E-Mail Etiquette

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The blessing and the curse of the digital revolution: Between e-mail, IMs and text messaging, cell phones, BlackBerries and the Internet, we are drowning in information overload. Moreover, the constant interruptions cost the U.S. economy an estimated $558 billion annually.

This staggering number does not add in the cost of poorly written e-mails that land companies and employees in legal trouble, destroy longterm client relationships and ruin reputations - just review former FEMA chief Mike Brown's e-mails written as Hurricane Katrina raged, and you will understand. Add to this mix an increasing lack of civility and common sense, and you have an explosive brew.

What to do? For starters, treat e-mail writing as business writing, not as casual conversation. Whether words are written in the sky, sent by carrier pigeon or via the Web, words must connect with the reader. Good writing allows this to happen; poor writing does not. Currently, writing online is still, as author Patricia O'Conner writes, "In its Wild West stage, with everybody shooting from the hip and no sheriff in sight."

To combat the chaos, establish some law and order by developing an e-mail protocol for your business, whether you are a multinational or a single-shingle firm. Simply stated, the protocal should be thought of as "the way we do business around here" in terms of communicating via e-mail with co-workers and customers. It is a code of behavior, a set of standards as to how you will frame your words, manage your inbox, even extend your brand.

Below is a short list of questions to visit at your next meeting. Your answers could be the beginning of a company-wide document.

How do you open and close messages? Consider establishing a series of key phrases used solely for openings and closings. You would never call without greeting someone. Why would you begin without a greeting in your e-mails?

What does your e-mail signature say about your company? It should be an extension of your company's brand. Professional with no cutesy sayings, it should contain all contact information.

Establish a standard for font style and size. Also, because you have limited real estate, consider placing your signature block horizontally rather than vertically.

What is the company policy about blind copies? Some companies only use them for e-blasts; others say they are strictly verboten.

Discuss why, when and how you use them. Caution: Some computer programs allow all who receive the e-mail to view the "blind copy" list if the recipient hits "reply all."

Do you have a message for the out of office auto-responder, and when do you turn it on? Four hours? One day? One large bank requires when an employee is immersed in an important project, it must be turned on if he or she is gone from the office for more than one hour.

How often do you check e-mails? Some companies set their programs so emails are only called up hourly, thus reducing downtime and increasing productivity.

How soon do you return e-mails? Within four hours? 24 hours? Some company policies state all e-mails must be answered within the same business day.

Do you use emoticons? Buzzing bees, dancing bears, smiley faces. Here's a suggestion: Don't use them.

How many e-mails before you pick up the phone? The rule of thumb seems to be three. If the issues are not resolved, pick up the phone or walk down the hall.

What are your company's policies? Your e-mail policy should be compatible with your rules for writing business letters, accessing confidential information, or handling racial or sexual harassment.

How will you ensure employees understand your protocol? For example, who is the contact person when questions arise? How will updates be handled? Will you schedule training sessions?

Be sure the policies are available to all employees in written form and include it in new-employee orientations. Consider appointing one person to answer questions and make judgment calls when necessary. E-mail has become the biggest productivity drain in businesses today. Getting a handle on this daily data dump by establishing procedures - etiquette, if you will - will help you and your company stand above the crowd, and possibly bring law and order to the untamed world of Internet communication. What are your best practices?

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