Lesson learned: Being careful with email is always a good idea

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

 “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

—Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153)

“Golly! I know better than that.”

I know you have said those words to yourself more than once, or something to that effect, accompanied by a slap to the forehead.

Recently, I had occasion to revisit one of these “How many times is it going to take me to learn this?” situations. And, just like the girl in the horror flick who cannot stay out of the dark room, I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

It happened during a period when I was not feeling too well.

I had just about completed a bout with bronchitis when I was hit with a severe sinus infection. Being laid up for a couple of days is a big deal for me, and this time it ended up being three weeks and I was not at my best.

Sometime during that third week of illness I heard that a business associate that I have great regard for had accepted an offer of partnership in his firm and was moving from our town to the big city. By the time I heard this news, the move had taken place, so I thought I would send him a congratulatory email.

The email began in a very light mood with lots of “atta boys” on the move and new situation. I expressed that I would miss seeing him around town but knew this was a great move for him.

Here’s mistake no. 1: Somewhere in the third paragraph of my note I decided to include reference to an unfinished conversation between us and attempted to lighten up the topic by making what I thought was a humorous reference.

Before hitting send I reread the note and thought “Hmmm, I wonder if that remark could be misinterpreted?” That question, if asked, has only one correct answer — Yes!

“Nah,” I said, “He knows me well enough to know I was kidding and meant what I wrote as a positive comment.”

I could not have been more wrong.

The morning after I sent my supposedly congratulatory, funny note I received back an email missile. My concern about misinterpretation had materialized. Now, how to handle the mess?

Mistake No. 2: Remember I said I had not been feeling well? I looked at the note I had received and said to myself, “I am in no mood to be nice about this!”

Type, type, type, send. Off goes my torrid response. You can take your you know what and do you know what with it — or something to that effect — was the essence of my response.

After a bit, I calmed down. In taking stock of my actions I knew what I had done was going to call for an apology. This all took place on a Friday and I ended up with the whole weekend to plan my attempt to remedy the damage done.

Come Monday morning, I made the call to my associate. He was cool when he answered the phone, a tone I was hoping he wouldn’t take. I was still not feeling well and I allowed my emotions (read embarrassment) to kick in (Mistake No. 3) and we yammered loudly at each other for a few minutes before I realized more damage was underway and offered my apology.

It took a while; I had clearly hurt his feelings and of course in business — where we have no feelings — having them hurt is doubly troublesome because it is embarrassing.

I think we got all the way back to zero in the conversation, not to the positive place we were at before this incident occurred, but at least we wiped the slate clean. Here’s the sad part: Upon reflection I see that something is now there in the space of the relationship that was not there before I went off as I did and caused this ruckus. Trust has become an issue and it never was before.

An outcome of the actions I took is that I am left with the knowledge that he will now likely be careful in any exchange with me, something I had never intended and something I now sadly regret.

What are the lessons here? For me they were many.

A friend of mine, Bob Whipple, founder of Leadergrow, does a better job of summarizing the best practices of email commmunication than I can so I recommend reading and saving his piece, “12 Do’s and Don’ts of E-Mail Communication.

Does this story remind you that you may have some damages to repair?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at mike.cook@vistagechair.com

Related Stories