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Email Etiquette

Q: Emails in the workplace can be irritating. They are either too long or too abrupt. Can you give me some tips for writing emails that are concise but not curt?

Jane Watson,
J. Watson
Associates Inc.
A: Blaise Pascal, the mathematician, once said, “I made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.” I think today you can easily substitute the word “email” for “letter.” Too many writers have a knee jerk reaction when it comes to writing emails. They reply without thinking, often pouring out details without distilling them for the reader – causing the reader to have to sort and to interpret information and next steps. Alternatively, they write so quickly that the tone of the message appears dictatorial and irritates the reader.

Emails are now a recognized part of the business world, and they can bless or burn your professional image. Although it may take you a minute or two longer to send a message, here's what I recommend to ensure your messages get the results you want:

1. Begin at the end. What do you want your reader to do once he or she has finished reading your message? That is your opening line. Remember emails should never be organized the same way as letters.

Why? Readers tend to read the first paragraph of a print document to see if it interests them. Next they skip to the last paragraph to check if there is an action request. Then they read the middle paragraphs if they are interested. But that’s not how they read emails.

With emails, receivers read the first paragraph (often in preview mode) and then keep reading until they are bored or think they understand the message. You cannot be sure your reader will even get to the last paragraph. Ideally, the last line of a letter – assuming you are not using that useless cliché — if you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me – should be the opening line of an email. In other words, begin with your action request. Then follow with the reasons why you have made the request.

2. Don’t start with a bedtime story. When you start an email with a date, you are setting the stage. You’re not getting to the point. Which opening do you prefer? Opening 1: “Last week, I attended a workshop on business writing.” Opening 2: “I’d like to get your input on the following suggestions I have come up with to improve our organization’s emails. The suggestions come from a workshop I attended last week.”

Most people prefer the 2nd opening. It tells them why they need to read your message. Use the word “so” to check your opening lines. If the reader can say “so” after reading your first sentence, you probably need to do a rewrite.

3. Don’t dictate. Too many email writers believe that if they add the word “please” their readers will consider them polite. For example, they might write: “Please send me the figures by Friday.”

However, they forget that the inner voice they use when writing the message may not be the same inner voice the receiver uses when reading the message. The voice inflection is not there. Your request may seem polite to you but to a reader having a bad day, it may come across as demanding and condescending.

I suggest you take an extra minute and precede your request with an explanation such as, “I am working on the annual report. Therefore, can you please send me the figures by Friday?” I know this may seem tedious but I guarantee you will get greater buy-in by treating your reader as a team player instead of as someone you have the right to order about.

Note: The more personal pronouns and active voice sentences you use, the warmer the tone. And the more reader buy-in you get.

4. Don’t intimidate your reader with lengthy paragraphs. It is 25 per cent harder to read from a computer screen than from paper. Make it easy on your readers. Keep paragraphs less than five lines long and leave a blank space between paragraphs. First paragraphs should be shorter. Do not indent paragraphs or justify the lines. The best font is a sans serif one such as Arial, Verdana or Calibri.
Last year, through my company, J. Watson Associates Inc., I surveyed 200 people across Canada about their pet peeves with regard to emails. Here are the top ten complaints:

  • Emails without phone numbers (or extension numbers)
  • People who “reply to all” when they don’t need to
  • Emails with long, unnecessary threads.
  • Receiving emails that just say thank you
  • Emails containing short hand words and smileys
  • Subject lines that are vague or confusing
  • Paragraphs that run together
  • Buried requests
  • Grammar and spelling errors
  • Coloured fonts or backgrounds on messages

    Avoiding Burnout

    Q: Our HR Department is overloaded. There are not enough hours in the day to meet the demands, and staff complain about being overwhelmed. How can we avoid burnout?

    A: Indeed, HR professionals need to be aware of the risks of burn-out. We are in a profession that places us in the middle of ‘people issues’ which can have a personal impact on how we feel about our work. We are challenged to align and balance human concerns with business interests. Furthermore, the more ‘strategic’ we become, the more challenging our work can be. Above all, HR professionals seek a high level of fulfillment in our work; we want to leave an impact with whatever we do!

