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iThink Twice-i E-mailing Your Way to Disaster

E-mail is a good thing, in this author's opinion, but when done in large doses, it invites miscommunication and even lawsuits.

July 11, 2002
Related Topics: Technology

E-mail is a beautiful thing. It is enabling you to communicate with us and with each other from the Aleutian islands, from Sydney, from Cape Town, and from Budapest. I know, because you e-mail us and post on bulletin boards online. Still, too much of a good thing can be, well, a bad thing.

George Winston, an HR development manager at Nokia, says, "E-mail is a plague. It’s killing the efficiency of organizations."

He’s right. Winston says employees are drowning in a sea of unnecessary attachments and enclosures and cc’s and other correspondence, often sent merely to cover one’s own fanny. We send e-mails to our coworkers so that later on we can say, "It’s not my fault. I e-mailed Joey, and he never responded."

"Most people consider firing by e-mail one of the most heartless things you can do."

Firing people is one of the most bizarre managerial activities now being conducted through e-mail. You may not think that this is wrong. I may not think this is wrong. There are times, perhaps, when even the fired employee may not think it’s wrong. But if a manager fires someone online, and other employees—or job candidates—find out, they’re going to wonder if they’re working at the right company.

"Most people consider firing by e-mail one of the most heartless things you can do," says Dianne Booher, who consults on e-mail usage and wrote the book E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication (Pocket Books, 2001). "E-mail is a faceless, cowardly way to fire someone."

Booher says that the worse the news is, the higher the level of effort and energy that should go into delivering it. People respect the personal delivery of bad news. It softens the blow, because they can read the facial expressions of the messenger, and know that person isn’t enjoying it one darn bit.

Booher has suggestions about what not to e-mail:

Anything related to performance. Let’s say that somewhere in your e-mail to Jane you mention that she’d be the best one to handle the McGillicuddy account, because John isn’t doing so well at it.

Now, Jane e-mails John with a question about the account. She accidentally includes the previous e-mail at the bottom. Did you really want John knowing that Jane knows about his performance issues? Probably not.

Bonuses and salary issues. If you’re trying to decide whether you should raise salaries 6 percent or 3 percent, talk about it. Don’t write about it. If it gets into the wrong hands, someone’s going to be disappointed if you choose the 3 percent.

Anything relating to product or service liability. One of Booher’s clients, a utility company, has called her in to train its employees on avoiding discussions of liability through e-mail. Here’s what happens: An employee sends an e-mail to a coworker that contains a paragraph such as:

The software has a couple of bugs. I’m not sure if we should mention it to them or not. They might want a partial refund. What do you think we should do?

A plaintiff’s lawyer for your customer knows what to do with that e-mail. Subpoena it.

Back to firing. It’s worse than all of these.

There are cases when employees are in far-flung locations, and you’d have to incur the expense of driving or flying someone in to a home office to tell them they’re terminated. Or, you’d have to set up a videoconference. Arthur Andersen, a couple of months ago, did not do any of these things. The firm laid off employees with phone messages and e-mails.

Don’t do this, warns Jim Kroh, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, consultant. Do a cost-benefit analysis. In the long run, the bad press and ill will created will cost the company far more in terms of its ability to recruit top talent than a plane fare ever will. "Employers have a moral, ethical obligation to sit down with the employee, to have a face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball discussion," Kroh says. "Employees are deserving of better treatment than a sterile, cold, callous e-mail."

Perhaps your managers agree that a voice mail or an e-mail is inappropriate. Still, they can’t stomach the thought of firing someone in person.

If all else fails, hire someone to do it. Kroh actually does this as part of his job. He’s paid to fire people. Kroh does it one of two ways. Sometimes the supervisor calls a meeting with the employee. The supervisor introduces Kroh, and then leaves, turning the show over to Kroh to perform his operation.

Other times, Kroh just comes in and does all the dirty work himself. The supervisor gets off scot-free.

Personally, this arrangement—hiring a terminator—doesn’t sound very thoughtful, if I’m the one getting fired. Then again, it beats an e-mail any day.

Workforce, July 2002, p. 88 -- Subscribe Now!

Cartoon by Marc Tyler Nobleman.

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