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To Email, or Not to Email? That is the Question!

When should supervisors use email to communicate with employees, and when should it be avoided?

Nowadays, most written communication between supervisors and employees takes place using email or other electronic means. Tremendous amounts of information can be instantly exchanged by email, text, messenger, etc.

Electronic communications allow people to remain in constant contact without ever being in the same room. The widespread use of email in the workplace has led many organizations to adopt virtual offices allowing employees to work from their homes.

This approach to work has greatly accelerated since the pandemic. For many organizations, the only equipment necessary for conducting work remotely is a computer with internet access and some type of telephone capability. 

Luckily for Hamlet, who uttered that famous “to be, or not to be” line, he wasn’t faced with the multitude of communication alternatives encountered by supervisors today when deciding how to communicate with employees.

In the modern workplace, supervisors should carefully consider when to use email for initiating discussions, and when not to use email. Dashing off an email to an employee is much faster than making a telephone call or walking across an office floor. Email allows supervisors to contact employees without needing to track them down. We also tend to be far less concerned about grammar and punctuation in emails than in formal documents.

Many of us believe that emails require far less thought, and that misbelief is sometimes the problem. Emails, especially those that have been hastily written, can cause significant communication problems. In my career, as a facilitator and mediator, I have encountered many disputes caused by emails.

3 Basic Rules for Communicating Via Email

Applying these three basic rules will help you avoid any disputes caused by poor email communication:

Rule 1

Never write something in an email that you would not say face-to-face. Remember that if you send someone an email, you will not be able to gauge the recipient’s reaction to see what impact your email has had.

Also, you will not necessarily have an opportunity to clarify what you have written.

Additionally, the email is available for the recipient to read over and over and potentially become angrier and angrier. It also can be widely distributed.

Rule 2

If you are angry, annoyed, or otherwise upset when you write an email, it is a good practice to wait an hour before you hit “send”. If you still want to send the email after applying the first rule, then go ahead. 

Rule 3

If you must give an employee bad news, make every effort to deliver it in person or at least by telephone. Most people believe that breaking off a relationship through email is unfair, although some might find it efficient and less messy. A supervisor can also “break up” with an employee through electronic communication but should always question if the employee deserves to hear such bad news in this way. The answer to that question depends on what type of supervisor you want to be. 

Email Should Not Be Used as a Tool For Avoiding Face-To-Face Discussion With Employees

Resorting to email may seem easy but it can actually create additional problems when a supervisor uses it to avoid speaking to an employee.

Email will not allow you to receive instant feedback, and it will not provide the opportunity for you to explain or soften your words. Tone and intent don’t always convey well when information is communicated via email. When applying the above rules, always ask yourself if email is the best communication method for delivering your intended message. 

You can hire someone to do almost anything. In the movie Up in the Air, the character played by George Clooney was a paid consultant who was hired by the management of a company to give employees bad news, usually that they were being let go.

You have to decide if you want to be the type of supervisor who avoids dealing directly with your employees in favor of the hit and run of an email. Supervisors and managers have responsibilities that go beyond signing an employee’s paychecks. Giving people bad news is never easy, but in the end, bad news that comes directly from a respectful and compassionate supervisor will actually give employees more reasons to trust their employers. 

I once mediated a dispute in a large hospital’s pharmacy. The head pharmacist communicated with employees solely by email, never face-to-face.

For the most part, the pharmacist never left his office, although his emails often brutally criticized his employees. This approach had created a dysfunctional workplace in which employees were able to perform their jobs, not because of their supervisor, but rather in spite of him.

When asked why he communicated in such a manner, the pharmacist responded that email was efficient while talking to people wasted time. In reality, he was simply unwilling to confront employees. It was also easier to hide behind his computer because of some of the things he said in his emails.

We all know someone who is braver behind their screen than they are in person. When forced to confront his employees with respect to the content of the emails he proved incapable of discussing his concerns with the employees involved. While this situation was particularly extreme, the pharmacist’s behavior and attitudes are still symbolic of workplace trends. 

Confrontation May be What’s Needed

Confrontation may be needed to clear the air, find solutions, and improve communication in the workplace. When people have a personal stake in what has transpired in the past as well as what may occur in the future, emotions often find their way into workplace relationships.

Many supervisors are hesitant to deal with emotions that result from their actions or from organizational decisions. In this situation, avoidance is not unusual.

In certain cases, managers and supervisors might also fear that confrontation will spiral out of control when emotions run high. While these reactions are understandable, sometimes the only way to move forward is to confront issues head-on. Allowing employees to vent can have a very therapeutic effect on employees’ attitudes as well as the overall workplace environment. 

Setting boundaries for a confrontation before entering into a difficult conversation can have a positive effect on participants. Setting ground rules for meetings with employees can provide protection for all participants. Such things as where the meeting is to be held, how long it is to take and what is the understood purpose of the meeting will help establish an understanding of how the meeting will be conducted. Individuals can also try to overcome their fears by preparing outlines of what they hope to achieve and what they want to communicate. A little work in advance will ensure that you will be equipped to handle whatever happens.

Conclusion

Emails can be a very effective way to communicate with employees; on the other hand, misusing email can have a destructive effect on the work place.

There are choices based on the nature of the information to be conveyed as to whether direct communication with an employee or email is more effective. When in doubt, consider using a communication approach that will give you the best opportunity to understand immediately what effect your message has on the employee.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email [email protected] or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.

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