Abundant Optimism

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Read E-Mails Before Replying to Avoid Embarrassment

By Tamara Martfeld

I and my co-workers have had many interesting replies to e-mails over the years due to the sender not reading the message to which he is replying. Many of these interesting replies have come from managers who think they are saving time by reading a little of the e-mail and then making assumptions as to what is happening.

One example is a series of e-mails between two employees which was escalated to a manager. In that particular office, customers were assigned to a single employee. If the customer needed something, the customer would always go to that employee. If the employee did not have the expertise to address a customer’s issues, the employee would find the answers from co-workers or management and then reply to the customer. Among other things, this prevented the customer from calling every name they had in an attempt to get the answer they wanted. A new employee was transferred to the unit and one of the customers was assigned to him. The customer asked the new employee a question about an old issue hoping to get a different answer. The new employee asked the co-worker who had previously served the customer for assistance. The co-worker gave the new employee all the information on the customer including all the available e-mails on the issue and the original response given to the customer. The new employee wanted the co-worker to contact the customer with the information. The co-worker reminded the new employee that the new employee needed to give the customer the response. The new employee responded with a few insults and the accusation that the co-worker was not giving him any help. The co-worker escalated the e-mail chain to the supervisor. The supervisor’s response was, “Maybe we should all take some training to learn how to get along”. What? That response was totally irrelevant and inappropriate to the situation.

There were several incidents with another individual in a high level position who would not read the e-mails before promising that his staff would do specific work for the customer. Customer service is great, however, what was being promised was inappropriate and could have caused legal problems if something went wrong. When the inappropriateness of the request was pointed out, the answer was that he had already told the customer we would do it, and for us to complete the work. This individual may have saved face with the customer, but he was known internally as an idiot – just because he did not read the e-mails and understand the situation before replying. Luckily, there were no legal repercussions.

I would be very surprised if you have not seen similar situations yourself. I have found it surprisingly common. To avoid looking like an idiot, read those e-mails before responding. Yes, it may take a few more minutes. However, those few minutes can save you from embarrassment and being thought of as an idiot. It may also prevent you from giving your word for inappropriate activity or answering yes when you should have said no. Remember, the recipient has your answer in writing!

To make matters more interesting, if you work for or with the government, ALL your e-mails are subject to a public records request. Some might be able to be held back due to security issues, but the number of those able to be held back is likely to be a very small subset of all your e-mails. Might it be embarrassing? If you don’t know, you might want to ask a few of the politicians caught with questionable e-mail correspondence.

Even if you work for private industry, the e-mails can be made public and become embarrassing. If your company is caught doing something illegal, you and your e-mails may be caught up in the investigation. You may not have known the illegal activity was occurring or have been a willing participant. However, if you answered e-mails pertaining to the situation without reading them, there could be repercussions. Reading the e-mail before responding might have kept you out of the situation; not reading might land you in jail due to your response.

Be safe. Take the time to read the e-mail and know to what you are responding.

Have a wonderful Labor Day week-end. Remember that in spite of its name, you are supposed to take a rest from labor, not perform labor, on this day!