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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Email Etiquette

An Auckland accountant was sacked for sending "confrontational" emails with words in red, in bold and in capital letters.

Now, I don't happen to think termination is a proper consequence for sending e-mails in all caps. I think beheading, or perhaps execution via firing squad would be more appropriate. For first time offenses, I think we can agree that the person should be put in stocks in the company cafeteria where everyone can laugh and point at the offender. I draw the line at spitting, because what if someone who spits has Swine Flu and then other people get it and then they write me whiny e-mails that say, "Dear EHRL, I lied about being sick back in July so I could go to the beach. Now I'm really sick and I don't have any sick days left, what should I do?" We don't want that, so let's limit ourselves to laughing and pointing, shall we?

All right, in all seriousness here the company made a HUGE (see, all caps, I'm shouting at you) mistake. Not in firing her, but in firing her for writing e-mails in all caps/bold/red. The reason they should have fired her is for being rude.

At the end of the day, she's still fired, but with the latter reason, I doubt she would have won her unjust termination claim. (I'm totally guessing because she's from New Zealand and I certainly am not a New Zealand legal expert.) The article also states that she was fired without warning. Another big mistake. (No all caps words--see, I've calmed down and am no longer yelling.)

She should have been informed, clearly, that her behavior was unacceptable and that she needed to change. At this point, it should be made clear that without the change termination would occur.

Now, I feel for the lady. You'd think it would be easy to fill out forms, but no matter how well you dummy-proof them, someone can't figure it out and does it wrong.

The reader who directed me to this, wrote the following:

How important is email etiquette (greetings, closings, tone, font, etc) in the workplace? In maintaining "workplace harmony", being liked, being promoted, etc? When I first started out as a young professional I prided myself on email "fluff" (do you know what I mean?) because I thought it was important to the reader. Now my emails are more to the point - I'm less interested in writing it, and I think most people aren't that interested in reading it either. What do you think?

On a side note, I've noticed that a person's use of exclamation points seems to be inversely related to their position up the corporate ladder

I think fluff depends upon the audience. Some people like it and some people hate it. But, when in doubt leave it out. E-mail is a great tool for getting needed information. People have entirely too many e-mails and even though I just said in the previous post that I thought conversational e-mails were a good idea, they are a good idea in the proper context. They shouldn't dominate your e-mails. I like the strictly business approach for most things.

I almost never write, "Dear Mrs. Doe." Rather, most of my e-mails start out, "Jane." The times I worry are when I'm sending an e-mail to a bunch of people and there are hierarchy issues and I never am sure about how to put first.

I close my work e-mails with a "Thanks, Evil HR Lady." Although I will admit that occasionally, I'll write "Thanks! Evil HR Lady." I should probably be put in thumb screws for the latter. Which brings me to my next point.

I'm in 100% agreement with the exclamation point rule. People who use excessive exclamation points remind me of Dolores Umbridge.


Kerry said...

I don't believe for a second that this woman was fired for her emails. Who does that? You're never going to can an otherwise-good employee for something like that.

I'm guessing she was fired for being tone-deaf. You know the type...completely oblivious to what's going on in around her, to subtly, to politics, to social norms. I bet she was one of those people who just wants to tell you how to make HER life easier, and that's it. Those people always say "I was never warned," because they never can hear the warnings. There's no input valve on their brain. It's all output.

I've fired a few of those. You can't walk around in a cloud of listen-to-me-dammit. It's disruptive.

I feel a little bad for the company, because it's not like they can take out an ad in the paper and say, "No! This is BS! That's not what happened at all!" I've had a few who went around saying I unjustly fired them for this or that, and of course, you don't get to defend yourself in a deal like that.

I also sign emails with "Thanks" or "Thanks!" depending on my level of thanking enthusiasm. I guess I'll need those thumbscrews too.

Janet Clarey said...

I think you spelled etiquette wrong.

HR Godess said...

What?!?!?! You don't like exclamation points??????!!!!!!

I actually received the same article about the woman being fired for typing in bold and red and was shocked that she was fired for that, rather than the content of her email. Great post, thanks for the humor.

Charles said...

"Now, I don't happen to think termination is a proper consequence for sending e-mails in all caps."

I think there is a lot more to this story than is being reported. Nor does it say that she was guilty of sending an email with the text in ALL caps as, I think, you have mistakening said, EHRL.

If the sample email (under her picture in the article) is the example being used in the claim then I am guilty of being "rude" as well. (Does anyone know where one can see her full text email?)

Yes, it is true that when everything is in uppercase someone is shouting. But this is not always so when just some words are.

As a software trainer I usually put DATES, TIMES, and LOCATIONS of training classes in UPPERCASE, BOLD and, in some cases, RED (<--- tried to make red; but, the comment editor does not accept font color codes).

Why? Because, if I don't do this many trainees will claim that they didn't see it. And who gets blamed for them not showing up to class because they "didn't see it"? Me, the trainer.

By making the critical information STAND OUT (This is not shouting, it is making sure that you see the critical information) the email writer makes sure that the reader can glance over an email quickly to get the "important stuff."

