Six Commonsense Tips for Avoiding Email Contretemps

California Public Utilities Commission President (PUC) Michael Peevey’s  announcement yesterday that he would not seek another six-year term in the job was not a surprise after emails revealed a cozy relationship with at least one of the companies, PG&E, he’s charged with regulating.

Peevey had withstood his critics’ charges in the past, but the emails detailing a 2010 conversation with PG&E executives during dinner in Peevey’s home left him with no option but to announce his retirement now—rather than on Oct. 16, as he said he had planned to do. PG&E released the emails along with an announcement that it is under federal investigation for its relationship with the PUC. This email contretemps can be instructive for all who do business in the public or in publicly traded companies.

Emails, text messages and other forms of electronic communications are too often treated cavalierly, with little regard for the ramifications they may have either inside or outside the company. From failed attempts at humor to potentially criminal comments, emails and text messages can cause fallout far beyond the intended recipients.

Following are six commonsense tips for avoiding crimes, misdemeanors and – the more common – misunderstandings caused by electronic communications.

  1. The Front Page Rule

It’s a little old-fashioned to talk about newspapers’ front pages, but it’s a simple way to remember a rule that still works:  Don’t do something you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of your hometown newspaper.

In Peevey’s case, he failed the front-page test by having an intimate dinner at his seaside home with executives from PG&E, which is regulated by the PUC. But what put the dinner on the front page were the email descriptions of his comments: They said Peevey suggested PG&E donate $1 million to defeat an initiative the PUC opposed and that he expected PG&E and other utilities to give $100,000 each to finance a 100th anniversary celebration for the PUC.

Increasingly, emails are an essential part of any criminal or civil investigation or litigation. Envisioning how a prosecutor or a competitor might use those emails in a court of law will help avoid writing something that could become an embarrassment or a criminal or civil liability.

  1. Be Courteous and Thoughtful

Rarely does an email or text rise to the level of criminal or civil investigation. But they can certainly lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings in the workplace.

Thoughtlessly dashing off an email or text can trigger fallout far beyond the intended recipient. Among the more common failures is using the wrong tone. Such simple, old-fashioned words as “please” and “thank you” will help. Using proper salutations also indicates a more thoughtful approach. Re-reading the email before distributing it, out loud if possible to envision how the recipients will view it, will help ensure the communication hits the right tone. Considering that it might be forwarded to someone else also will help avoid critical remarks that might sting if it is forwarded.

  1. CC Appropriately

On major and often minor undertakings, there is a list of people who should – or feel they should – be included in any decision or communications regarding that decision.

Recognizing who should and should not be included on the cc line of an email is essential to effectively communicating within an organization and can be one of the biggest challenges.  Likewise, stopping to think before hitting “reply all” will help avoid annoying co-workers who don’t need to know each response to the email’s originator.

  1. Be Timely

At the same time thoughtfulness is required, so is timeliness. Failure to respond in a timely fashion to an email can send a signal that the sender is not important. Unfortunately, today’s mobile devices often mean responses can be expected on weekends, nights and holidays. Understanding the expectations in the workplace for response times is essential to successful communications. Setting “out of office” outgoing messages, even when the period of time away is relatively short, can also help avoid misunderstandings.

  1. Know which Communications to Use

Texting is increasingly the choice for short and quick messages. But different people and generations view texting differently. Moreover, some data plans don’t accommodate a large amount of texting, so a text may cost the recipient additional fees.

Asking if it’s okay to text someone is a good first step. Moreover, knowing with whom and when to use text or email will help make communications successful.

  1. Meet in Person

Face-to-face meetings remain the best, but probably least used, form of communication in today’s fast-paced workplace. Facial expressions and body language give clear signals about how a message is received. At the least, hearing the tone of a person’s actual voice over a phone will help gauge the response. Such personal communications can quickly clear up misunderstandings and, in most cases, avoid your words coming back to haunt you on the front page of the newspaper.

What other recommendations would you have for better digital communications?


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