Saturday, March 27, 2010

If You Can’t Say Something Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All.

That is nice advice and can certainly spare people hurt feelings. However, in the working world, unlike on the playground, you can’t just ignore your boss or neglect communication with co-workers when tough topics need addressing.

In college whenever I needed to write an e-mail to a professor, supervisor or peer, I would painstakingly choose the right word, double-check any implied attitude and make sure it was respectful. I would double my efforts at professionalism if the e-mail was about a sensitive topic; for example, questioning a grade, voicing a controversial opinion or telling a group member that they weren’t pulling their weight.

Apparently, more seasoned “professionals” don’t take this same care to be…professional.

I was recently dragged into a little office tiff where two co-workers were exchanging snippy e-mails. And although I was required, by the rules of making office friends, to take sides with the woman who involved me, I couldn’t help thinking that the bigger issue was why this problem had even arisen in the first place. It was obvious to me, an indifferent bystander, that her first e-mail had been brief; thus, interpreted by him as short-tempered. In response, his e-mail was insulting, condescending and sarcastic. Never mind that it was also written while they sat 30 feet from each other. From my experience, when you doubt an e-mail’s intentions, it is best to interpret confusing messages as positive. Had these two co-workers simply clarified, “Oh, I’m sorry; did I do or say something that offended you?” this little bout, comparable to juvenile note-passing, could have been avoided.

Perhaps this lack of courtesy is normal in the work place, and I’m being silly to think that it is possible for people to remain respectful at all times. Or maybe I’m just surprised to learn that even experienced, professional adults can behave like teenagers. In past positions as an intern, I wasn’t seen as an equal; therefore, I wasn’t privy to co-worker drama.  And while you might suspect younger adults are less mature, my previous job on a radio promotions staff proves otherwise, for our biggest co-worker drama was who owed whom a beer.

I don’t write this to patronize my co-workers or suggest that I am more professional than they are, for perhaps the strain of supporting a family bears down heavily on them and causes emotions to run high. But all-in-all, work would be more pleasant if everyone erred on the side of being polite and proofread e-mails for evidence of a bad attitude – before hitting the “send” button. There is so much emphasis on treating clients like royalty and yet so little on interoffice courtesy.

Also, for those times when you really can’t say something nice and you must write an insulting e-mail, be sure to proofread it; grammar and spelling mistakes detract from your argument and hurt your credibility.

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