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Avoid This Office E-mail Mistake

A nasty e-mail could affect you—and your work environment—more than you realize.

We’ve all gotten one at work: a rude e-mail from a boss or coworker that makes you sit back and think, “What that f*** is their problem?” Chances are, you eventually shrugged it off and continued on with your day. But while messages like these may just be “business as usual,” new research suggests disrespectful e-mails have a more powerful effect than you might realize. In fact, they can negatively affect productivity, attitude, and energy in the workplace.

The study, conducted by Gary Giumetti, Ph.D., an assistant professor of organizational psychology at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, placed participants in an office-like setting, where they were told they’d be assuming an entry-level role at an accounting firm and would need to complete math tasks assigned via e-mail from faux supervisors.

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The researchers sent instructional e-mails from both nice and not-so-nice supervisors, and recorded the participants moods and energy levels. They found that when the workers were instructed by the rude supervisor, who said things like, “I couldn’t be less confident in your ability to complete these math tasks,” they performed worse on the tasks and reported feeling more annoyed, sad, and stressed than when interacting with a positive supervisor. They also reported feeling lower social, mental, and emotional energy.

While you might not be able to do much about a superior’s bad e-mail attitude, try to remember your own when sending out a note—that goes for everyone from your receptionist to the CEO of the company. “These results suggest that employees should pay careful attention to their e-mail communications, as messages that are perceived as rude may have unintended negative consequences on other employees at work,” says Giumetti.

For Giumetti, proper e-mail etiquette comes down to a few simple things:

1. Follow "netiquette" standards for communication. “For example, always include a subject, a greeting, a signature, and avoid using all caps and multiple question marks or exclamation points,” he says.

2. Carefully re-read messages before sending. This will ensure your message is conveyed in as clear a manner as possible. Avoid sarcasm in e-mail. Without the nonverbal cues, your wry humor can get completely lost.

3. Know your audience. “It might be OK to send really short messages back and forth between co-workers who know each other well and have established a pattern of communication, says Giumetti, “However, sending short e-mails to people you know less well or to strangers is not a good idea.” Take more time with these messages.

4. For messages that you think might be easily misinterpreted, pick up the phone or stop by the person’s desk to talk instead. This is especially important for interactions with people from different cultures, where customs for language usage may differ and misinterpretation may be more likely.

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