Email Code of Conduct

“Flaming,” or sending angry, rude or terse e-mails has become such an issue in some companies – especially from correspondents who may have just received their pink slips and feel the need to have the last e-word – that many organizations are working on e-mail policies to tackle inappropriate e-mail use.

But what elements are included in a proper e-mail use code of conduct?

The following are important items to include:

Writing Style

It’s important to identify the differences between informal text style (so commonplace with texting among friends, for example) and the more formal use of e-mail in an office context. When e-mailing in a corporate setting, be sure to use salutations, correct grammar and punctuation. Improperly spelled or grammatically incorrect e-mails lack professionalism and should be avoided. Be concise. Rambling e-mails are time-consuming and can be irritating.

Watch out for CAPITALS! They convey the impression you’re shouting at the reader.

And read your e-mail before sending it. Unlike the spoken word, you have an opportunity to revise, which can improve your communication ability. Be careful not to overuse the high-priority button. Use the read-receipt (a note to the email sender that the receiver has read the message) sparingly. People can feel you don’t trust them or are checking up on them when they get these pop-ups.

Copying To Others & Replying to All
Over-copying to other people or overusing the reply-all button can be a turn off. If your reader wonders, “Why am I getting this e-mail?”, you have a problem. So, before sending, ask yourself; “Why am I sending this person this e-mail?” Answers like, “I’m including everyone” are a sign that more thought and conversation is necessary. Talk to the recipient about whether this kind of information is truly helping them do their job or just filling up their inbox. Find out what people really need to know and send that to them. If your answer is that you think they may need it, this should prompt another conversation about what your reader actually needs. The same goes for the reply-all button. Use it sparingly by assessing whether the sender just needs the information or whether it should go to everyone on the list.

Replacement For In-Person Communication
When in doubt about whether to send a particular e-mail, err on the side of in-person communication, either face-to-face or over the phone. The best way to tell that you need to skip the e-mail and go directly to your correspondent is when you type the e-mail. Read it over and question the appropriateness of the missive. When in doubt, pick up the phone and talk to the individual. Sensitive content should always be addressed in person or by phone.

Emotionally Charged E-mail
It is extremely tempting to get around having to speak directly to someone with whom you are in conflict by using an angry, insulting or terse e-mail. Be careful. Whenever you are angry, frustrated or upset with someone, do not send them an e-mail. Wait, calm down and consider your next course of action. You may want to speak directly to the individual rather than send an inflammatory e-mail. The same goes for apologies. Make those in person. It may be less embarrassing to apologize by e-mail, but an in-person apology is an effective way to build bridges between you and co-workers.

Feedback E-mail
Do not give people feedback about their performance via e-mail. If you are attaching written feedback to an e-mail, do so only after you have delivered the feedback personally. The reader does not want to be surprised by feedback that’s critical of their performance via e-mail and neither would they like to see accolades delivered in an impersonal medium. That said, following up both difficult and positive feedback conversations via e-mail is appropriate.

Documenting Meetings
Sometimes, the best use of e-mail is to document the outcome of meetings. Sending an e-mail after every meeting to identify who is responsible for what action is effective. Consistently applying this measure after each meeting will help you identify whether the meeting was worth holding. In a time when many complain about attending too many useless meetings, having an e-mail to specify what was decided and how it will be executed is key. If you notice that you are repeating yourself in the meetings because the same To-Do list gets carried over every time, you have evidence to review the usefulness of the meeting or the accountability of team members.

To-Do Reminders
To-Do reminders can make recipients feel like they are being micro-managed. Does the recipient want you to remind them of this or that activity? If you find yourself constantly reminding someone via e-mail about their duties and responsibilities, you are probably feeling irritated. If this is the case, an in-person conversation about accountability and possible micro-managing dynamics is in order.

E-mail is a great tool for scheduling, enquiring as to people’s availability and asking if they would like to receive invitations of all sorts is appropriate.

Expectations For Answers
Increasingly, people are complaining about the speed at which working life is conducted. E-mail may be a godsend for those seeking instant gratification but a torture for those who are more contemplative. In the olden days when people wrote letters, requests may have had a seven-to-10 day turn-around time. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for someone to send an e-mail at 1:00 a.m. and expect the executive who received it to be able to speak to the document at an 8:00 a.m. meeting. What is the appropriate amount of time to give someone to look something over or to respond to your e-mail? The problem is that the recipient may have a different idea about the relative importance of your message. You may have a deadline and find the responses you need are coming painfully slowly, making it hard or impossible to meet your timeline. Again, this is not a problem of e-mail itself but still requires conversation, coordination and compromise about what deadlines are important and what needs to happen and in what timeframe. A frank conversation about each others needs is in order.
Another question arises when people wonder: “Do I have to respond to all the e-mails I get?” Sometimes people don’t respond to For-Your-Information type e-mails if no request is made in the text. Be clear to ask for a reply if you need one. And offer a deadline or a time frame. Say, “Would it be possible to have the information by Wednesday?”. Often, e-mail recipients will want direction from the sender.

Timely responses depend upon the industry and role you are in. For example, sales people who fail to respond within 24 hours to customers risk losing the sale. Most of the time responding within 24-48 hours is appropriate.

Attachments should be made with care since forwarding attachments can create duplication on the server, a cumbersome problem for IT departments. Plugging up inboxes with huge attachments or unnecessary information is an unfortunate byproduct of over-copying or a lack of discernment as to the information the recipient truly needs.

E-mail policies that encourage direct communication when projects are being planned and executed, when conflict or difficult feedback is shared or when there is any doubt about whether the e-mail should be sent at all are effective. The difference between e-mail being a helpful communication tool or a communication nightmare is set in policy and in the commitment to furthering good working relationships.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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