“Have I got a story for you,” an intern at The Emily Post Institute exclaimed. We had just been discussing how emails end up going to the wrong person. It turns out the “TO” field is a minefield of trouble if you aren’t careful.
The intern had a friend, Kate, who had recently gotten a job as an administrative assistant in an HR department. Part of her boss’s job was attending local Chamber of Commerce business mixers. One of Kate’s friends, Joe, went to the mixer and met her boss. Conversation turned to job opportunities, and the boss suggested that he set up an appointment to continue the discussion. Joe wanted to get the lay of the land at the company so he wrote Kate an email asking her to give him her assessment for the place so he could be better prepared for his meeting. Kate wrote back saying the company was great but her boss was full of himself and definitely had issues. She was pretty explicit about her boss. As long as her friend could deal with that, everything would be okay.
Kate made two mistakes. First was saying anything disparaging about her boss in an email. Emails are public documents, so don’t write or say anything in one that you can’t put on a bulletin board for anyone to read. But she was sending the email to her friend, “Joe” so she could be honest with him, she thought. Unfortunately, she made mistake number two when she entered Joe’s name in the “TO” field. Autofill took over after she typed “J” and then “o.” Too bad her boss’s name also was “Joe.” Instead of her friend’s email address appearing in the “TO” field, her boss’s name appeared there. Oblivious to the mistake, she sent the email.
Unfortunately for her, her boss was not amused. She was fired that afternoon.
Email is a powerful communications tool that enables us to be in contact with more people more easily than ever. But those benefits are balanced by problems. Sure we can do more in less time, but that leads to stress which is a real issue in the workplace. Consequently, we don’t take the time to proofread and review emails. And mistakes slip by us. One of the most diabolical buttons is the SEND button: Once you hit it, the email is gone. (I know, some systems let you recall an email. But that doesn’t help you with anyone who has already seen it before you recall it.)
Take a moment or two, or even a few extra minutes, and review your emails before sending. Check the body copy for sure, but also carefully examine the “TO” field and the “SUBJECT” field. Had our intern’s friend taken the time to review her email before she hit the send button, she might still have her job today.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.
Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.
Tracy Cashman is Senior Vice President and Partner of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.
Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.