Responding to Flaming Email

by Sharlyn Lauby on June 8, 2010

I was watching the new Social Media Revolution video recently and it occurred to me that email could be one of those things that’s both created and ended during my lifetime.  If you’re not aware, email was invented in 1972 by Ray Tomlinson.  And it’s being used less and less each day.

But while email is still around and being used as a medium for business communication, we need to talk about it and the proper way to use it.  Kris Dunn over at The HR Capitalist recently wrote a post about email titled “Being Snarky With the CEO is Bad for Business…And That Fledging Enterprise You Call a Career…”  It’s an excellent read.  Be sure to check it out.

Couple of things I took away from Kris’ post:

It’s very difficult to write in a snarky or sarcastic tone.  Lots of people think they’re good at it.  They’re not.  The message can be misinterpreted as mean spirited.  Or in some cases it makes the writer look ill-informed.

Don’t hide behind email.  If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t put it in writing.  If the recipient of your email decides to call you…be prepared to say the same message.

But I wanted to add something to the conversation about email.  There are moments when you’ll be the recipient of a flaming email and it’s critical for you to hit the reply all button and answer the email.  Sorry, it’s a fact of business life.  Now of course, there’s no perfect formula for when you should ignore an email and when you should reply.  But here are a few things to consider:

Understand the purpose of the email.  After you calm down from the shock of the email, spend a moment thinking about the real reason the email was sent.  Determine if that reason is trivial or a direct threat to you and/or your career.  Some people send hate mail to flex their muscles and just feel important.  But sometimes the message is so wrong, it’s necessary to set the record straight.

Examine the recipient list.  You understand your corporate culture.  Look over the recipient list to understand if the people listed are A-Players or just names to make it look like the whole world is interested.  I once had someone send me a flaming email where it looked like they copied their entire Outlook contact list.  Some of the people didn’t even know me.  I had colleagues call asking if it was a joke.  In the end, of course, the joke was really on the sender.

Determine the intent of a reply.  Carefully consider what you’re trying to accomplish with a reply.  Some people feel the need to be right.  And depending upon the subject, it could be important to have the last word.  On the other hand, silence is sometimes the best “last word” of all.

If a reply is necessary, craft a well-thought out response.  Sleep on it.  Find someone to read it and give you some brutal feedback before hitting the send button.  A knee-jerk reaction is the worst thing you can do here.

It’s unfortunate in the corporate world that we have to plan and prepare for CYA tactics.  But the reality is, sometimes it’s necessary.  And you have to know how to do it right. Taking an objective approach to analyzing the situation can give you some guidance and help alleviate the frustration.

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Eric Meyer June 8, 2010 at 7:03 am

Sharlyn -

This is a great post. In my business, the odds are good that if you send a nasty-gram, it will in end up on a judge’s desk, as an exhibit to a brief. So, I’m a big proponent of “sleeping on it” before I hit “reply” (or send, or drop the letter in the mailbox). That extra time provides me with extra perspective.

[This comment is for informational purposes and should not be construed or interpreted as either legal advice on any matter or as in any way creating an attorney/client relationship]

Shaun Emerson June 8, 2010 at 7:26 am

Sharlyn…Interesting advice…Email etiquette is a real hang-up for me…When I am sitting in front of one these emails, I always opt for silence. Even with discipline and care you recommend in creating a response, it feels like I am condoning the behavior. I am more likely to pick up the phone or visit the offender and look for retraction, explanation etc.

Sharlyn Lauby June 8, 2010 at 10:30 am

@Eric – Thanks for the comment. I’m a firm believer in “make sure you are comfortable with your message being on the front page of the newspaper”.

@Shaun – I agree there are times picking up the phone is preferred and appropriate. Sometimes I will make the call, then hit “reply all” with a “thanks for chatting with me….as we discussed…yada yada.” It shows that I took action and didn’t condone the message.

Ginger June 8, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Oh! There is not enough time in the day to go over all the necessary email etiquette! One of my biggest email pet peeves is replying all, when it’s completely not necessary, or worse – sometimes even mean-spirited.

