The idea that the Internet and e-mail in particular has dramatically changed business practices is certainly not new. While everyone can appreciate the benefits e-mail has afforded in terms of swiftness and convenience, there are serious drawbacks. In particular, expressing oneself emotionally in an e-mail can affect the way people in an organization relate to each other and the way the organization communicates with the outside.
Stories of e-mail mishaps are common: There are tales about employees who accidentally send a non-work related e-mail to everyone at their office and, of course, the one about the employee who sends a note with a questionable comment about a boss/ colleague/client and accidentally includes that person.
When you consider everything from marketing, sales and branding all the way to operations and management, electronic communications have made "work" look different from the past. But I would say the most profound way this technology has changed the nature of work lands squarely in how it has affected social relations in the workplace -- from how people communicate inside and outside of organizations to how they manage conflict, gossip and work relationships.
It goes well beyond the Black-Berry culture and its expectation of 24/7 availability and responsiveness. I am speaking specifically of the ways in which e-mail allows us to do things that would not otherwise be possible or even thinkable and the impact that these things can have on the subtle, complicated and fragile nature of interpersonal relationships at work.
One of the most disruptive areas concerns the role e-mail and the Internet have had on employees who at one time would have been the quiet and withdrawn, and perhaps bitterly angry colleague. People who never used their "voice" in any way in the workplace environment now see the seemingly anonymous and immediate nature of e-mail as quick and effective way to get heard, but with frequently disastrous results.
Many of those whose skills does not lie in communicating verbally are discovering (or not) the same skill deficit in writing. In one situation, a vice-president said an employee who had received an e-mail from a supplier that contained a grammatical error was so annoyed she reacted by insulting the sender in an immediate e-mail reply.
It is hard to imagine what would make someone react this way to such a truly minor error, using personal insults and swearing. But it is easy to see how the ability of quick reply is enabled by e-mail. Clearly, the old adage "think before you speak" needs to be modified to include "think before you send."
Not only was this reaction void of an understanding of human relationships, but the sender will not thank her for the grammar lesson and it ignores the fact as an ambassador of her employer she embarrassed the whole organization.
Another example of the rules of e-mail being dangerously less articulate concerns e-mail signatures or sign-offs. One creative employee at a media company has a sign off for his email that is definitely creative, but far from appropriate. It is a quote that says something along the lines of "it only matters how good a creative idea is and if it's good enough no one cares who came up with it, even if it was a brutal serial killer." While employees are free to think and feel what they like, free speech at work, especially when what you say affects your employers and colleagues, should be limited.
So what is the solution? One measure is to develop an e-mail policy, not as a set of rules but as a guideline to help people choose what mode of communication to use and in what circumstances. Teach employees how to use the draft mode, which allows users to think before sending.
Other things such as better judgment and more astute emotional management can be addressed through a commitment to recruitment activities that screen for these skills and a robust training/coaching program that puts social skills at the top of the list before they cost your organization money, people or its reputation.