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e-mail Code of Conduct

e-mails can be a tremendous aid to project communication. Unfortunately, the very features that make them so beneficial can also make them a weapon. They can lead to the deterioration of project morale if they are not well controlled. We’ve all heard of the flaming e-mail and e-mail wars; while these may be symptoms of a more serious problem they can also be the problem themselves. Project managers who want to keep team morale high and theteam firing on all 8 cylinders need to prevent flaming e-mails or e-mail wars on the project.

e-mails were initially the electronic version of the letter and back in the late 70’s/early 80’s the way people composed and sent e-mails was not radically different from the way in which they approached letter writing. Over the years the difference between the technologies has led to a completely different attitude towards e-mails than existed for letters. Oddly enough, one of the first differences I noticed was the effect on the images of senior managers in the organization I was with at the time. Previously all letters were vetted by secretaries who were hired partly for their literacy skills. These folks made some executives, who did not have particularly strong language skills, sound like Charles Dickens. Without the benefit of the secretary, these executives would blurt out whatever was on their minds into their e-mails and hit the send key without benefit of editing, second thought, or punctuation.

Over the years the instant availability, ease of use, and limitless audience have changed the way e-mails are viewed and used. This has led to an e-mail culture that project managers and projects must deal with. Your project team members will all have been exposed to e-mail use and misuse on other projects and jobs and it will be up to you to instill a team culture that avoids misuse of e-mails. To give you one example of how serious this problem can be, Tom Hicks Jr. recently resigned his directorship of the Liverpool Football Club as a result of an e-mail war. Mr. Hicks was goaded into an inappropriate response to a stream of abusive e-mails from a fan. Mr. Hicks should have known better than to respond in the way he did (explicit language) and people in positions of influence are expected not to lose control of their emotions, but the way in which the fan felt it appropriate to harass Mr. Hicks using e-mail shows a lack of consideration on the part of the public (or at least some of the public). Mr. Hick’s resignation came about, of course, not because he responded to the e-mail in the way he did, but because the recipient broadcast it to a receiver list he thought would be most damaging to Mr. Hicks. It was. The reason for citing this example? These bad e-mail habits are out there and we, as project managers, must deal with them.

e-mails and other project communications such as meetings form part of the project culture. Get ahead of the curve and formulate your project’s culture, or code of conduct, and then train the team with it. Take care when you formulate it to consider different cultural sensitivities and time zones so that the code/culture fits the team. Consult with your organization’s Human Resources policies, procedures, and practices; they may already have a code of conduct the team is familiar with. Adopt organizational codes unaltered where possible and customize them for your project needs if necessary. Educate your team in it once you’ve formulated one and deal with infractions as they occur. e-mail conduct should be part of your project’s code of conduct. Here are some simple rules that should keep your team’s e-mail communications on the straight and narrow:

  1. No inappropriate language in e-mails. Not under extreme provocation. Not ever!
  2. Self-censor e-mail "To:” and "CC:” lists. People on the "To:” list should be those who must act on the e-mail, or those who requested the information in the e-mail. People on the "CC:” list should be those who are affected by the e-mail or are interested in the information the e-mail contains.
  3. e-mail "blasts” to the entire project team or the entire organization come from the project manager (or communications manager if that role exists) only. Team members who have a need to communicate with the entire team or organization must do so through you. This will apply to everyone with the exception of the project sponsor.
  4. NO SHOUTING!!!!!!!!!!!! e-mails should emphasize critical points by putting them within the Subject line, which should be no more than 6 words. Important points can be emphasized by addressing them in the first paragraph.
  5. The "Golden Rule” (treat others as you would wish to be treated) governs the composition of e-mails. No matter how stupid we feel the recipient of our e-mail is, do not talk down to them. Make the content clear, concise, and to the point.
  6. A corollary to number 5: do not put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t say to the recipient face-to-face.
  7. No more than one request for clarification. If one is not sufficient, talk to the sender face-to-face or on the phone.
  8. No tattling. Not to you, not to the sponsor, not to anyone. By tattling I mean the e-mail which points out a team member’s mistake (usually sarcastically) for no other purpose than to alert you to it. Establish an escalation procedure that manages these situations and steer the team towards it when disputes arise.

There are probably many more rules that could be put in place to keep e-mail use appropriate and you may want to add to or subtract from these rules as your project demands. I would advise you to limit the number of rules you put in place as the more rules you impose the more likely team members will be to forget them.

