4 business email etiquette tips

By Jim Annis


“As I said before, I’m sorry if this touches a nerve because I just know you people never read this column all the way to the end.” – The Annoying One

How did you react? The sentence encapsulates everything that can go wrong in workplace email communication. It floors us how much energy we spend (as HR experts) daily on adjudicating the damage that poorly written or poorly thought out emails cause. Are your emails driving business to your company, or sending people running to a competitor? How do you ensure a positive outcome? Set the bar high. Establish an expectation that open, honest and appropriate communication is mandatory. We are so email-heavy that we have to nitpick down to the detail. Our employees need to be good at email, because largely that is our product. What is the percentage of job function that email captures at your company? Here are some high level points to share with your employees at your next office meeting or training:

Bullets: Bullet points and numbered lists are easier to read, creating structure and white space. Recipients appreciate the option to comment on individual issues. Arranging bullets carefully prevents endless email chains if you ask for a specific action, versus leaving open-ended thoughts.

Language: Words like “just,” “you” (accusatory), “but” and “I said” create trouble fast. Absolutes like “never” and “always” tend to polarize. Calling out someone by name or throwing them under the bus will be counterproductive; instead, use broad language to focus on action-oriented quality improvement process. Say sorry when you mean it to ensure the genuine nature of the apology remains intact.

Edit and proofread: Check the overall structure and flow to ensure easy understanding and appropriate response. Spell- and grammar-check are essential, even for short messages.

Tone: Emotionally provoking language alters perceived meaning even if your words are “perfect.” To set the appropriate tone, ask yourself this question: Who are you in this email? Adult, parent or child? A great frame of reference is a structure created by Eric Berne called transactional analysis. This method for studying interactions between individuals asserts that a single individual can display three “states of being.” I bet you’ve been all three in one email at some point:

  • Adult: Reasonable, logical, rational, non-threatening, non-threatened
  • Parent: (Positive) Keeping safe, nurturing, calming and supportive. (Negative) Controlling, patronizing, critical and finger-pointing.
  • Child: (Positive) Curious, playful, spontaneous and creative. (Negative) Rebellious, tantrums, difficult and insecure.

If you can get to your “email adult,” smooth communication results. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Test that. Go to your sent files and analyze them. Are you wagging a parental finger? Giving marching orders? Whining that it was not your fault?

The goal is to mirror what we would like to see from others. The more polished we can be, the hope is that we will receive that level of professionalism back.

Jim Annis is president/CEO of The Applied Companies, which provide HR solutions for today’s workplace. Celeste Johnson, Applied’s COO, contributed to this article.

The power of paid time off

by Jim Annis

Unlimited paid time off, or PTO, has almost reached superhero status in the media, showcased by startups and giants like GE and Adobe. This permissive approach to time off has burst forth from the phone booth with a super cape, promising that if employees are getting their work done and have received approval, they can take time off when they want and need to.

Is unlimited PTO realistic?

It is if your work culture allows it, which means looking at the staff holistically. Some employers will never allow employees to take PTO. They believe in the concept itself, and use it for recruiting purposes, yet when an employee uses the time, it is irritating or miserable for the employee to come back to the job. Still yet, some employers reward employees that never take PTO, enforcing a culture of no time off … even if it is available.

One-size-fits all, use-it-or-lose-it two-bucket policies are dead. Companies that make people wait a year before they take PTO are outdated and not competitive. Candidates are negotiating their time off as part of their employment package. Millennial job seekers in particular look favorably on unlimited days versus the 15 days most U.S. companies provide. After recruitment, employers with time off benefits see greater loyalty and retention. Pros of unlimited PTO include no accrued expense (and related balance sheet liability) for banked time, no end-of-year rush to take unused vacation days that do not carry over and employee ownership over their own time.

How to manage unlimited PTO

Change your time card mentality. Shift your focus to productivity per hours worked. Call “unlimited PTO” by a different name, then relate it specifically to your culture. Pay attention to how managers and employees use it. Create policies and procedures that easily allow everyone to communicate time off and approval. Define the minimum time off required. Internal communication about accrued time banks and how or if those will be paid out upon implementation of the new policy is critical to trust and success of the new program. And if you are really worried about time-off abuse, remember, in almost all cases there are also performance issues. Rarely is time off abused by a stellar employee.

What are our current levels of PTO?

Well, we don’t offer unlimited … yet. We switched from two weeks’ vacation after the first year and six days of sick to a total of four weeks of PTO in the first year, plus 40 hours of paid volunteer time in the second year and no restriction on reasons for taking PTO. We always talk about the blending of work and non-work, yet they are still partially separate. Whatever people go and do during that time makes them a more interesting employee, even if they have a “stay-cation.” We have noted a bump up in creativity and innovation that benefits us all.

Here’s the rub. Research shows offering unlimited PTO didn’t result in more time off taken (either the same time was taken or less). So why do employee surveys show that it is valued so highly? Perhaps the answer lies not in what unlimited vacation actually does, but for what it “says” to our minds.

Think of the coolest superhero powers – leaping buildings in a single bound, millisecond healing powers and unbelievable memory. Superheroes capture the blithe spirit of young and old alike. Their “existence” allow us to imagine how different life would be if we developed superpowers of our own. Unlimited PTO allows our minds that same freedom of thought, giving us permission to envision the possibilities and some hope for stress relief from the day to day.

What would you do with unlimited PTO? Go there. If it is something that you value, find a company who offers it – then use it.

Jim Annis is president/CEO of The Applied Companies, which provide HR solutions for today’s workplace. Celeste Johnson, Applied’s COO, contributed to this article.