Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Use your work emails effectively

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Treat your federal email account as public property, because it is: Any of your emails can be read by your agency or FOIA’d at any time. So never include potentially incriminating, embarrassing or personally confidential information in work emails.

Check the first and last name of the recipient of each of your emails before sending or forwarding it. A cautionary tale: I previously worked with a federal manager who used his government account to send a friend an email that cruelly disparaged one of his colleagues. But immediately after hitting “send,” the manager realized that he had accidentally sent the offensive email to his disparaged colleague instead of to his friend. Oops!

Frantically attempting to salvage the situation, the manager raced to his colleague’s office, which happened to be empty at the time, trespassed into his colleague’s email account, deleted the disparaging email from her inbox and “Deleted Items,” and breathed a sigh of relief — only to look up to see his colleague standing in the threshold of her office. Caught with his back against the wall, the manager coughed up an implausible excuse for his trespassing and quickly fled his colleague’s office.

But it got even worse: Unbeknownst to the manager, all of his colleague’s work emails had been programmed to be delivered to her cellphone in addition to her office computer. Therefore, even after the manager erased the offensive email from his colleague’s work computer, it remained on her phone — where she quickly found it. And so in the end, the fed’s disparaging email and his foolish handling of the situation irreparably damaged his relationship with a colleague, got him in hot water for trespassing and caused him considerable embarrassment.

Address each email after you have finished writing it, instead of when you start writing it. By doing so, you will avoid sending out unfinished emails.

Warning: If you’ve emailed colleagues from your personal email account, their names may automatically populate the “to” lines of emails from your personal account when you start addressing them. If this is the case, be extra careful not to accidentally send personal emails to colleagues.

Craft the subject lines of emails to be substantive in order to help you find them later, if you need to. Also, make them attention-grabbing, so that, like newspaper headlines, they will compel people to keep reading. The more positive and recipient-centered each subject line is, the better.

For example, “Today’s staff meeting is canceled” is a better subject than “The meeting.” And “Meeting about Potential Solutions to Budget Shortfall” is better than “Meeting about Budget Shortfall.” And instead of using the header “quick question,” simply ask the quick question in the header, such as “Have time to review a press release today?” If an email is time-sensitive or urgent, say so in the subject line.

Start each email with a salutation, such as “Dear … ,” instead of immediately launching into your email content. Why? Because no matter how busy and well-meaning you may be, a salutationless email unnecessarily conveys condescension — particularly if your email requests an action from your recipient and if your recipient is a subordinate. By adding a salutation to an email, you will lengthen your work day by a maximum of about two seconds — a small price to pay for an important goodwill gesture.

Email recipients want to know “What’s in it for me?” So whenever possible, answer this question overtly in emails. For example, you could ask your supervisor in an email: “May I attend a lecture about Y at X organization from 3:00 to 5:00 tomorrow? Also, I would like to work at home tomorrow.”

Alternatively, you could strengthen your request by asking, “May I attend a lecture about Y at X organization from 3:00 to 5:00 tomorrow because it would help me do Z better for you? If so, may I please telecommute tomorrow because the lecture will be held near my home, and so I would be able to work a full eight-hour day — which would not otherwise be possible because of my long commute?”

Writing effective emails

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The faster and more easily a document can be read and understood, the more likely it is to be read and understood.

Convey messages with as few words as possible and ruthlessly deleting unnecessary information without cutting essential background information.

Open your first email to a new contact with a concise introduction that quickly conveys context. For example: “Dear Joe: Lily Whiteman here from Federal Times. X suggested that I contact you as part of my search for information about Y.”

Get to the point quickly: Explain what needs to be done, by whom and when within the first few sentences of each email.

Preface a mile-long email string that you are forwarding to another recipient with a quick explanation of the string’s importance and necessary actions.

Use headings to break up text and emphasize your logic in emails that are more than several paragraphs long.

Highlight deadlines and other essential points with bold, underlining or headings. (Color won’t be visible in black-and-white printouts.)

Use numbered lists to convey the sequence of necessary steps or the relative priority of included items, and using bullets to describe related items that are of equal importance.

Eliminate or explaining acronyms that may stump anyone who will receive the email directly or via forwarding.

Include your contact information and title in every email, even if recipients already have this information.

Repeatedly spell-check and proofread.

Not only is an email’s content important, so too is its tone. The more collegial and positive its tone is, the more likely it will be to generate interest and cooperation from its recipients.

Unfortunately, communicating through email is sometimes like talking through a filter that strips words and messages of softening messages and magnifies negativity. It does so because:

Emails are devoid of facial expressions, physical gestures and vocal tone that may otherwise neutralize the sting of criticism or even mild suggestions from superiors.


It’s easier to “flame” a faceless computer than a person in a face-to-face or telephone interaction. This is partly because participants in email conversations are deprived of immediate feedback to their comments that may compel them to suppress their anger and rudeness and modulate their tone, and thereby maintain civility and prevent disagreements from escalating into arguments.

Time lags in strained email conversations may magnify tensions. Indeed, emailing criticism without providing quick opportunities for a recipient to respond via phone or face-to-face discussions is the cyber equivalent of lobbing a grenade over a wall and then fleeing. Promote goodwill and avoid generating misunderstandings and inflaming tensions via email by:

Writing emails with a humane tone, even when delivering instructions to subordinates. Remember: There is a person with human emotions on the other side of your computer.

Use everyday conversational language, even when delivering bureaucratic information.

Deliver bad news, significant criticisms or denials of requests, in person or by phone, if possible, even if your decision or criticism is in response to an email.

lf you must deliver criticism or bad news or respond to a negative email via email, craft your email to calmly stick to the facts without sounding angry, offensive or defensive; stay polite. Don’t send your email impulsively; let it go cold, and then edit it with fresh eyes and an open mind. Seek a second opinion.

When you must email feedback, such as a document containing your redline/strikeout edits, preface your suggestions or edits with a word of thanks and praise of the recipient’s work.