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New Rules for New Communications

We can't follow these all the time, but there's no better time to try to change habits than at the start of 2013.

January 9, 2013

Who doesn't want to increase productivity, cut waste, reduce spending, improve teamwork and inclusion and decrease risk? Here are eight suggestions regarding electronic communication, which don't cost a dime. Spread them throughout your organization for huge payoffs.

I've omitted the most obvious principle: do not transmit or relay inappropriate jokes, remarks, and/or pictures. The following are the frequent behaviors about which I've heard complaints over the past year.

  • In business meetings, turn off cell phones and beeping devices and don't look at them. If you have to break this rule, let others know you have a personal or business emergency and that's why they're on. Electronic interruptions drive live attendees nuts and suggest that spam and random calls have greater priority to the responder than the "real" person right in front of them.
  • Don't read information to others that they can read and re-read themselves—it's a waste of time and annoys the listeners. Email communications are far more effective in this case.
  • Don't ascribe negative motives or intent to others in your emails—your speculation, random thoughts, and impulsive conclusions can become damaging evidence and can reach others long after you've changed your mind.
  • Use "Reply All" as the exception rather than the rule to email responses. Does everyone really need to hear from you? And do you really mean to fill your email system with messages that others don't need to get and don't have time to read?
  • Emails don't solve serious disputes. They tend to expand and distort them. If an issue where there is disagreement is important and an email must be sent, send it and review the response you receive in return. If it's still unresolved, call the person to discuss or walk down the hall for a face-to-face chat.
  • We interpret communication by what's said and how it's said, particularly tone of voice and "body language." Increasingly, we work closely with employees in remote locations. This removes the contextual elements of communication that most use to understand complex messages. If you must discuss sensitive business issues from a distance, consider using Skype or FaceTime or a similar system. Both you and the other person will have a better sense of the meaning and tone of what's said by being able to "look the person in the eye" online.
  • If you send out an email where you need some action, let the recipient know what's being requested and indicate when you need a response. Ask if your deadline is agreeable. If you don't hear back, it's possible that the recipient innocently overlooked your communication. Call the recipient or send a reminder to make sure the recipient has seen your message.
  • Everything written about email applies to texts and social media communications as well.

We can't follow these all the time, but there's no better time to try to change habits than at the start of 2013.

Stephen Paskoff is a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at info@eliinc.com.