When email is the wrong mode of communication

Here’s a hypothetical email from one manager to another, after one of them just terminated an employee:

“I’m so happy he’s gone. His behavior was so disruptive to the department. I hope he’ll get some psychological help. If you ask me, I think he is bipolar. His moods were so extreme. We told him he was terminated for poor performance, since he lost that account, but that was only part of it. We just got tired of having to deal with his mood swings.”

Is there anything wrong with this email?

a. No, the employee no longer works for the company so it doesn’t matter what is said.

b. Yes, the manager should not play armchair psychiatrist.

c. No, email is private so no one will see this anyway.

d. Yes, the manager shouldn’t put anything like this in writing that could be used against the company should the employee file suit in the future. Plus it’s disrespectful.

In order to make sure that you can answer this “quiz” with confidence, this column will cover the content of email, legal considerations and situations when person-to-person communication is better than technology.

You are likely well aware that the law has caught up with technology. This means that, should an employee retain an attorney to pursue a claim of wrongful termination for example, all documents pertaining to that employee, whether hardcopy or electronic, including email, text messages, voicemail, etc., are “discoverable.” So if you answered “d” in the quiz you were correct.

If you’re asking yourself, “How do I prevent such documentation from being discovered?” you’re asking the wrong question. Instead, focus on the following:

• Educate your managers and those who supervise to understand when the spoken word is better than the written word.

• The importance of proper and effective documentation.

• Make certain it is understood by everyone on your team that when the “delete” button is pressed emails are not gone forever. There is a job that didn’t exist just a decade ago – computer forensic expert. These professionals are hired, often by a former employee’s legal counsel, to retrieve the data that companies “deleted,” but in reality still exist. Be sure that preventive steps do not include deleting or destroying information if you are notified that an employee has filed a claim.

• In order to prevent improper destruction of documents we recommend to our clients that a “retention policy” be put in place – and that it be followed. Documents such as personnel records and I-9 forms must be retained for a certain time period. Include in your retention policy electronic files, emails, etc. Work with your IT staff to ensure the policy around electronic records makes sense and will be adhered to.

Here are some additional reasons to speak rather than write:

• Email can get in the way of building successful relationships. Conflict is difficult for most of us, so it is easier to “hide” behind email and put in writing something that we likely would not say face-to-face.

• The written message can be misinterpreted. How many times have you sent an email you thought was crystal clear only to have it erroneously interpreted by the recipient?

• Once the “send” button is hit, the sender has no control over to whom the email may be forwarded.

• With email, you do not hear the person’s tone or see their body language.

I am not suggesting you do away with email. It is an efficient mode of communication, and it creates documentation – there have been many times when documentation has saved the day. My intent is to get you to pause before you write something that may come back and haunt you.

Communication, relationship-building, legal considerations and message clarity are all solid reasons to think twice before hitting the “send” button.

By the way, if you selected “b” & “d” in the quiz you get bonus points. While answer “b” is a topic for another column, employers should leave assessments about an employee’s health (mental or physical) to the professionals or risk exposure to a claim through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Delise West, president and founder of Human Resource Partners, with offices in Dover and Concord, can be reached at 603-749-8989 or through h-rpartners.com.

Categories: Business Advice