The Trouble with Email

Yes, it’s been a boon for government work, but it also opens the door to conflict and confusion.
April 2014
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

When we were in college, we discovered we could always get a group of people into an animated conversation if we simply brought up old television programs. That was a shared universe for most of us, and episodes of “I Love Lucy” or “Leave It to Beaver” were the currency of the realm.

Want to accomplish the same thing with a group of men and women who work in the public sector (and we presume the private sector as well)? Start talking about the various reasons you loathe or fear email. The conversation that flows from there will likely be inclusive and possibly even include some unsavory language.

Let’s get one thing straight first. Although most of this column addresses itself to the pitfalls and hazards of using email as a primary communications tool in managing states and localities, electronic communication certainly has been a boon for many. As James Honchar, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for human resources, says, “Productivity and the ability to multitask and respond more quickly, both within state government and with the public, has increased exponentially. And with mobile devices, work that traditionally had to be set aside until an employee could return to the office is now able to be accomplished on the fly.”

That’s a pretty potent upside. Now for the downside. In our experience—and in the experience of many others to whom we’ve talked—the tone and texture of emails can often replace the intent to communicate in a silken fashion with something that reads more like electronic sand paper.

Jokes—even those with smiley faces—are often misinterpreted. Overly short emails can seem arrogant or uninformative. Overly long emails often aren’t read. Lack of reasonable grammar and punctuation can cause confusion. Complicated thoughts that involve nuanced wording can provoke misunderstandings. (A number of people we chatted with indicated that they turn away from the keyboard and pick up the telephone when they realize they’re having difficulty making their message clear. We’ve adopted that policy ourselves.)

To make matters worse, a fair number of people tend to send emails late at night, when they are trying to catch up with work. Most of us aren’t at our most articulate at 2 in the morning and risk bewildering recipients. A codicil to that: Some people with supervisors who send inscrutable emails in the wee hours feel obliged to read and respond to them—resulting in restless nights with a cellphone under a pillow.

When emails aren’t thought through carefully, they can require a flurry of subsequent emails to clarify matters. A series of messages can easily fall into the following pattern, between, let us say, Smith and Jones. Smith: “Can we talk?” Jones: “Yes.” Smith: “When?” Jones: “Tuesday at 10.” Smith: “Is that Eastern time?” Jones: “Yes.” Smith: “Shall I call you?” Jones: “That’s fine.”

Smith: “What number should I use?” Jones “555-555-5555.” Smith: “Thank you.” Readers may think we’re being facetious. If so, they aren’t readers who have to make their own appointments.

The field of emails is full of much more hazardous land mines than appointment setting. For one thing, anything that is put in any form of nonverbal communication should be assumed to be public from the outset. You’ve read about the many cases in which “disclosed” emails have had a role in getting a public official in deep, deep trouble. “Every single staff or elected person knows this,” says William Leighty, a partner with DecideSmart LLC, who had been a chief of staff in Virginia’s governor’s office. “But they seem to do rather stupid things anyway because the electronic form of communication is so easy and timely.”

One of the most frustrating things about email snafus is that most of them are avoidable. Who hasn’t heard a tale of woe from a colleague who accidentally pressed “reply all” instead of “reply” and inadvertently insulted someone on a long list of recipients? When Leighty was chief of staff, for example, “I thought I was forwarding an email, but instead I replied all. I unfortunately called a legislator a ‘jerk’ in my email. He was a powerful individual, but fortunately he had a sense of humor.”

Public employees must also be careful to differentiate emails that they should send from their personal account from those that they send from their email address at work. There’s a real risk of embarrassment using a .gov email address to send a silly little poem to a mass of recipients (most of whom, by the way, don’t have the time to read it anyhow).

Other abuses of email can emanate from the outside, not just from avoidable errors on the part of government employees. Some miscreants have used transparency laws in an attempt to obtain documents, communications and records for personal or marketing purposes. “We have received requests under the guise of Right to Know laws asking for every employee’s email address,” says Pennsylvania’s Honchar. “Needless to say, a request like that, for a workforce of over 70,000 employees, if honored, can be abused.” Worst of all, employees can be inundated with spam, viruses, email solicitations and all sorts of those dirty little bugs that crawl around the Internet.