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.
That 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.