10 Conversations You Should Never, Ever Have Over Email

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Tara Malek14
Co-owner, chief litigator at Smith + Malek PLLC
June 15, 2024 at 1:29PM UTC

Technology has made communication easy... too easy. We can fire off an email, DM or text within seconds to coworkers, your boss, or your friends and family. God forbid you mix up Jen, your sister-in-law, with Jen whom you mentor at work. 

The ease and speed of modern communication is not always a good thing. Shooting off an emotional email or message without fully thinking through potential consequences can mean professional suicide, and even legal ramifications. Here are the ten conversations you should never have with a colleague or a direct report over email or text message:

1. Complex projects that require significant explanation

One of my pet peeves is getting a long Slack message or email about a complex project with a call to action at the end. If the project is intricate, complicated and requires pages of explanation, schedule an in-person (or video) meeting to discuss it, then follow up with a simple email. You’ll save a lot of miscommunication and aggravation that way. Your direct report or colleague can ask questions in real-time, and you’ll both walk away with a more clear direction on how the project should go. 

2. Shortcomings and mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. When someone in your office inevitably comes up short, think about how you’d want to be treated if you were in that situation. Dig deep, and do not let your emotion, frustration, anger or anxiety drive you to send a careless email or text. Be direct, but respectful. Schedule a meeting. Talk it out over coffee, perhaps outside of the office in case emotions surface. Acting in the heat of the moment could result in irreparable damage to your working relationship. 

3. Promotions

Hooray! You promoted someone who reports to you. This is wonderful news, and it deserves to be shared in person. It shows so much more respect and investment in the success of a colleague or direct report. Celebrate with them. Share in the joy, and show them that you are just as excited to give them the news as they are to receive it.

4. Terminations

These tough conversations are always better had in person. Breaking such critical news over a message shows disrespect and a lack of empathy. Give your direct reports and colleagues the chance to have a face-to-face conversation and work through the logistics (and inevitable emotions) at hand. The fact that you listened to their side of the story will (hopefully) give them some closure and you can move on with mutual dignity and if possible, respect.

5. Demotions

As an attorney, let me be the first to tell you that when a corrective action is needed, it is vital that you have a well-documented, in-person meeting to make sure that the person clearly understands what they need to do to be successful. Having a text or email conversation in this situation may feel easier at first, but it will absolutely backfire. Miscommunications happen in writing all the time. It’s wise to be in the same room or at least on video together so you can observe their body language and answer questions.

6. Group projects and division of labor

If multiple people in the same office are working on a project, having a quick in-person meeting to decide on division of labor to ensure the success of your project and reduce a lot of conflict in advance. Talk it out, map it out, answer questions, and then follow up with an email. Determine who will “own” the project, who is a “reviewer” or an “approver,” and decide who will be a “contributor.” Having clear roles and expectations is always a good idea, and much easier through a quick group meeting rather than a massive Slack thread or email chain. 

7. Pay

Everyone is sensitive when it comes to their compensation and benefits. If you are making a change, write a policy memo about it, explain the reason, and then roll it out at a team meeting to everyone at the same time. If you throw out a message about pay or benefits ad hoc, the result will be a lot of hallway gossip and unnecessary angst. 

8. Trash Talk

Don’t do it. Not in messages and not in person. There is absolutely no good that can come from trash-talking colleagues. Leave the mean girl in high school and rise above it. If you have a concern about someone’s performance and how it is hurting the company or its culture or you personally, be direct. Bring it up directly or, if that’s not possible, in a conversation with your supervisor. Don’t shoot off a nasty-gram to the person or to other colleagues. 

9. Complaints about systems and processes

Use the proper channels to voice concerns that need to be addressed by management. Shooting off an angry message via email or text isn’t going to do anything but come back to haunt you later and show that you are not a constructive team player. Like complaints about people, schedule a meeting and talk through concerns with a supervisor. 

10. Expressions of emotion — complete with emojis

Please, please, please stop doing this! Let’s acknowledge that we are all adults and adults deserve real expressions in real life.  Smile, laugh, scowl. But whatever you do, please stop sending emojis at work. Yes, I am judging you, and others likely are as well. Emojis are incredibly unprofessional in the workplace. 

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