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Tuesday, September 11, 2007


A while ago I made a comment over at Ask a Manager that I preferred e-mail over telephone calls and meetings. (I couldn't find the actual post, but it's a true statement.) I got the following e-mail from Rachel Prosser:
Dear (not so) Evil HR Lady.

I really enjoy your blogs, even though I don't live in North America. I was curious at your comment on AskaManager's blog that "I wish people would stop calling me and just use e-mail"

My experience in my last corporate job (Senior Lawyer, in a 6000+ employee public organisation working in a strategic/policy area) was the reverse. I often wished people would just talk to each other more .

Although if asked a legal question, I would sometimes make them put it in writing so they had to properly think through the question first.

Yes, sure e-mail can be fine for a simple factual question where you need to keep a record of the discussion, and you don’t want to be misinterpreted (or to have evidence on your side if you are.) It can be convenient, because you can read it when you wish, and interruptions by phone are a pain. It can also be good if you want to be super-careful you are complying with policy.

But, it requires a high-trust environment, and acts as a magnifier of divisions where there is low trust and suspicion. For many, many things I found it much better to cut off the e-mail exchange and have a proper conversation rather than e-mail tennis. Even voice-mail tennis could be more helpful. It enabled any false assumptions to be ironed out and to build relationships. And hearing someone’s voice means you have a chance of a relatinoship.

I found people would revert to e-mail in low-trust situations, which then amplified mutual suspicion. “aha I have evidence he said x”; “honestly he’s saying x can you believe it...”, “’listen to how he put this, he obviously.....”

Devoid of a human relationship, people would read in the worst. They sense that what’s being written is being done to “cover the back” of the manager, and no-one likes to be treated in a way which assumes you’ll be on the other side in litigation.

The use of e-mail also provides as a way of distancing a manager from staff. I’ve seen managers rever to non-committal, weasel-worded replies which are compliant with policy, but which are a way of avoiding and honest and personal relationship. “He’s toeing the party line”, she’s treating me like a statistic.

E mail is handy if you are going to have to make a diary note of the call anyway, if there’s a high trust environment with relationships built away from the e-mail, and if it’s a factual request (how many days annual leave do I have?) which the recipient is likely to want to work on in a batch, or need to research. In a situation where the employment relationship is already bad, it can help provide evidence for the subsequent employment/industrial tribunal/litigation.

But it can waste time with minor points bouncing back and forth, and good relationships are better built by speaking to people.

Very good thoughts.


dilys said...

To some extent, I believe this breaks down to perceptual preferences.

My husband needs to have something in writing before his eyes, or sketched if it is a construction project. I do personal coaching, and though many of my colleagues work on the telephone, I will meet with people only in person or communicate by e-mail.

I'm not sure of all the components, but it seems to be deeply neurologically based. So I too wish the people that phone with mere information would e-mail.

It's a good idea to find out your manager's perceptual preference, and use that. Whomever EHRL manages, would be wise to e-mail :-)

Ask a Manager said...

It's true, you did indeed make that comment :) It's here.

I agree that there are times when a conversation is clearly not well suited for email, particularly if something is potentially sensitive or nuanced. However, I really, really, really like using email for most other things because (a) it lets me respond when it's convenient for me, rather than when the phone happens to ring or someone happens to appear in my doorway, (b) I know the same is true for whoever I'm emailing, and (c) in three weeks when I'm trying to remember what we decided, I can go back and find the email and refresh my memory.

But I know there are email haters out there too. I think dilys' point about finding out what your manager's preference is is a good one.

Laurie Ruettimann said...

The big secret in HR is that we know each phone call is trouble. We can't control the phone call, but we can control our response to email. It allows us to think, process, and then react. We don't get caught up in the drama. We can force a pause in the conversation.

Evil HR Lady said...

I think one of the reasons I like e-mail so much is that I hate bothering people. If I call, you have to talk to me right now. If I e-mail, you can get back to me at your leisure.

