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E-mail overload: 7 deadly spams at work

Report on Business: Globe Careers, The Globe and Mail

Spam. The word even sounds nasty. These days, it conjures images of drowning in an unstoppable flood of electronic junk mail that clutters and clogs our inboxes. Don't you wish you could just turn the nozzle off?

At work, of course, most of us are spared a lot of spamming grief because our companies have firewalls and filters that block much of the nuisance traffic. But that doesn't mean we can work spam-free.

There is a whole different form and source of e-mail that intrudes on our inbox space and creates its own levels of stress: It's workplace spam and the culprits are our friends, co-workers and business contacts.

Invariably, workplace spam is so well disguised as legitimate e-mail it is beyond detection by on-line blocking techniques. The burden is on us to staunch this flow.

To help identify the perpetrators -- beyond the mirror -- here's a list of the seven deadly workplace spams:

  1. Intuition Spam

    Messages sent by well-intentioned co-workers who intuit that you will want to see a particular message -- they loved it, and so will you! Items in this category include chain mail, jokes and those "fabulous" Web links full of information that you won't be able to live without.

  2. Writing Spam

    The poorly planned, poorly conceived message that holds readers hostage and does not let them go until they've spent too much time trying to determine what it means. They include those blow-by-blow accounts of how every minute of every day was spent. It is like stepping into quicksand and struggling to climb back out.

  3. Profile Spam

    These e-mails are contrived by the sender to make sure the receiver is keeping his or her name front and centre.

    The content of the message may be cleverly masked.

    The prime element is use of this channel to achieve greater career visibility.

  4. Friendly Spam

    This category of messages includes personal requests for donations, identifying items for sale or for rent and virtually anything one person can broadcast to the many to serve a personal cause.

  5. Corporate Spam

    Messages that originate from a variety of well-meaning internal departments that want to make certain they have informed everybody on timely, mission-critical information. Examples include: "The finance department will all be out to lunch today," "The bathroom facilities on the 28th floor are flooded" and "The server is down."

  6. Commercial Spam

    Messages from associations, vendors and would-be suppliers -- people who want to do business with you or have done so in the past. You have purchased something or expressed an interest in a new office item or dropped your business card at a trade show and, voila, you are forever on their mailing list.

  7. Camouflage Spam

    These are messages that are carefully and clinically documented notes cloaked as e-mails. In them, employees transcribe and record conversations for future reference.

    They then forward the messages to their co-workers, solely to protect themselves.


Workplace spam may be everywhere, but remedies are close at hand. Here's what you can do to lead the way:

  • Audit your own sending style -- are you an innocent contributor to workplace spam, especially in the intuition, writing, profile or friendly categories? If so, don't press send any more; don't clog someone else's inbox.

  • If you use large audience broadcasts to send corporate messages, do a check on your sending practices. Does every employee need to know about localized matters, and will they get it in time to do something about it? As one manager so aptly said, "In Canada, I don't need to know the lights are out in Chicago."

    The same goes for associations, vendors and suppliers. Your gentle weekly or monthly e-mail reminders may actually serve to drive business away from you. Ease up on the messages, and target the right people with the right information at the right time.

  • Curb the urge to give out your e-mail address, just because you are asked. Some people even have two sets of business cards -- one with their e-mail co-ordinates, one without -- to be used in appropriate situations.

  • Ask to be removed from distribution lists that you don't need to be on. You would be surprised at how this request, especially from a senior executive, causes a larger-scale review of internal practices in this area.

  • Don't intrude on your co-workers' time and space by using corporate distribution lists for your personal causes, no matter how noble. Use the lunch room or common areas, including intranets, to post your personal requests.

    Your associates and co-workers will be grateful for the reprieve.

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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 Inbox, to be published in August.