece on the Five Worst Emails You Can Receive at Work. The biggest blunder: tone-deafness. Confirmation that you must control your tone to avoid negative attention from readers. What you meant is not always what your reader thinks you mean. This is why audience analysis is so crucial. As the writer of Don’t Type at Me Like That! Email and Emotions wrote in Psychology Today,

What was written: yep

Tone Interpretation: I’m really busy. I don’t have time for you, and by the way, you’re not worthy of a capital Y.

What could have been written: Yes.

Your audience determines your reputation based on what you put into that email message. To succeed, you have to be able to predict how they will interpret what you wrote.

There are those who say email is dying. But that day is not today. In 2012, The Atlantic reported that we spend about one-quarter of our work life (650 hours per year) dealing with email. If email dies, then a new medium/tool for communicating will create an artifact that represents you. Sorry to disappoint.

The lesson. Write work emails only when you’re calm and are willing to be at least moderately thoughtful about what you’re doing. If your reader is an important person (your client) or a stranger (a potential boss), don’t compose your message on a mobile device. To protect your reputation, think carefully about your purpose and audience and then

  • develop the right content
  • organize it efficiently
  • present it with professional style and mechanics

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  1. And also, wait a while before you send it. That gives you a chance to read it again, when your frame of mind might have changed, emotions settled down. I can’t tell you how many emails I wish I had used that simple technique with. At least half of them I wouldn’t have sent after waiting a while and rereading.

    Good article.

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