Never Use Email to Discipline Someone

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People make mistakes. Individuals on your team are going to screw things up in every variety imaginable, from forgetting to turn off the coffee machine to failing to order more copy paper, and from telling the client something which is absolutely untrue. The reason mistakes happen is simple: it's because we're human. The more important question is: what happens next?

We'd of course like to see the employee who made the error apologize and try to set things right. But as managers, supervisors, and owners, we also often feel the need to step up and do something. We want to discipline people. We often want to punish them. We may feel the urge to yell at them, and change their behavior.

There's a separate conversation to be had about disciplinary actions at work. Most of our coworkers are adults, not children, and our relationship is one of colleagues, not of parents. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t frustrated, angered, or disappointed by people’s actions on the job. We still need to act.

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.

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.

In general, it's good advice to never send email when you’re angry. But it’s also powerful to use the benefits of email as part of the employee coaching process. You can use email to set up the conversation. That creates a record that the issue happened and your desire to meet. You can use email to document the decisions that were made in the meeting. And you can use email for follow up accountability.

But emails themselves should be mostly emotion-free, except for positive encouragement and appreciation. And isn’t that what you’re going to want to offer once someone has learned from their mistake and changed their behavior?

Don't use email to discipline people. If you need to talk about mistakes and changes to behavior, have the conversation in person. You’ll be glad you did, you’ll build rapport, and you’re likely to learn more about what’s really going on.

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