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Don't push that send button!

 
9/23/2002
These days, e-mail is ubiquitous. Although users are familiar with the power and possibilities of the medium, many questions remain: How does one use e-mail effectively? When is it the right vehicle? When is it the wrong one? What is the proper etiquette? Three years ago, the Harvard Management Communication Letter issued the ten commandments of e-mail. This article revisits the topic—and adds a new rule.


The Eleven Commandments For Controlling Your E-mail

Three years ago, HMCL ran an article boldly setting forth what we called "The Ten Commandments of E-mail." The piece attracted a good deal of healthy commentary about the role of this new form of communication in corporate life. It's about time to look back and see which commandments still make sense and which need revision—and whether any new ones are necessary.

Three years later, we are all much more proficient in the use of e-mail. Generational reluctance to use e-mail has faded away; indeed, seniors comprised the fastest-growing user segment last year. And yet, some of our bad habits have persisted, and a few new problems have emerged since the original piece ran.

The most important problem three years ago was the already overwhelming overload of information, which was exacerbated by the widespread adoption of e-mail. E-mail is what the experts call a nearly "frictionless" form of communication, which means it's easy to do—you don't have to go to a post office or even find a stamp. Just push a button, and you can blanket the world with your thoughts.

Tactfully tell those who send you lots of low-utility e-mail to stop doing so.
— Douglas Neal,
CSC Research Services

Three years on, that situation has become entrenched. Nearly every modern corporate citizen is now on e-mail and has to deal with a vast amount of associated junk. In addition to junk e-mail, we now have pop-up ads and other forms of online irritation that slow down the daily chore of separating the useful information from the trash.

How can we deal with this even more acute crisis? Douglas Neal, a research fellow at CSC Research Services in McLean, Virginia, advocates taking an active stance in controlling your e-mail flow, particularly with regard to educating your colleagues to use e-mail wisely. He says, "The point is that you have to take actions, not just be passive. You have to reward those who do good and explain to those who are doing wrong that they have done so. Don't get mad, get it changed! Those who suffer quietly will continue to suffer!"

Neal recommends a two-step process for coping with your e-mail. First, he says, analyze the e-mail you receive, charting whether it's useful or not and how often you get both kinds. Then, tactfully tell those who regularly send you lots of low-utility e-mail to stop doing so. Neal points out that overload is in the eye of the recipient: some are overwhelmed by ten e-mails a day, whereas others can easily handle 100. Take a week or so to chart your incoming e-mail. Then you can organize it with an eye toward addressing any problems that the analysis brings to light.

In the short run, HMCL still recommends performing daily "triage" on your e-mail inbox. Scan the entire list, eliminating all the junk mail first. Then group the remaining mail by action needed, just as you would a real inbox on your desk. The efficiency experts tell us that you should handle paper only once in an office, deciding when you first look at it whether to discard it, keep it for filing, or place it on the "to do list." You can manage your e-mail overload in the same way.

Beyond the overload issue, the commandments we brought back from the digital mountain three years ago identified some other times you might want to think twice about hitting "send." (We've rephrased some of them slightly for today's more sophisticated e-mail users.)

1. Use e-mail only when it's the most efficient channel for your need.

Three years ago, we said, "What most people seem to forget is that it's e-mail. It's really a modern form of something your great-grandparents used: the letter. The modern incarnation is best for short, informal messages that need to be both written and read. Messages that don't fall into that category might be better handled in a different way."

This was very good advice then, and it remains good advice. In fact, we now have even more options in our grab bag of communication channels: instant messages, text messaging, chat rooms, and even pager code for the teenage crowd.

Each of these other channels is faster, more immediate, and—this is key—more perishable than e-mail. E-mail is forever, and therein lies the rub. When you need to commit something to print, use e-mail. In the business world, that list of needs should be confined to concrete requests, queries, and responses. In other words, the bare-bones daily details of work.

For gossip, back chat, networking, water cooler exchanges, and all those other delightful aspects of business wheel-greasing, use the telephone or one of the other digital forms, where the record is less complete. Or even a face-to-face meeting! (More about this later.)

For messages with a greater feeling of permanence, or more punch, consider writing a real letter, on nice stationery, signed and dated by hand, and mailed through the post. You'd be surprised at how great a personal impact a traditional letter can have in this era of digital impermanence.

2. Never print your e-mail.

This commandment has not stood up as well over time. We were trying to bring about the paperless office and save trees. But because of the litigious nature of our society, you may well want to keep printed copies of e-mail you've sent as well as e-mail sent to you. Of course, as we've all learned, even e-mail that's been deleted can be recovered, but why take a chance? Print it and take a minute to lament the undeniable fact that the paperless office won't arrive any time soon.