I also like to have documentation for things. My job involves a lot of decision making and approving exceptions. If I've just got your verbal approval that it's okay and I go ahead and do it, and then your Boss freaks out, I like an e-mail to prove that I didn't just decide it on my own.

Beth Robinson said...

I agree completely about the bothering people rationale. I never know what they're doing or if they're at their desk. If I leave a voicemail, then the information they have available depends on how well they take notes...

I use email for work communication unless I a)need an answer quickly b)need the personal connection or c)don't WANT to leave a written record because I'm not sure of my facts yet. B often ties into some of the points your emailer brought up, such as if I know the situation is low-trust or that tone of voice can dramatically change the meaning of what is written.

Onehealthpro said...

I agree that email can interfere with relationship building and I wonder if Gen X and Gen Y feel the same. Anyone know?

The Engineer said...

Email is forever. I am with Beth. I never use email if I am not sure of something. I might type up a draft and print it for someone to proof, but I never email that draft (yes I know some print queues can have long lives too). Email is forever. If it isn't where you work, then your legal counsel needs replacing.

On the other hand. I like email because it records what was said. Nothing more. Nothing less. I am an Engineer, I speak very specifically and write more so. I don't casually use words. I do like the personal connection of a phone call and often try to contact someone that way first. If I need to leave a message, I prefer to send an email.

And Evil HR Lady, if you call me I don't "have to talk with you right now." I screen inbound calls. Love that caller ID.

Founder: Lea Setegn said...

I'm a Gen Xer, and I agree with the comments regarding how e-mail impacts relationships and office culture. I send an e-mail when I know someone is busy and/or there isn't an emergency or immediate deadline to be met. I will go visit someone when I know they have some time in their schedules and/or I need an immediate answer. While I would rather talk to someone face-to-face, I realize that other people have busy schedules and I respect that.

As an aside, I was a reporter in a newsroom where one of my editors would call me on the phone to ask a question -- and he sat eight feet away from me!

HRGal said...

I was born in 1977 so some say I'm a GenXer and some say I'm a GenYer. Either way I'm still 30 this year! :)
I hate the phone. I love email. I don't care if I'm bothering someone - I care if they are bothering ME!! Email me unless it is regarding a super sensitive issue, something we are disagreeing about and it is getting touchy or you need more of a coaching/counseling session than to simply ask a question. You can expect the same from me. If you don't like it I don't care unless you are my boss or an executive that needs hand-holding (or -gasp!-wants to chat with me).
I do "the rounds" as an HR Manager. Every 2 weeks I walk the halls and cubicle farms checking in on people. My employees seem to really like it (especially the ones that sit far from where HR is located). But the phone? It can live in the garbage can as far as I'm concerned.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Gen Y'er (24 this year). I don't mind email but I prefer the phone. I'm still learning my job and had very minimal training when I started. My head office will email me different things they want done and I end up having to call them anyway because H.O. has a hard time with consistency and they leave me with a lot of questions that are just easier to answer with a quick phone call.

Anonymous said...

I work in a multinational company and have to build a working relationship with people across the Atlantic (I'm based in Germany).

I find that it is often helpful to talk to people on the phone for more complicated issues and problems. The reasons are that
a) it reduces e-mail tennis and
b) it is easier to build trust if you have the verbal cues in addition to the bare words.
Still, I like to email a short note at the end of a phone call summing up what was agreed so everyone is on the same page and I have "proof".

Email is a great time-saver for standard stuff; I just wish people would spend a moment thinking about what they are sending before hitting the "send" button. I keep getting too many e-mails that do not concern me at all, because someone cc'ed everyone they know on non-urgent matters "just in case".

Also, people seem to be increasingly using an "instant message" style in their emails. Instead of making it one short, snappy, organized note, they send five separate one-liners. To make matters worse, instead of basing the new email on the last one they sent, they base all five of them on my original mail so I get to keep five separate emails. Grrr. Why isn't there a college or even high school class on e-mail etiquette?