These days there are plenty of ways to ruin a perfectly good career. Consider fouled up contracts, miscalculated business strategies, and, of course, your now famous imitation of Yosemite Sam doing the boss's we've-got-to-cut-expenses -immediately speech. Thanks to the digital age and the Internet, we can add e-mail to the list of career killers. Like me, you probably remember when e-mail was simple...just type your message, hit the Send button and off it goes to your pal in the next cube. No more. E-mail messaging now exceeds telephone traffic, and is the dominant form of business com-munication. At a moment's notice, e-mail can be printed, filed, stored, recalled and broadcast to thousands across the globe. Last but not least, e-mail can be subpoenaed. One digital boo-boo and you can kiss that corner office goodbye.

I've used e-mail since Day One. On a good day I get about 100 messages. I've seen more than one career end up in the dumper because of a thoughtless mouse click. Using e-mail effectively is more about common sense than technology. I know this is not what the publishers of $6 PC magazines want us to believe, but it's true. Here then are a few simple rules for using e-mail in the office. I hope these elementary guidelines will keep someone out there from losing a job.

Rule #1: Learn to Write

How many times have you seen something like this:
"It mandotorie that you all must all come to the meeting that being arnaged by executve managemant to discuss or upcoming and critical stragety for dealing with the most current addtins to the tax coda and how its going to effect ne vcntracts lunch will be provceied for those who got ther on tim."

Well, excuse me, but no one is going to take this seriously. E-mail is no different than a memorandum or business letter. All are written correspondence, and all create an impres-sion. Writing like Bill Shakespeare isn't necessary, but every e-mail user should firmly grasp the basics of third-grade grammar. Here are a few reminders. Words that begin sentences should be capitalized. Sentences should always end with some sort of punctuation. Commas are OK. Those who are seriously grammar-challenged can use a word processor with spell/grammar check, then cut and paste into the e-mail document. And remember: Proof-reading is good.

Rule #2: Be an Adult: Don't Blind Copy

Most e-mail systems have a Blind Copy facility. Messages can be sent to a user without the knowledge of other recipients. There may be good uses for blind copy, but I haven't seen one yet. Mostly this feature is used by people wanting to avoid a confrontation.

Rule #3: Using E-mail as an Excuse Not to Communicate Is Bad

I'll wager the majority of e-mail correspondence today is not really meant to convey information, but is some form of CYA. Think of the times you've heard someone in the office indignantly say, "Well, I sent you e-mail." We've forgotten the value of face-to-face or even voice-to-voice communication. E-mail will never be able to convey the nuances of body language, inflection and facial expression. With exchanges of e-mail, it is impossible to explore meaning and discover the sender's true intent. So, if you have a problem with someone, the first thing to do is find the person and have a conversation. Anyone who uses e-mail to avoid an uncomfortable situation, or sends e-mail to cover-up a mistake, is referred to Part 1 of Rule #2.

Rule #4: Always Use the Address Book 

E-mail addresses can be very similar. This simple fact has gotten more people into trouble than Adam's first bowl of applesauce. The scenario usually goes something like this. Jimmy up in Operations has a crush on Susie in Receiving. Instead of always using the company e-mail address book, our heart struck Romeo memorizes his paramour's address, and begins a steady stream of digital missives, prose and poetry that eloquently express his deep affection and true intent. For some reason (usually involving office politics), system administrators are forced to change selected e-mail addresses. The new vice president for accounting, who is not known as a happening dude, ends up with Susie's old e-mail address and an inbox full of provocative correspon-dence signed by you know who. I'd like to ask Jimmy why he didn't use Rule #4, but he's working some-where else now.

Rule #5: Don't Think E-mail Is Private

I am always amazed at employees who believe their digital correspondence is completely private. Let me emphasize a point here. Wrong, wrong, wrong. E-mail is company property. It can be retrieved, examined, and used in a court of law. E-mail in hospitals is considered "discoverable," and e-mail in public institutions can be obtained through a Freedom of Information request. In most companies, an employee has very little rights when it comes to corporate e-mail. 

So, being a savvy, digital-age kind of person, you sign up for one of those free Internet e-mail services. Now your privacy will be completely protected. Think again. if you read the privacy portion of these e-mail services policies, you'll find services will protect your privacy unless required to do otherwise by the law, or when it is necessary to protect the company. To adopt an old Latin cliche': E-mail user beware. One final note: Divorce lawyers love e-mail.

Rule #6: Beware the Subject Field 

It's true that most e-mail administrators don't read the text of messages. There simply isn't time. Administrators do, however, monitor the usage and performance of their systems. Most e-mail monitoring tools (real-time and otherwise) dis-play information about individual messages, and this often includes the text of the subject line. In the past, the subject line didn't contain a lot of juicy information. Today more peo-ple are using the subject field to send short text messages to alpha pagers. E-mail administrators love to see subject lines like "(insert the boss's name) Is an Idiot" or "Meet You at the Motel in 15 Minutes."