    Brian Duggan
    CAS, RPR,
    To recognize and manage the risk of burn-out means that we need to see ourselves somewhere on the continuum of Stress – Distress – Burn-out. Stress is normal; we all have and need stress to function; we should not complain about stress but embrace it so that we can engage in our day-to-day work. Part of embracing stress is to engage in a healthy lifestyle which includes appropriate diet, exercise, relaxation and social support.

    Integrating and balancing our work and personal life is good stress management.

    Distress emerges when we are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of work. We can be preoccupied with work concerns and events and, most importantly, our normal ‘stress management’ practices do not provide us with a sense of well-being. Along with feeling overwhelmed, we can also experience changes in our health and behaviour. If we experience ‘distress’ for a prolonged period of time, we run the risk of becoming ‘burnt out’. Burn-out is like a fatigue which is brought about because our devotion to a cause, way of life or a relationship failed to bring about the expected result. Burn-out has to do with a loss of meaning, purpose or fulfillment. We can become disillusioned or frustrated in our responses to normal events.

    As HR professionals we need to be cognizant of a number of root causes of burn-out.

    Low levels of trust, respect or cohesion within our organization; a lack of support for the human side of work and limited opportunity for advancement are some organizational causes. We have ‘High Demand – Low Control’ and ‘High Effort – Low Reward’ scenarios which can be characteristic of our work. We also need to recognize that there are personal factors such as unresolved grief, life changes and even being under or over employed that can contribute to burn-out.

    So what do we do to avoid burn-out?
    The most important preventative thing that we can do is to continually clarify our focus, mission or purpose in life. Know who we are, what our organization is about and make sure that the two are aligned. The second most important thing is to be accountable for our own behaviour, choices and responses to events and people. We need to be ready to say ‘Good morning God’ rather than ‘Good God it’s morning’ and to keep a positive and realistic attitude about the realities of our present situation. The third is to be conscious of what is going on around and within us. Notice when we become more negative, experience health changes, changes in our sleeping or eating patterns. Be careful about consistently bringing work issues home. Be aware of the pattern of self medicating with food, drugs, gambling, tobacco or cyber-sex – all of these are distractions which can take over your life and become more important than daily living.

    Finally, establish a solid foundation to support your day-to-day activity – exercise appropriately, establish boundaries with your time, nurture positive relationships, get involved in activities that can tap into your creativity or social skills. Decide what you are accountable for and do not take on the accountabilities of others! Most importantly, know who you are, your goals, focus and limitations and live everyday to the fullest.

    Brian Duggan CAS, RPR, CHRP is the President of Marathon Human Resources Consulting Group Limited ( in Nova Scotia.

    A Reasonable Alternative to Lunch Meetings

    Q: Our organization has recently acquired a new division. The sales team is composed of two distinct groups: seasoned professionals — from the acquisition — and young, new recruits, all beginning their careers. The sales manager wants to encourage team members to work independently — to prospect actively within individual territories.

    We have a limited expense budget — how we can help these two divergent groups of employees develop and build client relations? Do you have any suggestions? Lunch meetings take too long and are just too expensive!

    Diane Craig
    Corporate Class
    A: Yes, I have a suggestion — in a word, coffee. Perhaps this sounds simplistic but let me elaborate. Coffee meetings are increasingly preferred over lunch meetings — they’ve proven to be effective, efficient and far easier to schedule than lunch. Participants recognize that coffee won’t take up a big chunk of the day. Some enthusiasts would go as far as calling coffee the new lunch. Productivity, not frugality, is the rationale.

    Lunch meetings still have their place — particularly at group events — but when it comes to one-to-one meetings, “coffee” is ideal. There are some practical reasons for shifting meetings to coffee shops. Compared to sorting out a lunch menu, ordering coffee is a breeze. Going out to lunch often requires waiting for a table — even with reservations. And although the three-martini lunch disappeared decades ago, coffee meetings eliminate alcohol from the equation.

