The New Professional’s Guide to Interoffice Email Etiquette

In chapter nine of Digital Literacy, Rachel Spilka discusses the changes email has had on the workplace and the interactions between the people employed by them. Spilka explains (p. 241),

So pervasive and necessary are the uses of digital technology, that organizations and the people within them can be understood to exist almost literally in the digital realm… where our social and business interactions are carried out via email, video, podcasts, smartphones, Web sites and webinars, social media, listservs, wikis, and blogs.

With this phenomena the new standard, it is surprising that newly-hired professional’s aren’t given a guide of sorts on the intricacies of interoffice communications: most specifically the office email. I am not speaking of the entry-level basics of writing respectful, on-topic, spell-checked emails though. I am referring to the more nuanced happenings that we experience within email communication. And, more specifically, especially when we are emailing in an attempt to elicit a response from someone – most especially when that someone happens to be your superior.

I first noticed my dependence on the simplified, professional email approximately seven years ago. I was a newly-hired creative director working for a rapidly-growing company. The general manager, my direct supervisor, was the man with the answers… for everyone. He enjoyed this function, but as such was constantly bombarded with emails and unwelcome office drop-ins. To avoid being lost in his email inbox or shooed from his door, I utilized a very simplified email writing technique. The following rules will be of no surprise to tenured professionals, but let’s just consider this a quick overview of Interoffice Email 101.

The precursor to this email technique begins with a few simple rules:

  1. Always send an email if you can.
  2. Only call if the matter is urgent and incorporates multiple employees, and if you must call…
  3. Never leave a voicemail.
  4. Only drop-in the office if it is an emergency set to adversely effect the company budget.

When a question has lesser importance it moves down this hierarchy of communication techniques, with the least intrusive being the email. Email holds this place of honor due to this ability to be handled at the recipient’s convenience, rather than the requestor’s demand, as is true with a phone call or office visit. Once email has been determined as the communication medium of choice, other rules come into play:

  1. Only send one to two emails to your supervisor per day.
  2. Fully analyze the situation prior to sending the email and even then…
  3. Only ask the most important questions.
  4. Questions of highest importance are listed first
  5. Ask no more than a total of three questions.
  6. For each question provide the least amount of back-story possible.

More than likely this technique was not thoughtfully contrived for any professional, but rather achieved bit by bit through small successes and failures in communicating with overwhelmed supervisors. In my experience, following these self-imposed rules meant that my emails received a quick response, while other managers were not as fortunate. The higher-stake here, of course, is that without answers other managers could not move their departments efficiently toward the next task… and we all know what happens to managers of inefficient departments.

Posted on November 18, 2012, in Literacy, Society, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I find it interesting that you suggest providing employees with a “guide of sorts on the intricacies of interoffice communications.” I have always considered this something that employees should know or figure out for themselves. There is a fine line between helping or guiding employees and hand-holding. Hand-holding is a slippery slope – this time we’d provide a guideline for interoffice e-mails and before you know it we’re writing form letters or creating check-box forms for interoffice communication because employees are afraid to make choices themselves. It’s a difficult balance to find. We struggle with this when we write procedures at work – how specific should we get? Too specific with our instructions, and employees roll their eyes and think we are being anal retentive. Too non-specific, and important process details or steps are missed, and employees say “well, you didn’t say we had to do that!” Do I have the answer? No. If anyone does, please share! 🙂

    • What’s interesting is that even as we are revamping info for the MSTPC program website, faculty are asking, “Shouldn’t the students be able to figure this out for themselves?” 😛

      I think finding a balance is key, but I think the true challenge is that this is a solely distance ed program. Given the program’s youth, faculty are still learning about how to advice thesis and field projects “from afar” with some wondering if there needs to be an “Intro to grad school” type of course.

      Do you all have any suggestions or a list of things you wish you had known earlier on?

  2. I hear you on the figure-it-out-yourself point, but why does it really need to be that way? Who does it serve for everyone to go through the pain while a new-to-the-workforce employee figures out that writing in text speak and sending multiple messages isn’t acceptable? I’ve been hearing a lot about soft skills lately and how universities are trying to find ways to teach them to their students. This just seems to be another one of those skills that new professionals struggle with perfecting – so won’t the provider that can successfully teach them have the most successfully employed grads?

    I’m not saying this is absolutely something we should train for, I’m just presenting the point as something that maybe should be considered.

    Ugggh, on the company process manuals – painful to produce, painful to read. Good luck!

    • I agree. When I was an editor for an investigative firm, I had ideas about what editing was going in, but the templates I had to use were so far from those concepts, I would have been lost without the detailed training. Still, I always struggled to meet the quota of reports done each day. I preferred quality over quantity, but the bosses disagreed…

  3. It seems like these sort of “soft” skills should be covered in university/college classes. In the writing classes I teach, I always spend an hour or so discussing with my students proper email techniques. Many of my students are young–fresh out of high school, and text message language is their normal. Indeed, I have received many emails from new students using text acronyms and specifically students use “U” rather than spelling out you. However, if these future employees enter the workforce not realizing such behavior is in most cases frowned upon, they may end up being terminated or at the very least find themselves being less than the supervisors favorite.

    I think the rules you outlined are also importnat–new employees simply can’t know all the intricacies of work-place communication. When I taught a communications class at a local business, there rule of thumb was to always send email when possible. The logic for this was so a written record of the communication process was preserved, and thus could be checked if needed, at a later date. Additionally, the rules definitely included not stopping in an office to chat–unless a meeting was pre-scheduled, or it was an emergency situation. Of course these rules may vary by organization, but they can generally be applied fairly broadly to help new employees fit into the communication patern of the organization.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences!

      I think you summarized the entirety of these issues nicely when you said: “to help new employees fit into the communication pattern of the organization.” There is a steep learning curve as new-to-the-workforce employees enter their first jobs. The less sensitive these employees are, the longer it is going to take them them to catch on. I would assume from the readings within this course, that the new generations are going to be less sensitive to this as a whole: They have less/little/no hesitation in forms of electronic communication.

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