Rule#7: No One Wants to See Your Chain Letter

"Forward This E-mail to 100 People and the Holy and Pristine Goddess of Magnanimous Fortune, Will Bring You Fantastic Good Luck, Health and Winning Lottery Numbers." Well, maybe. Don't waste other's time with it, however.

Rule #8: Keep it Short

Like it or not, we remain a paper-based society. We like the feel of paper in our hands. We like to scribble our ideas in the margin. Sitting at a keyboard, we become hurried because the media hype makes us think "speed is good" and "this thing better be fast." Our Pavlovian-induced impatience means we don't respond well to lengthy e-mail (unless of course we print it out). Four thousand years of history causes us to react differently to paper. We tend to slow down when we have a piece of paper in our hand. Paper makes people think more about what is being read. Our responses to paper-based correspondence tend to be more thoughtful. 

Rule #9: Remove Your Name From Junk Distribution Lists

• Tell your friends and family members to take you off their joke lists. Most people feel that too much time is wasted sending jokes via email. I communicate with people who send and receive a lot of email. Their comments suggest jokes and spamming are the biggest annoyances in cyberspace.

• When you receive an unsolicited email advertisement, just delete it. Responding, even to remove your name from the distribution list, highlights your address as active. 

• Contact your ISP and have then stop your junk mail. They can place a filter on the most common junk mail domains and addresses. When you receive junk email, add the spammer's address to the filter to disallow any future correspondence.

Rule #10: Reduce Paper Mail

Send large files as email attachments to vendors, clients and hotels. The receiver may choose to print the document or simply save it electronically. Beth Schmidt, Corporate Meeting and Event Planner for StorageTek in Louisville, Colorado, finds it very helpful if a hotel has email. Instead of mailing or faxing, they can send her details for a meeting, authorizations, and confirmations directly over email, which saves her much time.


If you leave voice mail messages, you are a public speaker. And your phone voice is often your first impression.

1. Plan your message. Consider the points you want to make and jot down a few bullet points. A planned phone call averages 7 minutes. An unplanned phone call averages 12 minutes, which is a 5-minute difference. If you average 12 calls per day, that could save you an hour.

2. Be brief. Voice mail messages that are one minute or longer are too long. Respect people's time and aim for a 15- to 30-second message. Take more than 60 seconds and you risk losing your audience or being deleted. Remember the purpose is to leave a message, not give a speech. So get to the point. A stream-of-consciousness approach doesn't work. Think about your message and begin with your purpose. “The reason I'm calling is…”

3. Don't just leave your name and number; leave a message. You're much more likely to get a return call if the recipient knows what's up. Never leave a generic message. Let them know what information they will need to obtain before calling you back. There's a good chance someone can leave the information you need on your voice mail, thus eliminating an unnecessary round of phone tag.

4. Enunciate clearly. The telephone distorts high frequency sounds such as "f" and "s." Pronounce word endings and do not swallow syllables. This is especially important when giving your name: "My name is Laura Stack, S as in Sam, T as in Thomas, A as in Adam, C as in Charlie, K as in Katie.”

5. Watch Your Tone. Without any other non-verbal cues such as the face and body language, your tone is all you have to communicate with. Put vitality in your voice. A monotone lacks enthusiasm. Stand up and smile as you leave your message. Standing will increase your energy, and people can hear a smile over the phone. Smiling conveys warmth. Avoid sarcasm and irritation if you want your call returned. Keep an even temper and state your request.

6. Modulate your volume. A voice that is too loud is irritating. A soft voice will not always be heard, and the listener will miss vital information. Stand or sit up straight, and speak directly into the receiver. Do not cradle the phone in your neck or speak using a speaking phone.

7. Avoid telephone tag. Give the listener options. Tell them when you can best be reached to prevent frustration. "I will be out most of the afternoon and will return to my office by 4:00. Tomorrow I will be in for most of the day." Don't leave repeat messages. Your second call is no more likely to be returned than your first. Try sending an email instead.

8. End with your phone number. Speak slowly and say it twice. The listener needs time to process the information and write it down. Be sure to pause as you are saying your telephone number. "My number is 212 (pause), 123 (pause), 3456." Although you may have already given them your number, say it again and let it be the last thing they hear. It will give them time to write it down.

9. Give your message a headline to help the recipient distinguish which calls are top priorities or flag your message as urgent if the phone system allows.

10. Keep your voice-mail greeting short. If you must have a long greeting, tell the caller how to skip it in the future.

© 1999 Laura Stack. Laura Stack is a personal productivity expert, author, and professional speaker who helps busy workers Leave the Office Earlier® with Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. She is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., a time management training firm specializing in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. Since 1992, Laura has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She is the bestselling author of three works published by Broadway Books: The Exhaustion Cure (2008), Find More Time (2006) and Leave the Office Earlier (2004). Laura is a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, and Day-Timers®, Inc and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, and the New York Times. Her clients include Cisco Systems, Sunoco, KPMG, Nationwide, and 3M. To have Laura speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401. Visit to sign up for her free monthly productivity newsletter.