Talking technology – you've got mail

The accessibility of email can be both a plus and a minus

Without e-mail many of us would struggle to communicate with colleagues, friends, and relatives. But the widespread availability, accessibility, and affordability that make e-mail a boon can also make it a burden; that’s why so many companies have a policy on its use.

If you are not already aware, find out if your employer has such a policy in place and then make sure you understand and follow it. It’s important – not doing so could put you and the organisation that employs you at risk. E-mail has the same status in law as the printed word.

Internal and external electronic communications are potentially actionable for breaches of legislation. These range from defamation and libel, to discrimination and sexual harassment – and make you and your employer potentially liable. Breaking company guidelines, or the law, can result in disciplinary action, a fine, or even a jail sentence.

Because e-mail communications are less formal than letters and more formal than the telephone, it can be difficult to know how to pitch them. Some organisations offer best practice guidelines, but many do not. So you may need to exercise your personal judgement when it comes to the substance and content of your e-mails.

Written communications can be challenging, and misunderstandings are commonplace. It you want to minimise the likelihood of any problems it is safest to avoid humour, irony, politics, religion, and any phrasing that could be misinterpreted or cause offence. This is particularly important in formal business communications, which should not read like casual e-mail messages to friends or colleagues. It is also a good idea to make sure your e-mail is easy to read – and to not read. If a message has a concise and informative subject line, recipients can quickly delete the e-mail or be alerted to its content without opening it, which will save time for everyone involved. Avoiding unusual character fonts and too small or too large print sizes will make it easier on the eye. Before sending e-mails, always run the content through a spell checker; most e-mail systems have one. Larger documents and attachments may be best run through the spelling and grammar checker in word processing software.

Personal judgement also comes into play in other areas. Despite the temptation to do so, work is not the place to download or disseminate large attachments – unless they are business-related. Photographs, graphics, software applications, and video clips will all slow down the corporate network, waste valuable storage space, and could create costly and complex problems relating to copyright and security.

Play it safe. Never store critical information only within the e-mail system, never forward e-mails without the consent of the originator unless the content was clearly not meant to be confidential, never use e-mail to disseminate confidential information unless authorised and, if necessary, encrypted. Keep personal e-mails to a minimum and when in doubt, err on the side of caution. 


"Because e-mail communications are less formal than letters and more formal than the telephone, it can be difficult to know how to pitch them"