How to avoid digital misfires

Using caution in composing and sending emails can save embarrassing consequences

Email is an electronic means of creating instant regret with the push of a button. I was reminded of this life lesson not too long ago with a message I wish I had never sent. Here are a few tips to remember before you lock and load that eMissile.

Keep your Finger off the Trigger
The “send” button is not your friend. As with any dangerous equipment, don’t engage anything unless you are certain of the result. Emails are safest when composed offline where editing can be done before the message is copied and pasted to the email text. No misfires that way.

Know What’s Downrange Past Your Target
Make sure the content of your message is laser sharp with no unintended targets. My most recent error was criticizing security arrangements for a big event honoring a beloved citizen. My concern was viewed as a potshot at this sacred cow and the intent of my message was lost in the emotional response. My message blew through the target and hit something I hadn’t thought enough about.

Watch for Ricochets
It’s possible for bystanders to be grazed by emails that go places you don’t intend. If you send an email and invisibly copy someone (the bcc function), you should be aware that if the receiving party used the “reply all” function, then the bcc recipient will get the response as well. The same is true for your reply — if you “reply all” you might be sending your angry response to someone you really don’t want to hear it.

Use Factory Loads
Email messages should be as professional and balanced as possible. They are potentially legal records and carry no guarantee of privacy. Therefore informal jargon, jest (especially sexually or racially offensive humor), and ambiguous language should be avoided in favor of precise wording with good grammar and spelling. Remember that every email you send could end up in a legal proceeding.

Keep your Powder Dry
Emails are no place for tears or other emotions for that matter. Anger, disgust, impatience, disapproval — there are a range of feelings that are never accurately conveyed digitally. Stay calm, factual, and rational; but don’t assume the reader will read without applying their own emotional interpretation.

Brace for the Recoil
Anticipate backlash. Who might be offended or affected by your message? Who might respond and how might they react to your message? Sometimes a phone call or visit is the best method instead of an email if these answers are uncertain. Hearing the voice and watching body language offers many more communication nuances for sensitive subject matter.

Use a Rifle, Not a Shotgun (or Hand Grenade)
Keep your message aimed carefully. Avoid including many items in one message, and avoid including many recipients. Adding a cc makes sense if everyone needs to see your message. If you add someone else, be sensitive to the perception of the main intended recipient. Does it appear that you don’t trust the addressee? If the cc recipient is a superior of the main recipient, does it appear punitive or conspiratorial? And don’t forget the perils of using the bcc.

Dry Fire in a Safe Place
Especially for potentially controversial messages, and for those written under the influence of anger, urgency, or other emotion it is wise to compose the message on a word processing document for review and editing. Let the message sit for a while before you copy it to an email press the “send” button.

In Closing...
Using caution in composing and sending emails can save embarrassing consequences. Never use email as therapy for blowing off steam. Those emails are best left in the draft file for after you’ve signed your retirement papers.

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults

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