Because of their omnipresent nature, e-mails have become a vital tool within the workplace. But, because they are so vital to our professional relationships, they are widely abused by employers and employees around the world.
Examples of professional e-mail abuse include but are not limited to:
1) The Passive Aggressive E-mail
We have all received these. That e-mail from a colleague (not necessarily a line manager) that is instructing you to do something but not actually being explicit about it.
This is often done with innuendo about how much more hardworking and professional they are compared to you, while also casting doubt on your ability to carry out the work implied: “I don’t really have time, but I suspect you may do…”, “If you are able to, can you do the following if it’s not too much to ask…” (the preface for a simple request), or “I appreciate that you currently have a lot of annual leave planned, but I really need this done if I am to carry on work in your absence…”
You get the idea, but, to be fair, maybe it’s not the medium’s fault but the disposition of the sender. However, it is the e-mail that allows them to get away with this, as they might not have the chutzpah to say as much directly to your face.
2) The Unspoken Delegation of Work via Carbon Copy
You get an e-mail, but it is not addressed to you for you have been CC’d (‘carbon copied’) in. It is a lengthy treaty on one project or another, yet you have not been named as the prime recipient. However, somewhere within the body of the e-mail, you may very well find that you’ve been charged with delivering the twelve tasks of Hercules by Friday.
You may very well have been expecting this message and your tasks detailed in it, but often this tactic is a sneaky way of transferring responsibility or actions to others without them being fully aware.
Like all good deceptions, the lie is constructed around a big, tangible truth. So, for example, you may have been asked to contribute a chapter to a book, but the actual e-mail that you have been copied in on says that you will be compiling it as well.
Sneaky and unethical, this is often the ‘dirty bomb’ of the boardroom.
3) The Abuse of the ‘Blind Carbon Copy’ Field
For all those colleagues of yours who feel they were denied their true calling with the closure of the Stasi at the end of the Cold War, e-mail offers many ways to manipulate and frame others.
The BCC (‘blind carbon copy’) e-mail is the Beadle’s About of the workplace, where someone has been charged with a difficult task or posed a problematic question, but, unbeknownst to them, their own line manager or another corporate senior figure has been copied in, setting them up for a fall if non-delivery or disagreement ensues.
Often used in conjunction with the ‘carbon copy’ e-mail (above), this is a potent tool for the Machiavellian colleague.
4) The Non-Answer E-mail
This is a favourite of middle managers around the world. When posed with a difficult question via e-mail (and ‘difficult’ often, if not always, relates to expenditure authorisation), the line manager will reply in a Gnomic fashion that would be worthy of a Yoda or a Confucius.
The most basic, binary question can have a multitude of evasions thrown at it, often with an implication of half-hearted consent, but with the ancillary nuance that the outcome of the decision will ultimately reflect on the person posing the question, not the person providing the authorisation.
As with the passive aggressive e-mail, ‘the non-answer’ tactic predates the medium but has become entrenched because of it.
As I have indicated, a lot of the above is down to human nature or bad behaviour rather than the medium itself, but e-mails seem to exacerbate more professional problems than they solve. E-mails are the perfect barrier to necessary confrontation or conversation, and can provide the ideal disguise for political positioning and, to put it indelicately, ‘arse covering’.
I would go so far as to argue that there is a clear correlation between the growth in managerial roles within organisations (especially within the Public Sector here in the UK) and the increasing widespread adoption of e-mail from the mid-1990s onwards.
Rather than creating a streamlined, paperless office environment for all, we have collectively and surreptitiously created metaphorical tons of unnecessary correspondence and content online.
At least there was something tangible about the old-fashioned memo or circular; e-mails can be sent, received and deleted at an astonishing speed that does not allow for reflection on behalf of the sender or for consideration on behalf of the recipient.
It would be entirely unreasonable and uneconomically-minded of me to advocate a mass-abandonment of e-mail as the primary means of communication within a modern organisation. However, it is entirely rational to argue for a rationing of professional e-mails for the sake of efficiency and staff morale.
Like a murky swamp, a cluttered inbox holds all kinds of threats and insidious cultures, and we would all be better off with less, and not more, e-mail within the work place.