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‘OK to that’: Quick-fire emails can come back to haunt you

High-profile executives have landed themselves in serious trouble by hitting ‘send’ without due consideration

Tone and context of workplace emails can be much more difficult to decipher than in personal interactions. Photograph: iStock

Two senior Irish executives have found themselves in hot water within a few weeks of each other owing to email. In the case of the Football Association of Ireland chief executive Jonathan Hill, it was a message he later described as a “throwaway line” and a subsequent one-word reply that got him into trouble. Ex-PTSB boss David Guinane’s “OK to that” response to a colleague over limiting the lender’s exposure to tracker mortgage rates has landed him in front of a regulatory inquiry 15 years later.

Email is fast and efficient and thrives on shorthand responses often written at speed. On the surface, it has all the appearance of a casual channel of communication. But it’s not. It is a formal record of an exchange that can be viewed weeks or even years later. Email may be highly informal when compared with business communications of the past, but it’s a mistake to treat it like a conversation in a professional context.

The brevity associated with email encourages the truncation of thought as well as of expression and when informality and brevity meet, the result can be throwaway responses that come back to bite us. Compounding the problem is the expected speed of response that goes with the territory.

Semantics also become a lot more complex with emails fired off in frustration, anxiety or anger like mini landmines waiting to explode when opened. The fact that the receiver is mediating the tone and intention through “cold” technology and not via more empathetic human contact only serves to add an edge to email that’s not there with other forms of communication – texts excepted.


The main problem is of interpretation and tone.

What sounds perfectly reasonable when spoken can come across very differently in writing. It only takes a poorly chosen expression or an ambiguous sentence to leave the recipient seething with all their biases about the sender (often negative) affecting their reaction. At best, the recipient may be charitable and assume the sender didn’t mean to cause offence. At worst, they’re so furious they respond in kind and the relationship suffers.

Old fashioned letters can inspire an equally visceral response but they are usually more nuanced and don’t come with the same expectation of a reply by return. Taking time to respond was normal practice in the past whereas today much of the angst business coach Tom Hennessy sees in people’s working lives is caused by the knee-jerk responses that go hand in hand with electronic communication.

“There’s a lack of impulse control which really affects decision-making,” he says. “So, if someone has a stinker of an email to send or they need to talk to someone about a touchy subject, they do it straight away and it turns into a barney whereas pausing and waiting 24 hours for the dust to settle could have made handling a difficult situation a lot easier.”

One of the idiosyncrasies of email is the “online disinhibition effect” which encourages people to write things they wouldn’t dream of saying if they didn’t have a screen to hide behind, explains Amy Gallo, a contributing editor to the Harvard Business Review and author of Getting Along, which offers advice on how to work with anyone, even difficult folk.

“Another problem is that email is so bad at conveying tone,” she says. “On the phone, you hear the rise and fall of the voice. In person, you see the body language. This gives us a lot of information about the interaction which is missing with email.

“A one-word response with a smiley face might seem perfect to you but not to others,” Gallo adds. “Emojis do a good job of conveying emotion and help set your intention – I mean this to be funny or tongue in cheek – but it doesn’t come close to doing the work of a facial expression or body language.

“There’s also a generational gap with how people interpret emojis. They’re not a common language.”

Emojis were already a generational minefield. Now they’re a legal oneOpens in new window ]

Despite being tech savvy, Gallo had her “oh no” moment with email when a message about a difficult client meant for a colleague asking, “why does she have to be such a pain in the ass?” ended up in her client’s inbox.

“I think we all need to be a little more careful with email,” Gallo says. “We don’t need to go back to writing letters all the time – that would slow business down – but we need to be more thoughtful with it.

“I get between 500 and 1,000 emails a day, a lot of which is junk. Junk affects our attitude to email because sometimes it’s like we’re working in the trash can. It’s become a degraded medium because of the volume of spam and, as a consequence, we treat it without enough regard.”

Semantics aside, email is loaded with the potential to misfire, with messages ending up in the wrong hands a prime example. However, staying the right side of the banana skin just takes a moment to pause and engage brain.

Emails should always be civil and courteous. Never respond in anger. Write a reply then wait 24 hours before sending it. Give responses to sensitive or difficult emails the time they deserve. Sometimes a letter, where the content and tone can be more considered, may be better.

Always assume that someone other than the intended recipient may read what you’ve written. How would you feel if you heard it being read out in public? If you’d be looking for the nearest rock to crawl under, you’d best moderate the language before you send it.