    When you consider the multiple distractions of lunch at a restaurant, plus the time factor and the cost, a change of venue makes sense.
    Even when coffee shops are full to capacity, each table is a veritable oasis — free from typical restaurant-style server interruptions and there’s no maître d’ to suddenly request the table.

    Another advantage is that coffee shops are neutral territory. This helps to remove the aura of formality often associated with standard office protocols: the wait at reception, the sign-in process; the nametag; the imposing boardroom.

    Coffee shops offer an informal atmosphere that’s a natural conversation starter. And let’s face it; the new recruits are going to be far more comfortable in a coffee shop than a boardroom. Their natural grace in the location will help put clients at ease — a key element in creating optimum relations.

    Being away from the perceived watchful eyes of management could be beneficial for the more senior team members, too. By encouraging off-site meetings, the sales manager sends a very clear message— independence reigns.

    Instead of being locked-into mid-day lunch, “coffee” allows multiple time slots during the day so team members can set-up more meetings. This aspect appeals to early birds who want to meet clients before the official workday starts. It’s the perfect opportunity to make an initial contact, to put a face to a name, to present a new brochure — in short, to have a brief face-to-face encounter. It makes sense to encourage team members to work this out for themselves. Lengthy, often unpredictable commutes, day-care drop-offs and transit schedules often preclude the possibility of an extra-early start time.

    Although I emphasize the informal nature of “coffee,” a meeting must still have a structure. Business is business and on no level should a client meeting – even over coffee – be confused with a casual get-together with friends.

    Here are my coffee-culture guidelines:

  • Keep management informed about coffee meetings.

  • Location counts. Pick a spot near the client’s office, not across town.

  • Business attire mandatory. Even when it’s an early bird meeting, jogging suits are for the gym, period.

  • Plan on one hour, tops.

  • Be prepared. Have some conversation starters and background on the person you’re meeting.

  • Punctuality counts. Traffic does cause delays so allow extra time.

  • Just in case there’s a glitch, be sure to exchange cell phone numbers before the meeting.

  • As soon as client contact is made, cell phones are off limits. Same for texting and pagers. The one and only one exception is for doctors on call. Nothing goes on the table except coffee cups.

  • Always offer the client a top of the line cappuccino and croissant before placing your order.

  • The protocol of who pays is simple. The person extending the invitation picks up the cheque — or in the case of coffee shops, pays the cashier. And remember the tip jar.

  • Follow-up. Acknowledge the meeting and send an e-mail within a day or two.

    Diane Craig is Founder and President of Corporate Class Inc., which has released a new Teleseminar The Look of Success - it is brilliantly done, rich in content and priced at an extremely low rate. See for yourself at

    How Enforceable is a Zero Tolerance Policy?

    Q: I am revising my current human resource policies. I would like to put in a “zero-tolerance policy” which results in an automatic termination for any employee who engages in theft, fraud or workplace harassment. In your experience would a court or labour arbitrator uphold a termination based on a breach of a zero tolerance policy? What are the factors that the courts and labour arbitrators consider in such cases?

    Simon R. Heath,
    B.A., MIR, LL.B.,
    Keyser Mason
    Ball LLP
    A: Zero Tolerance Policies (“ZTP”) are attractive to many employers because they demonstrate the employer’s commitment to eradicating workplace theft, fraud or harassment, which are all important workplace pursuits. However, both the courts and labour arbitrators have held that a termination for just cause will not be upheld on the sole basis of a breach of a ZTP. Although the existence of a ZTP can be an important consideration in a just cause termination, the courts and labour arbitrators will also examine the specific circumstances of each case to determine if, on a balance of probabilities, the just cause standard for termination has been met. Therefore, while a ZTP is a good idea to send a message to employees on what constitutes acceptable workplace conduct and behaviour and the sanctions for failing to meet these standards, it should not be relied upon in and of itself to justify a termination. The employer should always reserve the discretion under the ZTP to consider all of the facts and impose the most appropriate disciplinary penalty.

