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:
inappropriate language in e-mails. Not under extreme provocation. Not
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.
"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.
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
"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.
- A corollary
to number 5: do not put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t say to the
more than one request for clarification. If one is not sufficient, talk to
the sender face-to-face or on the phone.
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
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
You: "Good. Let’s make this the last time you address a
similar situation by copying me on a flaming e-mail.”
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
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/