• Share

Online Communication at Work: How to Handle Email, Texting and More

By:  Nora Zelevansky Jul 5, 2013
Tags & Topics:
Man with mobile phone

The explosion of social media has resulted in the introduction of several new boorish archetypes: There are over-sharers, cyber stalkers, friend collectors, undercover braggers, belligerent ranters and trolls, to name a few.

None of us want to be labeled with such unflattering descriptors in our personal lives, but having that perception of us transfer into our professional lives can potentially derail long-term success.

Online communication becomes more important every day, says Dan Post Senning, great-great-grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post, spokesperson for her namesake institute and author of Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online. I couldn’t overstate its importance.”

But email, Facebook and other social media are a minefield. Beyond one’s own posts and status updates, even a split second “Like” or “Share” of a friend’s joke, political opinion or racy picture can project a message that’s offensive or inappropriate. An email can go from friendly to awkwardly familiar with a single emoticon, alienating an important client or boss. And even a small slip-up can follow you around the professional world online forever.

Fortunately, experts in job hunting, career building, etiquette and creative self-promotion have generously shared their tips here for making sure your online activity is helpful — not harmful — to your career.

Rule #1: Treat Work Emails Like Professional Letters

Everyone thinks they know how to use email. But the more comfortable we become with it, the likelier we are to approach it too casually — and that can be dangerous. Who among us hasn’t sent an email to the wrong recipient — with embarrassing results?

To save face at the office, when it doubt, keep it professional. “A general informality can creep into email communication. It’s particularly seductive when you’re using the same device for texting,” notes Senning. “We advise treating each email like a little letter, writing in full sentences. Be aware that if you’re using company email, it belongs to the business. That can both protect you and raise some privacy issues.”

Other basic email tips from Senning:

  • While you should know this by now, here’s a reminder: Don’t use all caps unless you really mean to be shouting.
  • Use proper punctuation.
  • Make sure subject line is clear and spelled correctly so your email gets the attention and priority it deserves. ("Studies show that the average corporate employee receives 100 to 300 emails a day. The subject is an important way to get yours read,” says Senning.)
  • In the early days of a correspondence, use the more formal “Hello” to set the tone for business. Sign off with: “Sincerely” or “Best.” It’s okay if these niceties drop away as an exchange continues, but it’s important to show proper respect from the start.
  • Make sure to state your business and ask directly for what you need, so the recipient of your missive isn’t left wondering what he should do next.

“Each company has a unique set of needs and issues,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “Make sure you’re following protocol, so that your message doesn’t look like the exception. The emphasis may be on brevity, for example, so verbosity may not reflect the [right] style.”

Cohen also suggests paying attention to the “cc” option: “If you cc too many people, you may project nerves or political ambition and annoy people.” You don’t want to leave anyone out either.

Rule #2: When It Comes to Texting, Follow Your Boss’s Lead

“Some people may view texting as invasive,” says Cohen. “It also may be generational or depend on the culture of the company.” You would never text your boss at Goldman Sachs, for instance, unless a situation was incredibly dire and all other methods had been exhausted.

For Senning, texts perfectly illustrate the benefits and dangers of the immediacy of communication. “Each communication medium has a pace and expected time frame for reply and, with texts, you start to impose that quicker time frame on someone.” Which means that if you are texting your boss, you are basically saying that he needs to respond to you right now, which may be overstepping your role in the company.

The exceptions to this rule are:

  • Your boss uses texting extensively and you are following his/her lead.
  • There is a time-sensitive problem that has to be handled, such as alerting someone to a missed flight.

Rule #3: Be Careful about Facebook Posts, Likes and Photos

It should go without saying that middle-of-the-day Words With Friends and FarmVille updates on your Facebook wall don’t suggest a strong work ethic. But many Facebook pitfalls begin way before that.

Some experts argue that “friending” any coworker is a mistake. Others suggest creating separate personal and professional pages or setting up specific privacy settings so you can choose what gets exposed to whom.

While expressing strident opinions on topics like sex, religion and politics can turn off prospective employers and current coworkers, the most common problem is being tagged in questionable photographs. “You want to be careful and use extra discretion with images,” advises Senning. “Photos can be so powerful in shaping an impression. You don’t need to ask permission to untag yourself in an unflattering picture, but you can also follow up and ask someone to take it down.”

