You sent what you thought was an innocent email or tweet. Now you’re in trouble. How did this happen? How can you avoid it? How do you fix it? Here are the six rules you need to follow to keep your job.
Right now, Jeremy Clarkson (one of the hosts of the world’s most widely view factual TV program) is the poster boy for how to lose your job through the way you communicate with others. But he’s not alone. Earlier this month, the staff member for a political figure lost her job because of some tweets she sent and a Veterans Administration employee had her job threatened because of an email she sent.
If you’ve read about these (or similar) cases, you may agree that the people involved should be fired. But you may also have thought “How could anyone be so stupid? How could anyone send an email/tweet/talk/act like that?” The short answer is that these people probably weren’t being stupid. At least for the tweets and email cases, the problem is that the people involved just didn’t understand how those tweets and emails would be read.
In fact, you can tell it’s not just “stupid people” getting in trouble because of the number of people involved: A quarter of American companies have fired someone just because of their email (in part, that’s happening because your email is read by more people than the person you send it do: 60% of companies read their employees’ email). This isn’t new or going to go away, either: Back in 2000, Dow Chemical fired 40 employees, again, just because of emails they circulated (companies read their employees’ email because 10% of American companies have been sued by their own employees due to harassing emails received from other employees). In many of these cases, the person being fired didn’t even write the email. Instead, they just forwarded an email written by someone else.
Even if you haven’t had your job threatened because of an email you sent, you’ve probably had an experience where someone reacted in a way you didn’t expect to one of your emails. Most likely, the reason you remember that incident is because that other person responded negatively. It’s for all of these reasons (and more) that we devote a chapter to email in Learning Tree’s business writing course: You don’t want to lose your job over an email.
When you compare the amount of information you get from talking to someone to the amount of information you get from an email, it’s easy to see why an email can get you in trouble. An email only uses one channel to send information: The “words on the screen”. Various studies have looked at all the channels we use to get information in a conversation (the words, facial expression, body language, tone of voice) and tried to analyze how much information we get from each channel. The numbers vary from one study to another, but the trend is always the same: the information we get from the “words we speak” channel is a small part of the information we take away. The typical numbers used are from studies by Albert Mehrabian that suggest that the non-verbal channels (e.g. facial expression, body language, tone of voice) account for up to 80% of the information conveyed (if you’re interested, here’s a discussion of the relevancy of those numbers).
In an email, most of those channels are shut down, leaving just the “words on the screen” as the only channel open for communication. What’s lost is all the emotional context that’s conveyed non-verbally. The result, therefore, is like talking to someone who doesn’t show much in the way of facial expressions or put much emotional content into their tone of voice. What makes this a problem is that, when we’re faced with someone whose emotions we can’t read, we don’t tend to assume that person is neutral. Instead, we tend to assume that person is antagonistic (this isn’t a completely unreasonable assumption, by the way: an Ohio study shows that people who smile less are, in fact, more likely to be antagonistic). To quote the songwriter Paul Simon: “Everything looks worse in black and white.”
Not surprisingly then, you can send an email that you don’t think of as mean spirited and have it appear to the recipient as a particularly nasty attack. And most people, when attacked, will defend themselves. From there on, things will just get worse.
So, what can you do to prevent people from thinking you’re being nasty? Here are six rules to follow.
Avoid satire. Satire (or any humor that depends on the reader recognizing you’re making fun of your own statements) is risky. Without body language and tone of voice, it’s entirely possible that your reader will think you mean what you say instead of realizing that you’re making fun of it (this appears to be what happened with Justine Sacco’s tweets about AIDS in South Africa). In general, what will work best is saying what you mean as plainly as possible.
Say what you don’t mean. Ensuring that you’re not misunderstood is one of the few places where “more words” is better than “less words”. Take the time to consider how your words could be misunderstood and, in your email, explicitly explain what you don’t mean. It’s never wasted effort to say something like “Please note that I’m not saying ….”
Keep emails focused. Taking the time to explain what you don’t mean creates another problem, though: longer emails are less likely to be read (or read in their entirety) than shorter emails. So the corollary to “say what you don’t mean” is that you should focus each email message on one topic. That way you can say “what you mean” + “what you don’t mean” and still keep your emails short.
Stop forwarding things. You can get into enough trouble with your own words without taking responsibility for someone else’s. At work, forwarding anything non-business related that isn’t unremittingly positive is almost certainly going to get you into trouble, eventually.
Recognize that everything you send is public. Never assume that anything you send is private. The Internet is connected to everybody, not just the person you’re sending your email to. Anything you send or post can, potentially, go to anyone…including people who may not “get” a joke that everyone in your department thinks is hilarious. The safest assumption is that your latest email is going to be at the top of the page on CNN tomorrow (or even just later today). If you want to share a private joke with someone do it over the phone or go visit them.
You’ll have a problem. Don’t try to fix it with another email. Finally, when things do go wrong (and they will) you won’t be able to fix the problem with more emails. Once readers have decided what they think you mean, it’s tremendously difficult to get them to change their minds with the limited channels available through email. You’ll need to make a phone call or, better yet, pay a visit to the affected persons.
Email is both useful and dangerous. But, if you follow these rules, you can still take advantage of the power of email without putting your job at risk.
As far as Jeremy Clarkson goes…well, there’s only so much that even a technical writer can fix once you start threatening people.