Not an Uncommon Problem

Dear Hot Water,

You must be feeling a bit overwhelmed by your entrance into the workplace. I’m sure you came in with the best intentions to make friends, to get your superiors to trust you, and to get your peers to like you, but despite your best intentions, you’re probably thinking that you screwed it all up.

Fortunately, your situation isn’t an uncommon one. Office emails are surprisingly challenging, and a great deal of what I’m going to tell you is what I’ve gained from personal experience. However, and quite interestingly, some of my points are highly recognized in various articles and publications, including this one from CBS.

email-marketing-mistakeThat said, let’s get into it. I’m not sure the exact nature of how you write emails, but it appears that the main problem is that you come across as rude or condescending in your emails. Perhaps it appears that you have no respect for others, which is a major gaff since you’re a new grad. There are hundreds of ways to mess up office emails, including overall disorganization as is discussed here, but those types of mistakes only make you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. But they won’t exactly make you Office Enemy #1 so let’s look at some ways to fix your specific situation.

First Problem: Not Being Respectful

No matter who you are writing to, if it is an original email (as in, not a reply to a thread), always make sure to include a salutation. And, by all means, make that salutation appropriate. For example, if you are emailing your boss, never start with, “Hey Amy”, but rather something like, “Good Morning Ms. Smith”, or “Good Morning Amy”, if you are on a first name basis. That brings me to another point. Unless the person has directly told you that you may call them by their first name, always refer to a superior by their formal name (Ms., Mr., Dr., Sir., etc). Don’t assume that because they send you an email which closes with their first name that you are free to call them that.

Second Problem: Making Assumptions, Arguing, or Condescending Via Email

Never, ever, ever, ever do this. If someone did something that offended you, do not under any circumstance take that up over email. I have seen way too many situations get out of hand because people misread tone in emails. There is no way around that. If something happened, even if someone called you out for something over an email, pick up the phone and call that person, or walk to their office to deal with it. Chances are that something was misunderstood. Sometimes, someone may call you out and copy the whole office on the email (including your boss). Its best just to ignore this and see my previous point. But if you can’t, you have to respond in as non-defensive way as possible and to as few people as possible. For example, if your co-worker sends a scathing email about how your report was horrible, and copied your boss and the entire office on it, before doing anything is to wait for 10-30 minutes. Then, call the sender, ask them why they thought it was horrible. Then, since your boss is on the original email, respond only to those people in your direct chain, and the sender, and explain the misunderstanding, or (if it really was horrible) how you plan to fix it.

Third Problem: Don’t Use Sarcasm or Humor

You probably think you’re hilarious. You probably are. But that doesn’t translate well into email. Keep emails professional. Using sarcasm will make you look mean or out of touch. Humor generally doesn’t get caught in emails and often leaves people to try to figure out exactly what you’re talking about. And above all, do not make any sarcastic comments or jokes about others in an email. Always assume that everyone in the company will be reading your email, even if it just starts between two people. I’ve seen a two party email quickly grow to 20-30 different replies involving 50-100 different people. And, keep in mind that anyone can see all the original threads. So, next time you want to send a comment to a coworker about that idiot in accounting, prepare your response for when the accounting guy finds out.

Fourth Problem:  Everything else

Seriously, there is a lot to consider when writing emails. It might be interesting to check out a formal corporate guideline for writing emails. Many large corporations have this. Here is an example from the Government-run Food and Drug Administration. It might help you out in the long run.

So, take my advice in your electronic communication. But, in closing, know this: It takes a very long time to repair a reputation over email. Start repairing things by recommending more in person meetings. Start calling people when you don’t have to email, or better yet, walk down to their office. Show them your charisma in person…no one will ever see that over an email.


Published by

Ben Posthuma

Just a guy who loves the Colorado life! Skiing, cycling, mountain biking, camping, climbing, triathalon, you name it and I'll be there. In addition, I'm a student at the University of Colorado - Boulder working on a degree in Business Management with a goal of a PhD in Telecommunications. Oh yeah, I have a job too. I'm a research director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in South Boulder working to rebuild our nation's public safety communications networks.

7 thoughts on “Not an Uncommon Problem

  1. Hey Ben! I really like the information you brought up in your post and found it all very useful, especially in the case of Hot Water. Although it may seem simple salutations are very important in emails. They are one of the first things someone will read, and if it is not proper they may read the rest of the email with a negative impression. I also like your notion about not arguing via email. Handling the situations in a professional and mature manor like you said is definitely the best way to deal with them, and will lead to a better result. Overall this was a very informal and helpful post for Hot Water and any other readers!

  2. Ben, this was a very good piece of work! I really liked the way you laid out four major problems with their own respective headings and paragraphs, giving advice on how to overcome said problems. The third problem you brought up regarding sarcasm and humor is a great one. I really liked how you started it off. I agree that you must avoid attempts at being funny or sarcastic!


  3. Hi Ben,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post on tone in professional emails. I completely agree with you when you state that it is an uncommon problem for millennials to feel overwhelmed when they first enter the real world and I think that can lead to difference in tone in emails. You explicitly say not to use humor in emails in the workplace and I think that is very accurate. A lot of times the jokes that we talk about in person are not the same as the ones that we are able to say over email because body language says more than we think.

  4. Ben,

    I really like how you how address this post by using subheadings to show what are the big problems are. Being respectful in a business email is very crucial and a big part of that has to do with the tone being used. Some people don’t even realize the type of tone they are using in an email, but can honestly make or break an email. Making assumptions is not the best thing to do in an email because it can cause work to be less productive and efficient if those assumptions are not true. Finally, using sarcasm or humor in a business email is unproductive and there is no need for it. All that should be put in the email is the information needed to continue on a project so that co-workers can meet deadlines and be efficient. Great post!

    Jake Gonzales

  5. Hey Ben,

    First off it is great how you separated everything with headers, it makes it super easy to read. I think your point that sometimes you should either hop on the phone or just walk down to your co-workers office is as important as any. Often times people feel everything needs to be documented, but face to face contact really is much more effective. It also nice you include that the original thread is shown in emails, many people don’t realize this and I have seen it countless times in the workplace. Looking forward to your next post!

  6. Ben,
    I think you make some really good points in your post. I like that you broke it out over the big issues in email writing and you explain them really well. I agree that one of the biggest issues in writing professional emails is the issue of not being respectful and courteous in communication. A lot of people overlook it and it is one of the most important things, in my opinion.

  7. Ben,
    This was my favorite post of them all as I feel you perfectly addressed all of the “in hot water’s” questions. I found how you addressed working in a multi-generational workplace without calling out millennials really enlightening. Additionally, the tools/processes you recommend for in office conflict resolution were key, I can’t tell you how many times i’ve began to draft my rebuttal to an offensive email before I even finished reading the first one. Lastly, I feel your last point is paramount to the workplace and translates to social media writing as well, if you don’t want the world to see it don’t put it in writing.

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