Surprisingly, many experts agree that you’re under no obligation to accept a friend request — even from your boss. But if you do accept your coworkers as friends, avoid complaining about the office in status updates — an act perpetrated by a surprising number of people. “Almost nothing could be more dangerous to your professional reputation than griping or airing negative gossip,” says Senning. “It reflects so badly on you as a professional. And the person most likely to hire you next is a person who knows someone you know.”

Rule #4: Think Before You Tweet

According to Roy Cohen, bad communication skills always reflect poorly. Twitter may be the one case when an audience is not alienated by abbreviations, but it can be more likely to misconstrue what you are trying to say. “Twitter forces us to write in shorthand,” he says. “That often means a breakdown between meaning and perception.”

Also, the immediacy of tweets lends itself to mistakes, notes Senning. “Be extra careful when you’re feeling strongly about something. Reread the tweet and take a deep breath before you send. After all, you don’t know where something you say is going to pop up.”

Always consider what’s appropriate for your specific position. For instance, as Roy Cohen mentions, Hillary Clinton didn’t start tweeting until after she left her post as Secretary of State.

Rule #5: Ask Before You Post a Photo of a Colleague

By now, we should all know not to post racy photos. But other, more complicated issues surround posting pictures on sites like Instagram and Tumblr.

It’s important to be careful about exposing what might be considered a private moment or meeting. Remember: Not everything is meant for public consumption.

When in doubt, ask your hosts or associates whether they feel comfortable with you posting photos online. Senning points to recent pictures of Nelson Mandela in the hospital, which have sparked controversy because some felt they were inappropriate to publish.

Women with mobile phone

We understand how addicting taking photos and posting can be, but you should consider how doing that might keep you from connecting in a professional setting. “Any time your interaction with the device takes your attention away from the relationships or social situation, it has gone too far,” says Senning. “Don’t use your cell phone as a security blanket or you’ll miss out.”

Rule #6: Make the Most of Your LinkedIn Profile

David Burkus, author of the upcoming book, The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas, and a Professor of Management at Oral Roberts University, credits his book deal and much of his success as a speaker to his online presence, which started as a blog. It’s no surprise then that, in his “Business Communications” class, he teaches students to cultivate and control their professional image online.

In his experience, even the most involved among us are not necessarily using online tools to our best advantage. “The majority of people use LinkedIn incorrectly,” he asserts. “People think it’s a career-focused Facebook, but that’s a fraction of what it offers. LinkedIn has discussion forums in specific industries, where people offer help and suggestions for free.” A good example: The American Institute of CPAs, which offers state-level LinkedIn groups. Burkus encourages accounting students in his classes to join and interact with people in their state who have already passed the CPA exam.

According to Roy Cohen, too many people sign up for LinkedIn but leave their profile blank. “A lot of people focus on building a community, but don’t invest time in building a rich profile,” he laments. That’s a lost opportunity.

Rule #7: Audit Your Social Media Presence Regularly

“Social media is critical to how you establish your brand and expand your reach, but your footprint is permanent,” says Cohen. “Many companies check Facebook and other sites as a matter of protocol. You need to be sure that what you’re presenting to the world doesn’t impact your ability to garner gainful employment.”

Naturally, the more you expand your visibility, the more vulnerable you are to potential fallout. But you have more control over what comes up when people search your name than you might expect.

Burkus suggests choosing one site as your primary hub and focusing heavily on developing it, so that it comes up first thing in a search engine when your name is entered. If you have a common name, come up with the word you want most closely associated with your name and always include it. “Do an audit of your social media presence, weeding out images that you posted as a teenager that may not represent you anymore,” he recommends.  “Then pick a home base. Some students get creative about building their own websites and blogs, but you can also make a LinkedIn profile your hub.” A blog that expresses great interest in a chosen industry may separate you from your competitors.

Rule 8: Treat Others as You Want to Be Treated

What it all comes down to is that no matter whether you are sending a letter or posting a tweet, treating friends and colleagues well can only help you in the long run. “The principles of treating each other with respect and being honest and considerate stay the same all along. It’s about having an awareness of how our actions impact others,” advises Senning.