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Are you a habitual e-mail 'sender offender?'

Report on Business: Globe Careers, The Globe and Mail

Do you steel yourself for the inevitable e-mail in-box barrage every morning?

Do you automatically set aside certain e-mails by virtue of who sent them, and barely resist the urge to delete the rest?

If so, you are probably the victim of sender offenders -- you know, those people who use e-mail for purposes other than supporting the productive use of e-mail in the workplace. Indeed, you could be one, too.

One manager jokingly told me that he would love a "return to sender" feature on his e-mail system replete with a message attached saying: "Someone sent this ridiculous e-mail from your in-box -- just thought you should know."

Nowadays, no assessment of a co-worker is complete without considering their e-mail sending habits. To that end, I have identified five types of sender offenders:

  1. Spray and Pray

    This type makes liberal use of copy, reply-to-all and distribution list features. The motivation here can be either contrived or purely innocent.

    The contrived sender purposely pulls as many people as possible into the e-mail thread loop in an effort to make certain that respective butts are covered. The innocent sender uses these mechanisms to ensure that everyone that could possibly want to be informed, is.

  2. Hide and Seek

    They lurk over the keyboard constantly transmitting messages to the workplace at large. Their measure of self-worth is tied to how many e-mails they are sending daily -- when possible, these people avoid direct contact with others. Characteristically, they also avoid decisions, so their e-mails are always pushing the situation into someone else's lap, thereby "passing the buck."

  3. Prima Donna

    This sender is convinced that every e-mail they send is crucial information. For some, all their e-mails have an "urgent" flag attached to it. Others use e-mail as a weapon to request from subordinates bits of information that they could easily obtain themselves. They also seem to send that extra-special joke or chain mail that they know you will just love.

  4. Power Player

    Here, the keyboard is used strictly for its situation-control value. They could be office tyrants who use e-mail to check on how quickly employees respond or whether they are back from lunch or break. They inflict damage in more subversive ways by committing to e-mail what should be dealt with in person. They also like to direct traffic, sending e-mail instructions to groups, leaving them to determine who should be doing what.

  5. Emotional Wreck

    This sender may use workplace e-mail to vent and to register extreme displeasure with a new policy or code. They may send e-mail to people whom they have never met because they have something important to say -- usually negative -- and they can get their own measure of personal satisfaction by dumping all over faceless recipients.

Reduce Sender Offences

If you recognize your colleagues -- or yourself -- don't despair: There are ways to reduce sender offences.

  • First, for each e-mail that you want to send, ask yourself why the other person should receive it. It sounds simple, but so is pressing the send button. Sometimes we think: "Oh well, if they don't want the information, they can just delete it." Most people get a dozen of these types of e-mails everyday -- should you contribute to their delete folder?

  • Second, use e-mail features judiciously. Large audience functions like copying, reply-to-all, and distribution lists are so efficient for sending the same message to multiple parties -- they are also the most abused.

    If you must "copy-in" people to your e-mail, make sure that they clearly understand why you have chosen to do so. This takes more time than simply pressing send, but so should anything worth communicating well.

  • Lastly, don't let communication by e-mail lull you into a false sense of security.

E-mail is not a sanctuary for your private thoughts and personal actions. It needs to be used with the same type of considered caution that we would exercise in face-to-face, team or client meetings. Not everyone gets to say everything that is on his or her minds -- don't let e-mail carry you over this edge.

If you practise sending only what needs to be sent, not what you think you want others to receive, we might just learn to love e-mail a little more.

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Christina Cavanagh is a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., and author of Managing E-mail: Thinking Outside the In-box, to be published in August.