These Mistakes Can Damage Your Reputation in an Instant

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By on August 17, 2010 in Current Events, Leadership with 0 Comments

Years ago, I worked as a full-time writer for a large private-sector organization. One day, our IT director sent an email asking all employees to set up accounts with the same instant-message (IM) program, so we could all communicate inexpensively and in real time. It seemed perfectly logical to me.

Then I set up my account.

Almost immediately, I started receiving messages like these:

  • yo. wur u on that conf call? wut IDIOTS! hahaha
  • time fr lunch… happy me
  • u there? only 2pm! 3 hrs to go……. zzzzzzzz

Here’s the amazing thing. Many of these IM “chats” (that’s what the kids call them) came from some of the smartest people in the company. And many of these people were great writers. I know that because I was the official “voice” of the organization, so I often had to review presentations and press releases and reports written by other employees and managers—often written extremely well.

But the instant-message program was so informal, even silly (the logo was a giant happy face) that I’m sure many employees felt strange about drafting carefully written and edited messages in the program’s tiny “chat”box.

As I’ve noted in previous FedSmith articles, opening a blank email and typing a message is so fast and easy, we tend to write emails less professionally than we should. It’s a reliable rule—the easier a communication tool is to use, the less seriously we behave when we use it. (See Don’t Hit ‘Send’ Until You Have Read These Email Tips)

If drafting a formal letter on agency stationery is like writing calligraphy, and composing an email is the equivalent of writing with crayon, then instant messaging is like dipping your hands in spaghetti sauce and smearing your message all over the wall.

But remember: An instant-message chat you send to a colleague is like any other communication you write or speak. It reflects your intelligence and professionalism. Don’t be fooled by the cute little icons. If you instant message with co-workers, you should use the same rules of etiquette and professionalism for your “chats” that you’d use for any other communication.

A few suggestions:

1. Write your IM chats with seriousness.

When you’re “IMing” (the verb the kids use to describe it), you’ll be tempted not to bother capitalizing letters (the Shift key is waaaaay over there) or using any punctuation.

But why risk creating the impression for your co-workers that you’re 1) a terrible writer or 2) really, really lazy?

You could write, “I’ll meet you in the break room in five minutes.” Or you could write, “c u in brkrm in 5.” Does it really take that much longer to write it properly?

2. Write words—not vanity license plates.

This suggestion is related to the first but a little different. You’ll often find people using that familiar cell phone text shorthand in their IM chats—stuff like “r u there?”

Make a rule for yourself that when you write anything at work—even an instant-message, even with a co-worker you consider a friend—you’ll write out every word.

It’s a small thing, but there’s no reason to put your professional reputation at risk. You can never know for sure which colleagues might think a little less, even if only subconsciously, of a co-worker who writes “c u there” in a work-related message.

3. Respect your fellow instant-message colleagues’ time.

Just because your co-worker is logged on to the instant-message program—and is listed as “Available”—doesn’t necessarily mean he’s free to chat.

During the workday, your colleagues logged on to the instant-message program are likely at their desks—and likely working. They might be in the middle of a challenging project that requires all their mental energy. Think about that before you send them a chat that reads, “What’s up?”

It’s also good professional etiquette to begin a new IM conversation gently, rather than jumping right in. If you want to ask a co-worker a question over instant message, send a short IM first that reads, “Have time for a question?” If your colleague doesn’t respond, then assume she’s busy and wait until you see her to ask.

You certainly don’t want to send a follow-up instant message (as so many people do) that reads, “Helloooo? Anybody home?”

Use these simple guidelines, and you’ll earn a reputation as a pleasure to IM with. And when you send that gentle-request IM—”Have time for a question?”—your colleagues will answer promptly.

© 2020 Robbie Hyman. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Robbie Hyman.

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.