The Netiquette Of Working Life
Vicki Walker made headlines in 2009 when she was dismissed from her job as financial controller of a New Zealand healthcare company for writing emails to co-workers in all capital letters. The company claimed the communications, which included sections highlighted in red lettering, were "confrontational" and said she had '"caused disharmony in the workplace by using block capitals, bold typeface and red text in her emails".
An employment tribunal later found that Ms Walker had been unfairly dismissed and awarded her $11,500 in compensation, but the case highlighted the need for a code of etiquette when using newer forms of communication such as email, social networking and instant messaging.
Whether or not it should be seen as a sackable offence, etiquette experts almost universally agree that people should avoid writing email in capitals.
"It just looks shouty," says Patricia Fitzpatrick, founder of the Etiquette School of New York. "It is best not to do it."
Understanding the etiquette of new technology is becoming increasingly critical. Employees and businesses are struggling to define what is correct, resulting in many misunderstandings. Some 8 per cent of companies with more than 1,000 employees have fired someone for over their use of social media, according to a 2009 study by Proofpoint, the internet security firm.
Etiquette experts say they are fielding more questions on technology than ever before. The latest edition of Emily Post's book Etiquette, considered the ultimate authority on correct societal behaviour in North America, included a section dedicated to the dos and don'ts of modern communications. A separate book on technology etiquette is due to be published soon by the Emily Post Institute.
"Business etiquette is becoming more difficult as our methods of communications become more complex. Its not just letters and phonecalls, it is email, twitter, text messages and so on," said Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and co-author of the latest etiquette book.
"We get a lot of questions about it from people now. A lot of people aren't sure how to navigate certain parts of our world."
Both the Emily Post Institute and Debretts, its UK rival, have Twitter feeds with more than 5000 followers each, and both offer advice about technology and etiquette on their websites.
"There is growing interest. If I ever tweet about technology etiquette, I always get an instant and lively response," says Liz Wyse, expert at Debretts.
Corporations are also becoming big customers for etiquette experts. Banks often hire in etiquette consultants to help brush up the manners of new employees and Cancer Treatment Centres of America, the healthcare organisation, for example, regularly works with the Emily Post Institute.
"Companies want their employees to have the people skills that are often lacking these days. It is easy to hide behind a computer screen and avoid confrontations, so people may not have the skills to deal with conflict in a constructive way," says Ms Post.
Ms Fitzpatrick says she works with a mix of corporations, universities and individuals. About half her business is training 20-something employees who have just entered the world of work.
"They are the texting generation, who don't necessarily spell every word out when they send communications. Most colleges are more informal than they used to be. Students are on a first-name basis with their professors, so when they graduate and come into the world of work, no-one has taught them about the increased level of formality they will need," Ms Fitzpatrick said.
The most common complaint, the experts say, is about people constantly checking their smartphones during meetings, mealtimes and other social occasions. There is plenty of evidence to suggest the smartphone does go everywhere with us. A study by Ofcom the UK communications regulator, last summer, for example, found that UK teenagers were so addicted to their mobile phones that they used them while eating, in bed and even on the toilet.
These are definite no-nos. Calls from inappropriate places are disrespectful, and focusing on a phone rather than a companion is rude, says Ms Wyse. "Ideally you would never prioritise a gadget over a person."
"If you are expecting a very important call, announce that you may have to answer your phone in the beginning, and then keep your phone in your pocket on vibrate until the call comes. You shouldn't have the phone on the table. Don't keep fiddling with it, it is the constant interaction with the phone that irritates people," she says.
Another tricky issue involves answering emails. Etiquette experts say it is polite to respond to email within 24 hours of receiving it. But they admit that can be hard to do when inboxes are deluged with hundreds of messages a day.
"You really should try to get back to people quickly, even with the shortest note. But who can answer 300 emails?" Ms Fitzpatrick says. She suggests that new norms may have to be defined in this area.
Already, some elements of informality have crept into communications with the use of email. The exclamation mark, used so sparingly in business communications and good literature, is allowed in in emails and text messages.
Academic studies, such as the work of Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, have shown that email conveys emotion very poorly. Sarcasm, for example, does not come across easily in email. Thus, says Ms Post, an email sometimes needs to be overly enthusiastic to appear friendly.
"I sometimes send email out with a smiley face on it," she said. "I always defer to the formal at first, but over time a certain rapport develops and it is fine to be more casual. The direction seems to be towards informality."
There are limits, however. Email is simply not appropriate for every situation.
"Never send bad news by email. You should never fire someone by email, for example. It is clearly better to have that conversation face to face," says Matthew Strawbridge, author of Netiquette: Internet etiquette in the age of the blog. Nor should email or text messages be used to send condolences or to end a relationship.
Social networking is another area where technology etiquette is still evolving. Tricky questions include whether employees should accept requests from the boss to be friends on Facebook, and if it is ever acceptable to "unfriend" someone on a social networking site.
The answers are 'no' and 'no'. The experts suggest politely declining requests from the boss with an explanation about keeping personal and professional lives separate. Letting a boss see social networking updates will only mean trouble later, if there are embarrassing photos posted by friends, or unwise remarks made about a bad day in the office.
The question of unfriending is harder. It can never be done with delicacy, the experts say, so the best solution may be to close down the account and start again if someone really must be removed a friends list. It is better to be more selective about accepting friends in the first place, than to deal with pruning them later.
The experts themselves admit they are still feeling their way in these areas. Etiquette is ultimately about respect and consideration for others, and the same rules of courtesy should apply online and offline. But it can take a little while to firmly establish norms with anything very new. "When you have a fast-growing group of users like on Facebook, you will get lapses," says Mr Strawbridge. "Everyone inevitably does something that upsets other people online."
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