Oops! Did I Just Push Send?

Dear DW,

Can you give me some guidelines about e-mail etiquette at work? What types of things should I avoid saying?


Careful Communicator

Dear Careful Communicator,

E-mail etiquette expert Judith Kallos (www.businessemailetiquette.com) says if there’s one cardinal rule to follow when composing an e-mail, it’s this: Ask yourself, “Would I put this communication on business letterhead?” If the answer is no, don’t do it.

E-mails can be forwarded without your knowing it, and they can last forever, following you around in your career and hurting you later. So don’t send anything inflammatory or highly sensitive.

Kallos advises people to always err on the side of caution. That means avoiding anger, emotional reactivity, and harsh tones. Cool off for a day before sending out something that has you charged up. Be sure what you say is respectful and courteous—even if you’ve received a blast from someone else. That also means no multiple question marks or exclamation points, which only come across as condescending or angry.

With difficult communications, ask yourself: “If I were receiving this message, would I rather get it by phone, in person, or by e-mail?” Then deliver the message accordingly if you can. And never fire someone by e-mail. Giving constructive criticism is okay if you can’t do it in person or by phone—as long as it’s genuinely instructive, productive, and brief.

Keep work e-mails to business as much as possible. And finally, always check your spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Despite the air of informality in e-mails, don’t get sloppy.

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