    A ZTP should establish clear rules for employee conduct and behaviour and specify the sanctions for breaches. Employers must ensure that employees understand the ZTP and I recommend that team meetings or training sessions be used to roll out the ZTP. It’s a good idea for employees to sign an acknowledgement that they have read and understood the ZTP and the consequences for breaching the ZTP. Once in place, employers must ensure that ZTPs are consistently applied to all employees. An additional consideration for the unionized workplace is that a ZTP cannot be inconsistent with the express terms of the collective agreement.

    After a ZTP has been rolled out, an employer can discipline employees who breach its terms. However, the courts and labour arbitrators have made it clear that additional factors have to be considered aside from a breach of the ZTP. In examining whether the disciplinary sanction is appropriate the courts have considered whether the employer has fully investigated the allegations and given the employee a proper chance to respond to the allegations. A proper impartial investigation has become increasingly important in these cases. The court or arbitrator will examine the ZTP to determine if it is clear on its face and whether or not it was applied uniformly and consistently to all employees (ambiguous and inconsistently applied ZTP-based dismissals will not be upheld). Finally, the courts and arbitrators will look at individual circumstances of the employee including the type and severity of the conduct, the duration and frequency of the incidents, whether the employer applied progressive discipline (i.e., warnings to the employee to correct his/her behaviour) to correct the behaviour, whether the incident was a first or repeated incident and the length of the employee’s service (where longer term service requires more forgiveness by employers).

    Only after a court or arbitrators conducts a review of these relevant factors will it be in a position to uphold the employee’s termination. Finally, in unionized settings, labour arbitrators are statutorily required to ensure that all discipline and terminations are for just cause and this automatically requires an examination into the facts of each particular case and allows for the substitution of penalties.

    This is not to say that ZTPs have no significance. They serve as an excellent way for an employer to communicate its position with respect to theft, fraud and harassment. If an employee acknowledges a form, the acknowledgment serves as evidence that the employee knew of the ZTP. Further, in some industries such as grocery stores which are driven by the bottom line a ZTP can be very effective at controlling employee theft. In addition, ZTPs can also be effective for similar reasons to regulate employees who work autonomously and/or with a high degree of trust.

    Simon R. Heath, B.A., MIR, LL.B., is an associate in the law firm Keyser Mason Ball LLP and can be reached at

    When the Boss Isn’t Contributing

    Q: I’m coordinating an important project that requires the involvement of a senior executive. This executive is routinely impossible to get a hold of—he doesn’t return calls or e-mail and I usually have to corner him in a hallway to get him to agree to a meeting. Then he always shows up late and has to be “brought up to speed.” This person is obviously not interested in this project but he is senior to me and I’m worried about “making waves” by going over his head and complaining. What should I do?

    Monika Jensen,
    Aviary Group
    A: In this case I would want to ask the senior executive what’s important for him when he thinks of this project. Convey to the senior executive what your expectations are of him; whether it is attending the meeting to make a final decision, approve the budget or the final product. And ask him what he expects from you in this project, so it is clear to both of you. The executive may only want to be involved in the bottom line and has the confidence in you to complete the project successfully and is confused as to why you are calling and emailing him about the details of the project. If it is important that the executive be drawn into the project then ask when it would be convenient for him to attend the meetings or be briefed on the development of the project.

    Perhaps he may want to have the information provided in writing prior to the meeting – you may also want to provide him with a specific time that it is vital for him to attend the meeting and its expected duration. I might suggest giving him a specific time, say 20 minutes and then he could leave, either at the beginning or the end of the meeting.

    By sharing your expectations, roles and responsibilities up front with each other you will have a better understand of what is expected of you. If not, then the executive may just leave you alone to do your job and will not be aware that they are causing you this problem.

    It’s the lack of open communication which many times leaves us feeling that we are making waves when actually the waters are calm from the other person’s perspective.

    Monika Jensen, RPT is Principal of the Aviary Group. For further information she can be reached at

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