I send out a lot of material that I create here in the marketing department. Occasionally I make a spelling or grammar error. I am vigilant about proofing, but sometimes something will slip by. It is not unusual for someone to “reply all” with “you spelled green wrong.” Gee – thanks for pointing it out to everyone. Grrrr.

On the other hand – if someone emails just me and says “Thanks for sending that, but I noticed you left an ‘e’ out of ‘green’ – just wanted to let you know!” I’m most grateful. That is definitely something I need to know!

Lesley June 9, 2010 at 10:28 am

One thing I’ve learned about snarky e-mails: The nastier they are, the nicer you should sound in your response. I’m not saying be a pushover, but make an effort to be very polite, helpful, etc.

It’s easier to get angry, but being nice usually turns the situation around –and if it doesn’t, at least you look better than the jerk who sent the first e-mail.

Mary K June 9, 2010 at 11:10 am

Honestly? I never respond to snarky emails by email. My in-house legal consultant (spouse) says, “Never to put into writing what you can say more directly and eloquently face-to-face.” That includes a visit to HR to discuss the contents of the email.

And, always save those emails because you never know who was blind-cc’d.

Sharlyn Lauby June 9, 2010 at 12:25 pm

@Ginger – You are so right. We could start an entire blog on email etiquette. Knowing how to respond and who to respond to is such an important aspect.

@Lesley – Killing with kindness does work. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

@Mary – Absolutely great point. But, I’ve seen many instances where a lack of reply by the recipient has left those cc’d people wondering. Even if the reply is a “thanks for chatting with me, glad we got that resolved”, it sends the message that a resolution occurred. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

QuestionAuthority June 9, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Good post! I especially like the list of factors to consider.

In spite of the fact that e-mail has been around for a long time, many people still forget that emotions are very hard to gauge in e-mails. Word choices can trip up even the most experienced writer. I sometimes wish that emoticons (or some other means of expressing emotion (Is there a such thing as a sarcasm font?) could be accepted in business e-mails, as I think it would make a big difference in how people understand and respond to them. Clarity is everything.

Sometimes I have to remind myself of this when I get an apparently flaming e-mail…Am I taking this the right way? Is there another, less volatile way of taking this message? Is it better to answer pretending that I don’t notice the flaming? Frequently, those second thoughts prevent a knee-jerk response that can do a lot of damage to business relationships.

Lynn June 9, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I’ve often found that the best way to respond is to neither ignore it nor fire back, but to pretend that the sender is asking a legitimate question and respond in as polite and professional a manner as possible. If the person just happened to phrase things badly (some people are pretty dreadful when it comes to written communications), you’ve proved that you’re not over-sensitive. If the nastiness was intentional, you’ve proved that you’re above the pettiness.

Neil Reay June 9, 2010 at 4:35 pm

You need to understand the purpose of the email. I worked for one manager who consistently sent critical and erroneous emails to staff, and asked them to come discuss the issue in person. She saved these emails in files and used them at review time and with upper management to show that her staff was responsible for any failings.

For example, she refused to see me on several occasions over three days to approve time-critical ad copy, then took two personal days off. On Monday, she sent an “I can’t believe you missed this deadline” email, which I answered calmly but with the specifics of when she cancelled meetings and took time off. I had been warned by others to “always reply” to her snarky emails so she couldn’t save them for a poor performance trail against you.

Sharlyn Lauby June 9, 2010 at 5:03 pm

@QuestionAuthority – When you find that sarcasm emoticon, please send it to me! Gotta have it. ha.ha. Your point is well taken. I find myself not just with snarky emails but with just badly written communications, stepping back to figure out if I’m taking the message the way it was intended. Thanks for commenting.

@Lynn – Nice suggestion. Assume it wasn’t intentional until convinced otherwise. Thanks for the insight!

@Neil – Excellent example. It’s unfortunate that you had to cover your tracks, but appears it was necessary. Thanks for sharing!

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