Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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How emails tore a business apart

Published 10 December 2012 01:40, Updated 30 January 2013 21:59

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How emails tore a business apart

Emails can sometimes end up flaming the recipient. Illo: Karl Hilzinger

It wasn’t the tone of the emails that destroyed their business relationship but that certainly didn’t help.

Christine and Amanda* had started out friends when they set up their marketing company but a scroll through their electronic communications presents the story of their gradual estrangement.

At the start, when they were full of energy and ambition, their emails started with cheery “Hi Amanda” or “Hi Christine” and finished with “see you” or “talk later” or smileys.

But as Amanda kept bidding for bigger and bigger contracts and Christine struggled to keep up with the work, their communications became a little terse.

Gone were the salutations and the emails just started and ended with their names: “Christine, I need you to ... Amanda”.

“Then, we got to the point we were just using our initials, then nothing at all,” says Christine. At that point, their lawyer was negotiating a buyout so Christine could go her own way.

“We just didn’t trust each other any more,” she says.

Christine was seriously burnt out and needed a year just to get her physical and mental health back together.

The emails reflected the disintegration of their friendship but they also contributed to it. When one of the partners noticed that the other had dropped lower on the scale of friendliness and etiquette, the other would follow suit, or go even further.

It became a battle of tit-for-tat and ended in their lawyer’s office.

Tone is important in electronic communications but many people forget that. They think that because it is a more informal mode of communication than a letter they can “speak” in point form, without all the social chit-chat that helps people get along with each other.

But when writing email, it helps to remember who it is that you are talking to and try to write to them in a natural “voice”.

Communication between friends, relatives or friendly colleagues that is overly formal can cause just as much offence as rudeness.

An email in this office between workmates that read like an impersonal memo was the subject of conversation, on and off, for half an hour as the recipient tried not to feel offended.

“It sounds like someone has put a gun to her head,” one of the others quipped. “It doesn’t sound like her at all.”

Writing to someone you don’t know should be polite, friendly, but more formal, because you don’t know how it will be received.

If you are communicating to someone you have a problem with, it is probably safest to be polite, considerate, very careful and to avoid informality, icy formality and humour.

Sometimes it is a delicate balance to be your “authentic self” in an email, while recognising that the recipient can’t hear an ironic tone or see your expression. That’s why I like smileys (even though I am probably too old to use them).

;-)

* Names have been changed.

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