The Perils of E-mail
The last 20 years have seen the meteoric rise of e-mail in the workplace. It now occupies such a central role in our daily lives that one has to wonder what people filled their time with back in the days of the Fax, Telex or paper mail. The computer and Internet have profoundly changed the pace and productivity at the workplace but has it all been for the better? Let us pause for a moment and consider how e-mails have been misused or have negatively impacted the workplace:
- The “Parting Shot” mail. This is where an angry (and usually involuntarily departing) employee sends a vitriolic message to the entire company workforce proclaiming his status as a victim and lambasting the organization.
- The “Accidental” mail. This can take many forms, from sending a message prematurely, without the promised attachment to simply to the wrong recipient (many times with hilarious or uncomfortable consequences). It can often include forgetting to blind CC the distribution list, thus exposing the entire list of e-mail addresses to prying eyes. Recently, a member of the Afghan Taliban accidentally forgot to do this in his email thereby exposing his newsletter’s entire membership to journalists who were also on copy. Not a very clever move for a secretive terrorist organization.
- The “Embarrassing” mail. This mail often contains highly personal or graphic information that either knowingly or unknowingly gets forwarded by the recipient to a larger audience causing significant damage and humiliation to the original author. More commonly, however, this type of forwarded mail contains remarks or statements in the communication string which were not removed or edited out. Ideal for sabotaging a relationship between people.
- The “ETV” mail. ETV = Electronically Transmitted Virus. Never fun to receive (or to send). Usually disseminated unbeknownst to the originator as a consequence of having already been infected.
- The “Career Ender” mail. Usually contains unpleasantries or offensive statements that reveal actions or positions that are in direct conflict with the organization’s policies.
- The “Smoking Gun” mail. This type of message contains highly incriminating information that in the hands of an investigator leaves little room for interpretation. Things like: “shred everything before they arrive” or “customers who buy this crap are just muppets” or “attached is our competitors’ secret price list.”
- The “Huh?” mail. Sometimes electronic messages are so poorly written or so convoluted that you cannot makes any sense of them. Maybe the author has a poor command of the language or maybe he or she is simply unable to articulate what they are trying to get across. Not much harm here other than considerable time gets wasted on multiple re-readings or that further communications are needed to clarify things.
- The “Shouting” mail. This is where through very raw language or the use of All Caps, THE AUTHOR APPEARS TO BE SHOUTING IN HIS MESSAGE. This is very annoying and highly unprofessional.
- The “Conflict Escalation” mail. These are the messages where two people are in conflict and at least one of them decides to copy several layers of senior management on their reply thus involving far too many people who would rather be left out. These mails are a nasty way to blame others in front of a large audience or they can be part of a knee-jerk defensive reaction. In either case they are unpleasant to read and unnecessarily clutter up email inboxes.
- The “Stop Replying to this Message” mail. This is one of my favorites. Sometimes because of a mistake or a virus, the entire organization gets copied on an insignificant message. The normal reaction would be to figure out that this was sent in error and to ignore it. But no, there are plenty of twits who typically reply to EVERYBODY on the original mail asking to be removed off the distribution list or pointing out that they were copied in error. This then triggers another breed of twits to respond – to EVERYBODY on the original distribution – saying: “Stop Replying to EVERYONE to this Message.” The irony in this, of course, is that they are oblivious to their own recommendation.
These are just a few examples of the types of emails which fill our workplace, render us less effective and needlessly stuff our inboxes. But the biggest email casualty in all this is the demise of communications between people. My greatest fear is that e-mails and the virtual world we are working in are making us too removed from each other and driving us to rely far too much on electronic mail. For example, it has become too convenient to try to resolve conflicts using emails. Why don’t we just pick up the phone to sort things out rather than lob e-mail grenades at each other? I am concerned that we are losing the reflex of directly talking to people either face-to-face or via the phone. Emails have become an easy and passive way to communicate off-line, cover our rear ends, deal with conflict, contribute to information overload, draw attention to ourselves and ultimately create more work for others.
Let’s be clear, E-mails are an indispensable part of our daily lives and interactions with those around us. But this powerful electronic means of communication does come at a price and does have significant side-effects. Isn’t it time we schooled people from a very young age on the pitfalls of emails and on the codes of conduct for communication in an electronic age?
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