Electronic Workplace 04/22/2002

You Are What You Email


Paula Santonocito

Has email had its day? Is it possible that it may turn out to be the bane of the modern office environment? While its ease resulted in a multitude of messages, the convenience of it has spawned a style of correspondence previously shunned in the workplace. Some call it casual; others call it sloppy.

Regardless of whether you love or loathe the informality, what’s in the inbox presents inherent challenges, particularly when it comes to human resource management. For those charged with screening and hiring employees, not to mention educating a workforce, deciding where to draw the line between communication and competence may not be easy.

Is an email merely a mad-dash of a note that should be viewed as if it were written when the clock was ticking, the world was about to end, and the person had no time to do anything but key furiously and press “send”? Or, should it be likened to a business letter, and therefore given the attention previously afforded such correspondence before the extra “e” was added?

HR Wants to Know

Recent discussions among human resource and other management professionals at online forums have addressed various aspects of email. Among the questions being asked are:

l How much weight should be given to a candidate’s email address?

l What about grammar and spelling — are they really that important?

l Even if it’s understood that email is a more casual form of communication, shouldn’t there be guidelines for what’s considered acceptable?

Although the consensus is that email addresses that tend to be too cute or suggestive don’t turn on hiring managers, the jury seems to be out on grammar and spelling.

Human resource professional Barbara Rinder sums it up this way.”I know a brilliant engineer whose written communication is really awful — spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and even word order is haphazard at best. She has made her employers a lot of money — but would not have been able to do so if she had to wait until her language skills were better.”

Rinder also reminds colleagues that English is a second language for some people. Furthermore, she notes that in fields such as high-tech, language skills may not be essential to certain positions.

Everyone at the Keyboard

Yet, while a case might be made for those positions that do not “require” language skills, it’s important not to overlook the role written language has come to play in today’s workplace.

The Internet has fundamentally changed the way in which people communicate. From the standpoint of information delivery, it has created a greater reliance on the written, as opposed to the spoken, word. It has also made writers of people who rarely, if ever, communicated in this way.

In days gone by, memo and letter writing were once restricted to select departments or to employees in certain kinds of positions. Employees whose job duties previously did not include written communication now routinely compose emails.

Likewise, email has become a substitute for telephone and face-to-face conversations.

Sending a Different Message

One issue contributing to the casual tone of emails is that almost everyone now communicates in writing.

However, according to Robert Craig Hogan, Ph.D., director of The Business Writing Center, an organization offering online writing courses, some of the problems with email are related to the media itself.

“Emails are an entirely different genre from letters and memos,” Hogan tells HRWire . “Letters and memos evolved from a venerable tradition of correct, clear writing. English teachers and business communications instructors have taught students how to write letters and memos. Corporations have unspoken but fairly rigorous standards for quality in them and sanctions against those who consistently write incorrectly and unclearly.”

“Emails, on the other hand, are a grass-roots phenomenon. Writers came to use emails in the old bulletin-board systems and carried the styles over into Internet email. As a result, emails today are written records of speech that flow onto paper or the computer display raw, just as they come out of the writer’s mind. They defy convention and standards. No English teachers (are) invited to this party.”

As Hogan points out, this freer form of corporate expression isn’t without its fans.

“Those business people who were uncomfortable with the standards of written English in letters and memos are gleeful. Finally, they can write without having to worry about all those rules,” he says.

Reasons for Rules

However, rules serve a purpose, and without them the message can break down. Moreover, it is the very combination of rules and processes that enable effective written communication.

Hogan explains the differences among modes of communication by noting that no form is without its shortcomings.

The weakness of traditional written media (i.e., letters and memos) is that there is no back and forth, no dialogue or nonverbal signals, that help clarify meaning, he says. The strength, he points out, is that the writer can consider wording and organize thoughts in order to clearly convey a message.

Speaking media (phones calls and face-to-face meetings) also has its problems, Hogan explains. A message can’t be molded and then presented in a way that will be most helpful to the listener, he says. Yet, although disorganized and fragmented, there is opportunity for back and forth and for the speaker to make sure the listener understands.

According to Hogan, email, as it’s commonly used, is really a hybrid of two forms of communication. This, he explains, is where the problems occur.

“Email as it is composed today combines the weaknesses of both media and eliminates the strengths. It is recorded speech, just as if flows from the writer’s mind onto paper, so it is fragmented, full of grammatical errors, and not carefully thought out. That’s the weakness of speaking,” he says.

“Email has evolved as the primary method of communication in companies, but is the weakest, most ineffective form of communication available to business people.”

Correcting Errors, Improving Image

As such, he says, business must take steps to address this issue.

“They spend millions on infrastructure to improve business practices, including communication, but allow this unacceptable condition to continue,” says Hogan. “They would never permit an accountant to round off figures to the nearest $100 or allow a draftsperson to draw blueprints freehand without rulers. They require employees to perform their jobs with little tolerance for error.”

“And yet, in this area of skills and practice that affects all business activities and employees at all levels of the organization, businesses are remarkably tolerant of mediocre, slipshod performance that results in serious errors affecting company activities.”

Poor written communication, even when it doesn’t result in errors, reflects negatively on an organization, while it also sends a message about the individual correspondent.

For the situation to change, Hogan says businesses must make a commitment to quality. This includes adopting standards for communication in all areas, including emails. The standards should then be enforced, he says, as are any other standards that relate to employee performance.

According to Hogan, it’s not simply a matter of employee instruction. “The standards must become part of the company’s culture,” he explains.

Workshops and Beyond

To date, more than 600 students from 210 companies in multiple countries have taken a number of online business writing courses through The Business Writing Center, which can be found at https://oldsite.businesswriting.com. Among the many courses offered is one focused specifically on writing workplace email.

Hogan stresses that a writing workshop will have no impact on employee writing unless instruction is focused on developing skill sets that enable clear writing. To this end, he says, The Business Writing Center follows a structure that is aimed at promoting clarity and effectiveness.

In addition to providing online writing courses for staff members, The Business Writing Center works with companies to address specific needs. Hogan describes one project the organization has just begun that it hopes to replicate with other companies.

“We’re working with the company to develop a style sheet and standards for the company’s memos, letters, and emails. The standards will be only six or seven pages long. All employees will be required to learn and follow them. We are then going to develop an online training course and workshops based on the standards to train their employees,” he explains.

Nevertheless, Hogan emphasizes that it’s not only about training. “Most importantly, the company will enforce the policies,” he says. In his experience, the correct approach is key to effective written communication.

“After 33 years of teaching writing to business people, I have the conviction that only by having clear corporate standards for writing, training employees to acquire the skills to attain the standards, and enforcing performance that meets the standards will companies be able to develop a culture that has high-quality, clear, effective writing in all forms, but especially in emails.”

Contact: R. Craig Hogan, Ph.D. , director, The Business Writing Center, 800/827-3770.

Online: The Business Writing Center.

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Business Writing InstructorDr. Robert Hogan teaches the coaching, tutoring, and individualized business writing courses. Dr. Hogan has been training writers for 40 years in universities, colleges of business, consulting companies, and professional writing companies. He has been been a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County College, and Illinois State University College of Business. He was manager of communications in a telephone billing company and owner of a company writing documents on contract for government agencies and corporations.

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Dr. Hogan delivers workshops at company sites in general business writing, writing email, business report writing, writing letters, and principles of usage (grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentences, and word usage). More…

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