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A Google engineer recently made headlines after penning a memorandum arguing that the gender gap in technology careers is a result of biological differences between men and women in general and is not due to discrimination. To many of us, it seems common sense to not express such thoughts in writing – especially not in a widely circulated memorandum. However, this story is not the first (there is this racially tinged email from a Sony Films executive and this insensitive email from a drug company executive) and likely not the last case of an employee writing a document that he or she will come to regret for the rest of his or her life. 

There is an increased demand for higher speed and greater volume of communications. Emails, texts, instant messages and other quick forms of communication have replaced letters and phone calls. With these increases in speed and volume of communications comes an increase in mistakes. So, what can employees do to improve their written communications? The following is a general guideline to get employers and employees thinking about best practices for any form of written communication.

5 types of written communications to avoid

  1. Ambiguous statements
    • Example: “Maybe,” “The signed contract is due today.” – When? Close of business? End of day? Ohio time? U.K. time? Retailer’s time zone?
    • May be misconstrued
  2. Overly forceful statements
    • Example: “Let’s destroy the competition!”
    • Pay attention to verbs especially when discussing competitors, e.g., avoid words such as “destroy,” “steal,” “eliminate,” “siphon,” etc.
    • Can be taken literally
  3. Editorials or opinions
    • Example: “I think…” or “I believe…”
    • Allows for distorted interpretation 
    • May appear as company’s statement of fact, not just writer’s belief
  4. False or misleading statements
    • Example: Writing “We’re the #1 seller!” when you are not; Writing “We can provide 2,000 kits by Friday,” when you can only provide 1,800 kits by Friday; Overselling product features on packaging.
    • Can be taken as truth
    • Can hurt the reputations of both individual and the company
    • Can impact company and individual’s relationship with party that was overpromised
  5. Breaching the attorney-client privilege
    • Example: Forwarding an email from counsel with confidential legal advice to someone outside of the company.
    • Risk of disclosing otherwise protectable communications/documents

Other tips for best practices in written communications include avoiding quick and/or informal responses. Spend the time to think through an email reply or text before sending – but remember, a brief, focused written message is often better than a long and complex one. Always be sure to confirm the correct recipients of a document before sending. Lastly, if you are unsure about a document, step away from it before sending. Print out a hard copy and proofread it. Take the necessary steps so that you do not find yourself in a similar predicament to that of the (now former) Google employee.

 
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