“We had been e-mailing back and forth all morning,” Maria Cutrone, 30, a Baltimore-based web designer recalls. She and a coworker couldn’t see eye-to-eye on a project. Should they ask the client to postpone the deadline in order to complete testing or should they deliver a product that wasn’t quite there? “By the time 10 e-mails had been sent, I was seriously beyond frustrated. We weren’t getting any closer to resolving the situation. I had to do something.”
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For Cutrone, that “something” was cc’ing their direct supervisor. “It really felt like the right thing to do. The way I saw it, he would see what was happening, step in and make the decision we were unable to make. End of argument.”
Wrong. Unfortunately, Cutrone’s “cc’ing up” was a bad career move. Her coworker was furious that her supervisor was not just let in on a revealing e-mail chain, but saw Cutrone’s decision to do so as both self-serving and immature. Shortly after, Cutrone left the company, embarrassed, she says, but much wiser.
A decision she made with the best intentions had been perceived as the worst. Instead of efficient, she was seen as undermining. Instead of gracious, petty.
According to experts, she’s not alone. e-mail makes up the majority of our daily communication — especially in business. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of employed adults (62 percent) use the internet or e-mail in the workplace. And yet social cues and etiquette are often overlooked.
The problem, it seems, is that communication through e-mail can bring out the worst of competitive or controlling behavior. “It’s a very weird dynamic that has happened,” says Cherie Kerr, the founder of EvecuProv, an executive coaching seminar series that borrows from improvisational comedy and the author of "The Bliss or “Diss” Connection: e-mail Etiquette for the Business Professional." “People do or say things via e-mail that they would never do in person. They’d never upstage a higher up in a meeting, but in e-mail there’s this disconnected feeling of not having to look anyone in the eye that emboldens people to act in competitive or even arrogant ways.”
“Emily Post was not around when e-mail began,” agrees Marsha Egan, author of the book "Inbox Detox and the Habit of e-mail Excellence." “So people have to make up their own rules. What one person might see as absolutely fine, another might find offensive. That being said, the basis of all etiquette is respect.” Respect, she says, is what Cutrone was lacking in her decision to invite her boss into her disagreement with her coworker.
Here, Egan and Kerr take on Cutrone’s misstep and other serious e-mail faux pas — to explain how even the best intentions can be misread — and what the better tack to take might be.
The Crime: When you’re having an e-mail exchange with a co-worker, and s/he escalates the conflict by sneakily cc’ing a higher-up.
Egan says it’s about respect: “What happened here is that she didn’t respect her coworker enough to give her the heads up about letting the boss in on the e-mail.” Kerr agrees wholeheartedly. “If she’s going to cc anyone she should be upfront about it because it might come back to bite her,” she says, intuiting Cutrone’s dilemma without my tipping her off. “If her “higher up” for instance goes to the person with whom she was e-mailing, it will cause friction and distrust. Be upfront” she says, “And classy, always.”
The Crime: Preemptive auto-responses a la “Thank you for your e-mail. I get an overwhelming amount of e-mail, but I care about each one of them! I will respond as soon as it’s convenient.”
Kerr and Egan both recognize this as a no-no. “An auto response all the time can be seen as officious and arrogant even though the good intention is there,” says Egan. The offender may be thinking they are being polite in warning you that their response may be slow, but it comes across as condescending. “It’s a very aloof way to interact with people,” says Kerr. “An automatic e-mail should only be used if you’re out of the office on vacation or unable to respond to e-mail because you’re on a safari or something! A robo-response can distance someone and who wants that?”
The Crime: The instant follow up
You want to make sure a coworker or client has received and read your e-mail — calling or e-mailing seems like the logical way to find out. Right? Wrong, again. “Oh, the Double-Checking Billy,” sighs Egan. “They send an e-mail and 10 minutes later call to make sure you’ve got it.” She describes this as entrapment, or a “gotcha” move. “And gotcha is not effective in business. It’s akin to sending a direct mail and calling to follow up.” The etiquette, she says, is to call prior to sending the e-mail. “Let them know what you’ll be sending them and when.” Not only are they more likely to respond, she says, but more likely to read it in the first place.
Bottom line, Cutrone and Egan concur, is respect. And the golden rule. Stop and think about how you’d react if you were on the receiving end of your e-mail. Would you be pleased? Motivated? Or would you feel affronted and wronged?
If the latter, check yourself. For no matter how distanced or protected from the dreaded face-to-face interaction e-mail can make us feel, there’s one certain design flaw that can make arrogant, selfish or even nefarious behavior come back to haunt you.
It’s all in writing.
© 2012 Forbes.com