When to go on the record with email at work
I hear lots of people, mostly young, saying they’re not going to say something by email, as a default condition, in order to avoid documenting something awkward. If it’s controversial or if the subject makes them at all uncomfortable, they’re prone to trying to have that conversation by phone or in person. They avoid email.
I get that. After all, in this age of digital records, nothing ever goes away. If they’re going to say something they don’t want to be held to, then it’s only natural they’d not want to do it in a permanent way. On the other hand, if you’re saying something you want other people held to, that’s another story.
More than half the time, when I’m witness to this issue, I’ve noticed it’s actually the wrong decision, and it ends up protecting the wrong person’s interest. People should realize that documenting sensitive issues is often just as important, and often to your advantage, as not documenting sensitive issues. It also clarifies things and avoids prolonged misunderstandings.
Two made-up examples to demonstrate how to use email.
So, say you feel like your contributions to a long-term project are being ignored, and other people are starting to jockey for credit for your work. Here’s my advice. Write an email to everyone in the project and mention that you’ve done A, B, and C, and are planning to work on D. Don’t complain or whine about how much work you’ve done, but mention specifics, along with the number of hours you’re putting in.
It might seem slightly weird, but feel free to make some excuse for it like you “just want to check in and see where people are on the project or something, since there hasn’t been much of a formal effort to keep track of stuff”, and invite other people to also document their work. Force clarity. It’s good for you, not bad, to have clarity. If people don’t want to give you credit for something, they’ll have to write back and explain themselves, which is unlikely.
Second example, the opposite of the first. Say someone has written an email which documents something which you don’t agree with that involves you. Say, for example, that someone writes to a group of people saying they agreed with you on such-and-such a deal (“Cathy has agreed to work on A”), which didn’t actually happen.
Instead of going to talk to that person, just write back to the entire group saying what the actual deal is (“Actually, there’s been a misunderstanding, and I am not planning to work on A”). You should clarify quickly and often, because you need to realize that other people use email as a way of documenting stuff too. If you ignore that email, people will assume you actually did agree to that.
I don’t want to sound like a lawsuit waiting to happen – I’ve never actually been involved in a lawsuit. But by thoughtfully documenting stuff before it becomes an issue I definitely think I’ve consistently avoided problems becoming worse, especially problems related setting expectations.
Finally, if someone has done something really inappropriate, like sexual misconduct or harassment or something, document it, even just to yourself. Send yourself an email saying exactly what happened, like a journal entry. You might need that documentation later, and now you have an exact timestamp on how things went down.