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Never Use Email to Discipline Someone

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Making mistakes at work is inevitable. Some situations arise from complete oversight. Others may be a result of disorganization, irresponsibility, lack of accountability, or even pure laziness. No matter the cause, it’s important to remember: never use email to discipline someone.

I love today’s discussion for two reasons. First, it brings to the forefront thoughts and emotions that are often times left unspoken and which arise when reading email in an emotional state. And second, it combines two choice topics we highlight on The Methodology Blog with passion–failure and email. Except today, rather than talking about these important lessons individually, let’s discuss what occurs when they are (deep breath) paired together.

Robby Slaughter, a principal with AccelaWork, wrote an article for Inside Indiana Business recently on this subject. In fact, the title of his piece leaves no mystery as to the topic: Never Use Email to Discipline Someone. In his opening, Slaughter immediately addresses the reason why so many people turn to email as the outlet for reprimand in business:

In the modern workforce, it’s not always possible—nor is it considered it appropriate—to put people in the corner after they were disrespectful to a customer. HR pros everywhere have urged us not to yell and scream. Instead, it seems, we tend to discipline over email. That’s a form of being direct but it happens at a distance and is mostly private. That makes it easier to get away with, and enables people to be more aggressive than they would be in person.

discipline at work

© Flickr user osipowa

Reading this excerpt, I immediately think about all the problems we’ve recently seen through social media in regards to bullying. On one hand, we can say that disciplining through email is simply quieter and less embarrassing to the individual on the receiving end of the “yelling” email. But I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that, like cyber bullying, it’s much easier to utilize harsh and hurtful words when you don’t actually have to utter them directly to someone. When we don’t have to speak the words aloud and watch reactions to them, we suddenly find an abundance of unproductive courage. Slaughter points out:

But email is a terrible way to communicate with anyone about sensitive topics. In person you have body language. You lose that on a phone call, but someone can still hear your tone of voice. At least over text or instant message you can clarify yourself or be asked questions. But email tends to be written and fired off. And email lives forever.

Furthermore, if you’re disciplining someone over email, you’re not the only person whose emotions are running hot. You might create resentment rather than understanding. You might cause them to stew. And as easy as it is to send email, it’s equally easy to forward it to someone else. Your disciplinary note may get passed along to others, creating even more problems.

I think we all can agree that email and social media tend to be the easy way out of an uncomfortable few minutes. But it’s those few minutes that really count. To look a colleague or employee in the eye and tell them you are disappointed, upset or angry is not easy nor fun. And having to watch their reaction, whether it’s humiliation, anger or resentment, is just as difficult. But, tackling such a scenario face to face rather than over email is much more respectful and just as importantly, more productive.

Email and the Employee Coaching Process

In his article, Robby Slaughter points out ways in which email can be utilized productively when it comes to dealing with disciplinary actions at work. As he suggests, capitalize on the medium’s powerful benefits:

Use email to:

  1. Set up conversation.
  2. To create a record of the situation and how its addressed.
  3. To document decisions discussed and made.
  4. To create accountability on behalf of the employee.

Communication is not just a science, it’s an art. It takes decades of practice and dozens upon dozens of lessons to improve. People can spend their whole lives trying to perfect the way in which they communicate with others, but the truth is, we always have room to grow. Consider how you conduct yourself when it comes to situations that are cause for discipline. Take time to discover how you can improve upon it and then teach others.

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Ashley Lee

Ashley Lee

Ashley has been working with the AccelaWork team since 2008. She is a communications expert with a background in corporate work, and a graduate of the University of Dayton with a degree in Public Relations. She lives in the greater Indianapolis area with her husband and four children. Ashley enjoys jewelry, fashion, and coffee.
Ashley Lee

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  • robbyslaughter

    Thanks for writing about this article, Ashley!

    I absolutely agree that communication isn’t just a science—it’s also an art. We have to focus on both the mechanics of communication as well as the humanity.

    Keep up the great blogging!

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