Ask The Lawyer

By Debra Roth

Think before you hit the ‘send’ key

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Compared to just a decade ago, so much of how we work today is digital. Emails, cloud-sharing, texting — it’s how we get the job done.

Staying current in our professional and personal lives is important, but be aware that the technological push can have negative consequences if not managed correctly. When federal managers get in trouble in the digital workplace, it’s usually because of a failure to ponder a difficult, delicate or complex matter, or the result of improper personal use of government devices. Stay safe and ponder your message before you hit the “send” key.

What’s it mean to be careful? First, the golden rule: If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it in an email. With the upswing in going digital, the rules of etiquette have declined. People will say things to one another in an email that they would never say to each other face to face, because it would be rude, hurtful or inappropriate. Countless federal employees are disciplined for making statements in emails that fit this category. That’s aside from forwarding the inappropriate jokes. Communicating by email does not relieve you of the obligation to be polite and appropriate.

Second, there is the increased use of email to manage down. For some managers who have difficult employees, email has relieved them of the need to actually talk to or counsel an employee. Doing it by email is easier. However, there simply is no substitute for the face-to-face counseling session. Go ahead and document the meeting with an email, but to manage a workforce and empower those who are ready, willing and able, and counsel those in need of adjustments, we need to talk to each other. Also, subtlety can get lost in email communication. And without being face to face, you cannot gauge the employee’s reaction to your words.

Third, how do you minimize the risk of being misunderstood while getting the work done? Edit yourself. Just think about how many emails you send or receive each day that contain typographical errors, spelling errors, grammatical errors or missing words. It’s become acceptable to send emails with such mistakes. A decade ago, we would have sent a letter or memo, and we’d never let it go out with those errors. But we view email communication to be less formal. Ensure you are taken seriously by proofreading your emails before hitting “send.” Undoubtedly you will also choose to edit your message for clarity and tone, add something you forgot (relieving you of the need to send follow up emails), or delete something that’s better left out of an email. This is a bit of work, but a well-stated email reflects well on you professionally and, when dealing with your subordinates, leaves no room for confusion or doubt on where you stand on a particular issue.

Then there are the emails of a personal nature on a government device. This almost always leads to trouble when the content involves a romantic relationship with a subordinate and you think you’re keeping it discreet. What usually happens is the manager believes that, because the subordinate is a willing participant in the relationship, it’s all kept just between the two of them. That may be true — until someone files a complaint with the Office of the Inspector General and claims you’re showing favoritism in ratings, work assignments, promotions or office locations. Your emails and text messages are fair game and will, without a doubt, all be recovered by the OIG.

If it’s a personal matter, whether it is communication with your friends and family members, or one with your co-workers, keep it off the government computer. That’s why we all have personal devices.

It’s difficult to predict how the way we work and communicate in the next 10 years will evolve. It seems the pace may quicken and we’ll experience a further reduction of formality as the use of social media in the workplace increases. If the past 10 years are a guide to the next decade, it will take a lot of effort to get it right while managing in an electronic age, and the pressure to be responsive will continue to be fodder for mistakes.

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