Don't say anything that you would not want the entire planet to read at some point.
— Tony DiRomualdo,
IT researcher

Tony DiRomualdo, strategy and IT researcher, says, "We should not forget that e-mail is a very powerful and persistent medium that poses real and significant risks to companies. Surely the Andersen/Enron scandal holds many lessons about this point. And if used for the wrong purposes it can have nasty consequences. Don't say anything you would not want the entire planet to read at some point." But if you insist on saying something potentially actionable, keep a copy for your own records.

3. Send nothing over e-mail that must be error-free.

Time has only strengthened our opinion that this commandment is right on target. We said then, "It is simply impossible to proofread successfully on the computer screen." That is just as true now as it was then. If a communication must be error-free, then print it out, pick up something like an old-fashioned ruler, and read away, slowly, line by line. Then reread it backwards, word by word. And remember that spell checkers don't catch the wrong word spelled correctly. Get someone else to read your words, too.

4. Never delete names from your address book.

This advice remains especially pertinent for the virtually challenged. And yet it hardly seems like the biggest challenge we face today in the virtual world. It will save time to keep an up-to-date address book and to know how to use it. But not much time, unless you're prone to sending out a good many broadcast e-mails. And why would you want to do that? That usually comes under the heading of "spam," and it's at the heart of the problem of information overload.

5. Never forward chain e-mail.

In three years, there has been no lessening of this scourge! It is a practice universally decried, and yet we all know people who do it—and most of us will admit to having perpetrated a chain e-mail ourselves late on a Friday when everyone else has left early and we're still stuck in the office.

6. Never send e-mail when you're furious or exhausted.

This is even better advice than we knew at the time. Look at Microsoft, for example. The e-mails key players sent got them their day in court, and it wasn't what they wanted. It's an example we all can learn from. Legally, e-mail belongs to the company that provides the system and the link-up. You don't have privacy as an individual. And the court can wrest the e-mail records from the company, as happened to Microsoft. Don't—don't—commit anything to writing you wouldn't want to have read in court. Period.

7. Don't pass on rumor or innuendo about real people.

We repeat this advice in recalling the British man who boasted about his sexual exploits of the night before in an e-mail, only to see the boast spread out to thousands of e-mail recipients in a matter of hours. Avoid spreading false information about real, live people. It will come back to haunt you. Even your deleted e-mails can be resurrected and read in courtrooms by lawyers who are not friends of yours.

8. Nor should you do so about companies you work for or may work for one day.

In the intervening years, this practice has grown up and become a Web site. Most companies have at least one rogue site that mocks them, slanders them, or disses their products. Apparently, this advice pertains only to a distant, more civilized era—say, 1999. And these Web sites sure are handy when you're considering a job offer from a company that has one.

9. Never substitute e-mail for a necessary face-to-face meeting.

Anecdotal evidence of layoffs accomplished via e-mail only serves to reinforce this point. Here's what we said then, and every manager should have these sentences bronzed and placed in a conspicuous place in the office: "Never reprimand, reward, or fire someone who reports to you via e-mail. There's a special circle of hell awaiting those who do. We owe it to our humanity to perform these obligations, whether difficult or easy, in person. And remember that when you're trying to persuade someone to do something, or someone wants to persuade you, there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting."

10. Remember this hierarchy: first the meeting, then the phone call, then the voice mail, then the e-mail.

This commandment still holds true: For the greatest impact, hold a meeting. You get more "bandwidth" face to face. The phone call eliminates the body language, but maintains tone and live exchange. Voice mail gets tone but does so without live exchange. And an e-mail is neither live nor terribly nuanced. Hence the frequent misunderstandings about jokes attempted over e-mail, and those annoying but necessary little dingbats people use to signal emotion.

Final score: 80 percent of the Ten Commandments of e-mail still hold true. Some 20 percent have not held up or are now irrelevant. What about advice we would give now that we didn't then? Just one, our eleventh commandment:

11. Your e-mail is hackable and retrievable, and it can be used against you. Use only when absolutely necessary.

E-mail is an extremely efficient form of communication when used sensibly—but be careful out there. It's a litigator's paradise.

Reprinted with permission from "Don't Push That Send Button!," Harvard Management Communication Letter, Vol. 5, No. 8, August 2002.

See the latest issue of Harvard Management Communication Letter.

The Eleven Commandments of E-mail

1. Use e-mail only when it's the most efficient channel for your need.

2. Never print your e-mail.

3. Send nothing over e-mail that must be error-free.

4. Never delete names from your address book.

5. Never forward chain e-mail.

6. Never send e-mail when you're furious or exhausted.

7. Don't pass on rumor or innuendo about real people.

8. Nor should you do so about companies you work for or may work for one day.

9. Never substitute e-mail for a necessary face-to-face meeting.

10. Remember this hierarchy: first the meeting, then the phone call, then the voice mail, then the e-mail.

11. Your e-mail is hackable and retrievable, and it can be used against you. Use only when absolutely necessary.