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Unpicking Email Etiquette and Its Impact on Wellbeing

We’ve all received an unpleasant email at some point during our careers. As the nuances of human face-to-face interaction are lost, the sender’s intentions become ambiguous which can cause huge distress. You might have felt frustrated because your colleague’s manner was totally unwarranted; confused because you had no idea why they communicated a particular issue in this way; or worried because you were made to feel incompetent. This is the world of email incivility, which, according to organisational experts, is defined as “communicative behaviour exhibited in computer mediated interactions that violate workplace norms of mutual respect” (Krishnan 2016, p.537). It is one of the most common forms of mistreatment in the workplace for several reasons: (1) our reliance on the internet in the workplace makes this behaviour more likely; (2) it is easier for individuals to misinterpret email content; and (3) the anonymity of email communication is ideal for deviants. How can we address the issue without jeopardising an individual’s freedom of expression? To answer this question, let’s begin with triggers of this behaviour.

Research suggests that email incivility is more likely among two combinations of personality traits. The first is low extroversion and low conscientiousness, because people with these characteristics are typically less decisive and ambitious. However, their highly extroverted and conscientious counterparts, who are more alert and purposeful, would not engage in email incivility because it contradicts their natural inclinations. The second predictor combination is low emotional stability and low conscientiousness, because this leads to impulsive, unstable and inconsistent actions, whereas their counterparts are typically logical and self-disciplined. But who is most at risk of being affected by email incivility? One study found that employees who displayed neurotic tendencies, such as heightened negative reactions to stressful events, were more likely to suffer from burnout and absenteeism if their supervisor engaged in email incivility. In fact, YoungAh and colleagues (2016) not only found that victims of email incivility tend to withdraw from work the following week, but they transmit their stress onto their partner who then also withdraws from work. Given these consequences for work engagement, it’s time we take email incivility more seriously.

In the modern age, there have been debates around the emergence of “victimhood culture.” According to historian and economist Neil Howe, older generations value resilience and grit, whereas millennials prioritise tolerance and inclusiveness. This raises a really interesting question about how we can address the issue of email incivility, particularly cases that cause distress in a less overt manner. YoungAh and colleagues suggest that organisations “establish codes of conduct or etiquette for email behaviours”. Excluding obvious incidences of incivility, this idea arguably runs a risk of impeding on an individual’s freedom of expression. France has an alternative idea, where companies with more than 50 employees must publish their email hours, and they are not allowed to deal with messages outside of those times. This is not to say that the responsibility of solving the problem lies with the victim, but it may be more useful to explore other solutions without enforcing a company-wide email etiquette of ‘dos’ and ‘don’t’s’ that could have additional negative knock-on effects. The Employee Assistance Programme recommends the following for employees:

  • Have an email schedule: If possible, limit checking your emails to 2 or 3 times a day, at the same time each day. This is a good option if you’re in contact with someone who is often uncivil via email, and you want to limit your exposure to them. This isn’t always possible for a lot of people given how central emails are to our working day. As such…
  • Don’t check emails in the evenings: If you receive an uncivil email in the evening, when you’re meant to be winding down, this is likely to lead to rumination and a reduced quality of sleep. Turn off your notifications, or, if you can, ignore work notifications until you arrive back in the office the next morning. It might be tempting to open the email but it’s not worth the potential negative impact.
  • Be compassionate to yourself: If you find that you are upset by an email, it’s easy to tell yourself “stop making a fuss and get over it.” Yet, this is far easier said than done. When you feel hurt, remember that this highlights your sensitivity to nuances in emails. This can be a very useful trait when working with others because it suggests you are aware of the power of communication.
  • Know, feel, do: Dale Carnegie instructor Dan Ritchie recommends starting every email on a positive note and following 3 core principles: (1) say what you want the recipient to know, (2) think about how the person might feel; and (3) what you want the person to do. This is particularly useful if you have been informed that your email tone is unfriendly at times. For example, Zoe has sent her supervisor, Daniel, a document which he has edited. Notice the difference in the tone of these emails:

“Zoe – changes required. Re-do and send by 4 tomorrow!!! D.”

“Dear Zoe, Thanks for this document. I’ve made some changes, so please action them, and send the document by 4pm tomorrow. Best wishes, Daniel.”

For managers, they might want to:

  • Measure personality traits: Learning that a candidate is not conscientiousness, emotionally stable or extroverted is not necessarily negative. However, as this potentially increases the risk of email incivility, an awareness of these traits during the hiring process can help management pre-empt conflict and navigate it accordingly.
  • Organise resilience workshops: Our education involved “core” subjects like Maths and English, but crucial life skills like resilience were left out of the curriculum. Resilience workshops can help employees develop assertiveness, which can encourage them to say “no” when someone makes an unreasonable or unrealistic request via email. Not only that, but they can help people manage their own emotional response to stressful situations through mindfulness techniques and explanations grounded in science.
  • Make public employees’ colour personality profiles: Every individual has their own colour profile, for example green employees are analytical, inventive and deep thinkers, whereas red employees are persistent, decisive and less sensitive. If we receive an uncivil email from our ‘red’ supervisor, it may be easier to contextualise their impatient tone, because we knew it wasn’t a personal attack but simply their way of working. Informing employees of everyone’s colour profile may help people be sympathetic to themselves and others in the face of email incivility.