As Hillary Clinton, CIA leaders, Sony executives and countless other professionals have recently learned, a single email can damage your career aspirations, reputation, marriage or company's stock price. Here are three useful strategies from my email etiquette class that every professional should use to avoid getting destroyed by email and other forms of e-communication:
1. Take an Anger Management Timeout.
The biggest problem with intense emotion is momentum. When someone ticks you off and the hair stands up on the back of your neck, you start typing like a train gathering speed, and you just won't be happy until you've hit the send button and gotten your revenge. When that angry email bomb gets forwarded to your boss or the media, it's either a PR or HR disaster and the first victim is always you. One message can get you get fired or send the stock price of a company into a tailspin.
Solution: Scream into your pillow, but don't scream at colleagues, friends, or family members via email or social media. Be circumspect. Take 24 hours, cool down, and take the high road! When your abrasive or under-performing colleague sees that you aren't going to lash out, they will think of you as a super-cool professional. And sometimes -- when you're flat wrong -- the 24 hour rule saves you from looking like a complete idiot! A little frustration is OK -- but anger and sarcasm are deadly.
2. Avoid ALL Conjecture.
In the case of Sony, playful conjecture about stars and politicians -- what movies would the president like? -- rapidly turned into a PR nightmare. One of my pharma clients hired me after they got hit by a $5 million lawsuit. An employee had "wondered" in an email if their drug could cause a cardio side effect. When real problems emerged years later, this email -- which had no basis in fact -- cost them big time. When we wonder, hint, joke, use innuendo, or make statements about stuff we don't fully understand, that can lead to painful, career-limiting discussions with HR and Legal.
Solution: Stay away from the grey! This means avoid grey-area discussions and theories -- try to stick to facts. If you aren't certain of all the facts, shut up, step away from your iphone and gather info. Focus on what people actually do vs. what they might do in certain hypothetical situations. Leave the murky scenarios to your competition and take the high road via factual statements. Be smart, be concise, be clear and you will stay out of trouble. Remember, email is slippery and sticky -- it slips out of your outbox and out of your control -- but it sticks in the real world forever! There's no recall button with email.
3. Dump the Personal Junk.
That questionable joke, harmless flirtation, or your unfiltered feelings about your spouse or world events could hurt you! Do you vent via IM or text to a close colleague? These seemingly innocent messages can be easily found by new software that sweeps everyone's email for keywords. Other software allows your company to see your keystrokes even when you are on your personal Gmail account! Joking about a terrorist? Slamming the personal habits of your customer or competitor? Hate a prominent politician? Bad idea. Your company owns your email -- they can look at it anytime. Heck, they may be looking at it right now. That's their right, and you could get fired for something you are doing in your personal life.
Solution: Living a good, clean life is the obvious first step. Avoid snarky sexist, racist, ethnic, or political commentary on the job. But also, be smart. Treat every message from every device -- smartphones, tablets, and PCs -- like it's going to be uploaded and disseminated to millions via YouTube, Vine and Facebook. How does that message look now? If the answer is "Yikes", then stop before it's too late!
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Mike Song is a leading productivity expert and CEO of www.GetControl.net. He is the lead author of The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You (Berrett-Koehler, $19.95) which is a best-seller published in 12 languages around the world. Mike has appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, CNBC, FOX, and NPR.