The education of the team in these rules should be a part of the team’s education in the project code of conduct but I’ll try to give you some tips that will help to keep the team on the straight and narrow road of e-mail conduct. The first tip is lead by example. Make sure you are always in compliance with your own code. The second is repetition. Do not send the code out via e-mail to the team and then expect it to be adhered to; it won’t be. Having the code in a central location which is viewed by the team frequently will help here. Project intranet web sites and wikis make this easy. Try appending the code to reports you circulate to the team regularly if you don’t employ one of these tools. Putting the code of conduct on the team meeting agenda at strategic points in the project will also help. As an aside, putting meeting conduct rules on a poster displayed in project meeting rooms is an excellent way to communicate them.

Despite your best efforts, you will have problems enforcing the code. Don’t forget that you’re fighting a North American culture here, as well as project pressures which will make emotions run hot. Doing a great job of educating your team in the project code of conduct will reduce the risk of infractions but you’ll never eliminate it. It’s up to you to correct inappropriate behavior when you encounter it. Here are a few tips on how to do that.

When you are copied on an e-mail for no other purpose than to point out a mistake another team member made, or some other failing, pay a visit to the sender. If you can’t visit them face-to-face, phone them. The conversation should go something like this:

You: "I just received this e-mail in which you dumped on __________ for ___________. That e-mail was inappropriate. I want you to go to the project web site/wiki/other source and read rule #8.”

Offender: "No tattling. Not to you, not to the sponsor, not to anyone.”

You: "Good. Let’s make this the last time you address a similar situation by copying me on a flaming e-mail.”

Offender: Silence.

You don’t have to repeat this conversation verbatim but you do need to be forceful in addressing the situation. Decide on your tone based on the degree of malice in the e-mail. If the offender did not deliberately set out to belittle the e-mail’s recipient by copying you, explain the effect their e-mail had on you and make suggestions on how to avoid a similar mistake. The important thing here is to impress upon the offender a: that they are tattling, and b: you won’t tolerate it.

At some point during your project you will be subjected to what I like to call The Never Ending e-mail. This is an e-mail chain that is the result of a compelling desire to have the last word. This e-mail will typically have picked up a host of "CC:” folks as the contestants think of others on the team who would appreciate their wit and wisdom. Address this with the two participants, providing there are only two, by calling them aside after a team meeting, or in your office, or on a conference call. Don’t make a big production; use the simplest means possible without scheduling a formal meeting. Explain rule #7 to them, and the reason for it (it is a colossal time waster). Have the contestants resolve the issue then and there, or have them schedule a meeting if this is not possible. You may or may not want to be present at the resolution depending on how much guidance you feel is needed. If the e-mail has become a free-for-all, address the issue with the entire team, then speak to the e-mail authors who need to resolve the issue separately in the same manner as when there were only 2 people involved.

Infractions of the other rules require a response similar to the ones just described. The goal is to improve the team’s comprehension of the code of conduct and to prevent the infraction from recurring. Remember the management rule of thumb: correct in private, praise in public.

There may be occasions when the problem is a team member complaining about another team member, or you, to the project sponsor. Make sure that your sponsor is aware of the code of conduct you have established for the team and that you need their support. You’ll have to rely on the sponsor to alert you to infractions. They may choose to address the situation themselves. If they do, great; this will send the message that they support the code. If they don’t, they should at least alert you and let you address the issue.

Repeat offenders will require escalated action up to and including dismissal from the team. Establish a "3 strike” or similar policy and let the offender know that they only have 2 chances to get it right; they will suffer the ultimate penalty if they commit the 3rd (or nth) infraction. You may have to work this through with Human Resources, in which case you should acquaint them with your code of conduct at the outset. If you have hiring and firing authority over the team, don’t hesitate to use it in order to eliminate the offender who does not respond to your corrective actions. Do not hide from the unpleasantness of correcting inappropriate e-mail behavior. You cannot afford to hide from the unpleasantness of correcting inappropriate e-mail behavior. Establishing a code of conduct around the use of e-mails will enhance its effectiveness as a communication tool and improve team performance. Failure to establish control over its use can result in a demoralized, unproductive, team and ultimately failure to deliver.

The tips and tricks described in this article implement some of the best Communications Management practices promoted by the PMI (Project Management Institute). These are taught in most PMP® courses and other PMP® exam preparation training products. If you haven't been certified as a PMP® (Project Management Professional) by the PMI and would like to learn more about certification, visit the three O Project Solutions website at: http://threeo.ca/pmpcertification. three O Project Solutions also offers downloadable software based training tool that has prepared project managers around the world to pass their certification exams. For more information about this product, AceIt, visit the three O website at: http://threeo.ca/ aceit-features-c1288.php.