Why concern yourself with writing effective and compliant email? Because every message you send is a reflection of your professionalism and your organization’s credibility. In the battle for the reader’s attention, email that is thoughtfully written, carefully worded, and free from mechanical errors is sure to come out on top.
Email that is ill-conceived or badly written, on the other hand, can cost your organization business and potentially stall your career. Messages that are full of grammar goofs and spelling slip-ups can call your communication skills and professional capabilities into question. Email that is harassing, off-color, or otherwise inappropriate can trigger lawsuits and employment terminations. Email that exposes company secrets or customers’ private data can lead to regulatory fines and negative publicity.
Email creates business records, the electronic equivalent of DNA evidence. In the event of a workplace lawsuit or regulatory investigation, email may be subpoenaed, must be produced, and could be used as evidence. What you put in writing today can return to harm (or help) your employer (and you) tomorrow. Remember, text messaging is nothing more than mobile email, and instant messaging is just turbocharged email. All of the risks associated to email apply equally to texting and IM.
Here are four tips designed to help you minimize the risks associated with workplace email, while maximizing communication and managing compliance:
- Stop using workplace email to send personal or confidential messages. Email may be a quick form of communication, but it is far from the most secure. The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) gives U.S. employers the legal right to monitor all email and other forms of electronic communications on the company’s system. The majority of employers monitor both internal email (conversations among employees) and external email (messages leaving and entering the system). Employees who want to protect their professional reputations are cautioned to use the company’s email system as intended—for business purposes. Save your private messaging and confidential conversations for your own personal devices and accounts.
- Do not write anything that you would not feel comfortable printing on a billboard or saying face-to-face. When employees transmit offensive, inappropriate, or otherwise objectionable email, employers may find themselves battling workplace lawsuits including harassment, discrimination, hostile work environment, and defamation claims. People sometimes treat email too casually, writing comments they would never say aloud. This is particularly true of smartphone users who are accustomed to sending short speedy messages that may not be compliant or otherwise correct. Remember, the easiest way to control email risk is to control written content. Keep business-related email polished, professional, and polite.
- Don’t be a mystery writer. Effective email (and all business writing, for that matter) should be structured as an inverted, or upside-down, pyramid. The most important information is communicated right up-front, in the first three sentences (the lead). Writers who are unfamiliar with the inverted pyramid typically format their writing chronologically. The problem with chronological writing, however, is that it takes the reader too long to get to the “good stuff.” It’s fine for mystery writers to save the “who done it” for the novel’s end. Business writers don’t have that luxury, however. Save your primary message for the end of your email, and you’ll be lucky is your reader is still with you by the conclusion of your message.
- Don’t ignore your employer’s email policy. Research conducted by American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute reveals that nearly 70 percent of employers have fired workers for violating policies governing email, text messaging, instant messaging, social media, and Internet use and content. Typical violations include inappropriate or offensive language, excessive personal use, and confidentiality breaches.
Don’t risk losing your job and professional reputation over a thoughtless text or an ill-conceived email message. If you are unfamiliar with your organization’s electronic policies, now is the time to get up to speed. Most employers have policies in place governing all electronic business communications tools, as well as confidentiality rules, ethics guidelines, and harassment and discrimination policies—all of which apply to online conversations and content.
Remember, a policy is a policy. Employment rules apply 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of whether you are at the office, in your home, or on the road. Be sure to familiarize yourself with—and strictly adhere to—all of your organization’s electronic policies and procedures. Doing so will help keep your content correct and your employer compliant with the law and regulatory rules.
An internationally recognized expert on workplace email, social media, and Internet policy, compliance, and communication, Nancy Flynn is founder and executive director of The ePolicy Institute. The ePolicy Institute is dedicated to helping employers limit electronic risks, including litigation, through written policy, employee training, and compliance management programs. Nancy Flynn is the author of 13 books including Writing Effective E-Mail, Third Edition. Visit www.epolicyinstitute.com for a wealth of free resources including sample policies, white papers, tip sheets, and more.
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