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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