Communication is the foundation of a strong employment relationship. Ongoing, open, and effective communications with employees are fundamental ingredients for creating relationships that are based on respect. And employees who feel respected are more productive, more loyal, and have longer tenure. And then came e-mail!
Most managers are not sufficiently trained in effective communication skills from the outset. How many managers have you had who gave you negative performance feedback that you heard for the first time in a quarterly or annual review? Or perhaps you’ve had managers who are short tempered and you hesitate to ask them questions because you’re not sure how they will react? Or maybe your manager hasn’t explained how the work of your department is supporting the long-term strategic goals of the company? Unfortunately, these examples resemble the experiences of a large majority of the workforce.
When mangers who are already facing communication challenges start using e-mail for the basis of giving assignments and feedback, things start to go downhill. E-mail is a wonderful and efficient business tool when used properly. But it is not a substitute for face-to-face, ongoing daily management of your employees.
A balance must be struck between the time-saving advantages of e-mail and its impersonal nature. If you are a manager who regularly engages in performance feedback based on in-person dialogue with your employees, the occasional “good job” or “what were you thinking?” sent by e-mail should not be problematic. But most likely, the managers who tend to rely on e-mail to give feedback, positive and negative, have not established a solid basis for communications in the first place. Rather, e-mail becomes the way to avoid confrontation or take time away from other tasks. And since it can be printed, it also “solves” the issue of documentation.
Well, there are a variety of risks with this approach, not the least of which is alienating your staff and depriving yourself of the opportunities to enhance your communication skills as a manager. Also important is the risk associated with e-mail communications. Almost all of those communications are subject to disclosure in the event of a lawsuit. That means every word you wrote will be read literally and will be used for AND against you. Since most of us don’t really think about our e-mail messages being read and interpreted by third parties, they probably do not reflect the accuracy and caution with which we may choose words for memos, performance reviews, and other kinds of correspondence.
For example, some managers feel that sending e-mail messages berating an employee’s work on a particular project are appropriate. They use CAPITAL letters for emphasis and don’t think about phraseology. As a result, the employee receives an e-mail that is no more than “yelling.” Other managers write long, well-thought-out messages about an employee’s performance but never discuss the contents with the employee in person. Do you think your own manager, the HR department, or a jury would give you credibility as a manager if they saw that?
Wholly apart from how a third party would understand your e-mail messages, what does the employee understand from it? Tone is not apparent via e-mail and depending on what you’ve said, you could raise more questions than you address. And if the employee wants to talk to you about it, the onus is on him or her to come to you, even though you began the interaction through the e-mail you sent. Now that’s a bit awkward, not to mention unfair.
Managers also use e-mail with other managers to complain about their employees. For example, you may send an e-mail to a friend of yours who manages a different department in the company, saying, “John did it again. Always the idiot in my department. Remind me to tell you about it at lunch today” or “Was John an idiot when he worked for you, too?” Thinking that these are “safe” communications between friends, you don’t consider the privacy issues these raise or the light in which they cast you in the eyes of someone else who is reading the messages after a problem has arisen.
E-mail should never be used as the basis for communications with employees. It can supplement department meetings and various in-person conversations. And it can be used to confirm conversations or plant a seed for a later conversation. It’s also very effective for forwarding certain types of reports and company communications that are rote or should be read before a particular meeting or conversation.
But when it comes to establishing relationships with your employees, understanding and setting performance goals, giving performance feedback, and day-to-day management, overreliance on e-mail can be your downfall (and the downfall of the employee). Engage in dialogue with your employees and use those opportunities to learn from them and enhance your communication skills at the same time. You’ll find that getting to know your employees in that way is appreciated by them and provides the foundation for growth in your relationship. At the same time, you are minimizing the risks associated with poorly crafted e-mail communications.
Talk to your human resources department about your communication and performance management skills and ask for guidance about the use of e-mail in managing employees. They can help you strike an appropriate balance that benefits you, your employees, and the company as a whole.
Barrie Gross is former Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel (Employment Law) for an international Fortune 1000 company and is a regular contributor to AllBusiness.com. She is the founder of Barrie Gross Consulting, a human resources training and consulting firm dedicated to assisting companies to manage and develop their human capital. Visit www.barriegrossconsulting.com to learn more about Barrie and the services BGC provides.
Note: This article does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a legal issue or wish to obtain legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your area concerning your particular situation and facts. Nothing presented on this site or in this article establishes or should be construed as establishing an attorney-client or confidential relationship between you and Barrie Gross. This article is provided only as general information, which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments or be complete.