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Help Your Team Use Email Right

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: I’m pretty sure my team relies too heavily on email when there may be better ways to communicate. Can you help me provide some guidance about how and when email works best?

A: Email is a valuable communication tool in business and in other walks of life, but it is often abused or overused. Email is fast and easy for the recipient to respond to, but it’s not always the best way to get your message across.

Once you hit “send,” you’ve lost control of where your message goes. Recipients can share it with others, which can create unanticipated problems. And sometimes emails don’t get to the intended recipient—they go into spam filters or just get lost somewhere in cyberspace.

Also, email can be used as a substitute for more useful and efficient communication. This often happens when a conflict or a sensitive subject arises, and colleagues would prefer to avoid a face-to-face conversation.

I remember one textbook case of this: I worked with two people whose offices were less than 20 feet apart. One sent an email to the other with a complaint about something; the other recipient responded, and a volley of messages followed. In the end, 19 emails were exchanged with no resolution. Had either of them simply walked down the hall to the other person’s desk, the situation could have been resolved in a matter of minutes.

Email can be used as a substitute for more useful and efficient communication.

Since you’re asking the question, I assume you’ve seen similar cases in your office. If you want to help your team use email more productively, I suggest this set of guidelines:

Use email to:

  • inform one or more people about something that’s not complicated
  • invite participants to a meeting or event
  • summarize a conversation
  • send an agenda or meeting minutes

Don’t use email to:

  • communicate confidential information
  • share bad news
  • discipline an employee
  • discuss complex issues or problems—or anytime back-and-forth communication is needed
  • get someone to agree with you
  • negotiate

One more practical tip: You or your team members may be tempted to use email when you’re angry, but don’t. Instead, write the message, but don’t fill in the “to” line (that way, it can’t go anywhere). Save the draft for 24 hours and then reconsider whether you should send it. When I do this, I never send the email, but writing the reponse makes me feel better!

Yes, email is quick, easy, and cheap. But help your staff understand that sometimes the best way to communicate is to actually have a conversation.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected] .

Performance Management