I get the feeling that this woman has been though the same thing; however, there is a key difference - in her case she is dealing with money (not someone missing a training class) so people get more upset. And, I'm sure that she would get the blame.

Perhaps, her being fired was in retribution for not processing someone-with-power's claim on time? Who really knows?

Again, I'm sure that there is a lot more to this story than is being reported; so, as with anything else that can and will be said, I am just speculating.

Kelly said...

Charles has a good point. The sample e-mail just looked like she was highlighting the relevant information--an appropriate use of bold/caps/colors. Could be rude if overdone or if the e-mail had a condescending tone, but I'm in the "something else going on here" boat too.

John Barclay said...

A friend recently called me Captain Exclamation Point!! I was mortified! Here I though I used the sparingly.... Oh well, I'll try to limit my use of them for now forward.... :) Oh and he called me Captain Emoticon on Facebook yesterday too... :(

TheLabRat said...

Curious, every version of this story I've read has said that she was told that her emails were creating a hostile work environment because of tone in her instructions as well as the crazy font usage. So I was real confused when I read that she won her lawsuit. Sounded like just cause to me.

Anonymous said...

I guess it is a cultural thing but in my neck of the woods (Germany) starting off an email with a simple "Jane," comes across as rather severe. (If my boss were to send me an email to reprimand me for using all caps, it would probably start off that way.) Instead, people tend to shorten things to "Hello" or "Good morning" and leave out the name of the addressee.

On a sidenote, how do you deal with someone using an extremely snarky or sarcastic tone in her emails? Taken out of context, these mails are perfectly polite, but to me, they come across as downright rude.

Theia said...

i've never commented before but "Delores Umbridge" brought it out of me. i laughed out loud at work and will never ever use an exclamation point again.

El Comodoro said...

I hereby renounce my use of "Thanks!" in all emails.

And anyone using the simulated smileyface or emoticons should be publicly caned in the office caf. Stop it.

Anon 8:49 brings up a great point. Email messages are not the place for snark, irony, sarcasm, or the like. The medium just can't guarantee that you're conveying what you wanted to convey. And when you blow it, you've created hard evidence of the fact.

And nice HP reference, EHRL.

Anonymous said...

@ Theia, me, too! (oops, sorry) Delores Umbridge, indeed. Thank you once again, EHRL, for ending the week on a high note. (well, for me, at least).

Patti said...

I hate, HATE (all caps, get my tone?) people that send emails in all caps. It is like they're yelling at you. My uncle does it all the time when he's trying to preach his Catholic or republican ways on everyone. But I digress.

I agree with Charles. The thing is, in the part of the email that they showed in the article, I didn't get that feeling at all. All she was doing was stressing the important information. You don't have the advantage of vocal tone in an email, so somehow she had to make sure people knew what was important - if it's never appropriate to use it, then why do we even have bold?

I am in a position where I take calls from alot of employees, and believe you me, it gets old when person after person asks the same get sick of answering it. So you try to explain up front to avoid that. I think that's what she's doing here. You should hear my outgoing voicemail message - it's like 45 seconds long to say "if you're calling about this, call this # instead. If you're calling about that, call this #..." because I got so sick of getting so many calls that should have gone elsewhere. And I think you can almost hear my subminal sigh in it!

Whoops - an exclamation point. I most often do Thanks! at the end of an email...just trying to seem pleasant so that people want to be nice to me back. Stone me if you must, but I won't stop!

Anonymous said...

Re: Snarky emails. Innocently reply asking for clarification. Or if it snark by rhetorical questions, answer them seriously. They will tire of being snarky pretty quick.

Rebecca said...

Me three for giggling over the "Dolores Umbridge" reference. (Please note my restraint as I ended that sentence with a period.) Thanks for the great posts, love your blog.

Anonymous said...

I'm not an employment law expert, but I do live in New Zealand. Here in NZ, you cannot fire at will except where specifically allowed by the employment agreement (which is generally limited to lawbreaking), or in a small business where the employee is employed on a trial period.

If the employer considered that employee's email message was unacceptable, the correct procedure was:
1. Verbal warning from manager to employee, specifying problem and how it can be resolved;
2. If problem occurs again, written warning from manager to employee, again specifying problem, resolution etc. Legal advice is usually sought at this point.
3. If, after warnings, the person does not improve their performance within a reasonable time, then you can fire them. Taking less than 3 months for this process will generally be considered to have not given the employee sufficient time to change behaviour.

It doesn't matter how rude the employee was, you need to follow the correct legal procedures. This company didn't. Maybe the law is an ass, but you still have to follow it.

Anonymous said...

This is all so interesting. My boss stopped addressing emails sent to me. No "hi" or "[my name]", just started typing. So I have stopped using his name or saying "hi", too. Wonder what this means...

Anonymous said...

I absolutely hate Umbridge, but will not stop using my exclamation marks just because of that. :)

Neither will I stop with the emoticons. :)

It annoys me when people speak with no emotion or enthusiasm so I try to convey as much of both as possible via exclamation marks and smileys. Maybe it's just the type of environment I like working in.