Communicating over email and Slack is the No. 1 way employees screw up—here's how to get it right

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As a workplace expert and the CEO of a global company, people always ask for my advice on what not to do in the workplace — and they are often amused by my answer: "Never, ever send anything dumb when communicating digitally."

Sounds a bit dramatic, right? But not thinking twice (or two, three, four times) before hitting send is the biggest mistake I've seen employees make throughout my decades-long career in executive management.

It's also harder to avoid now more than ever, as the coronavirus pandemic forces more companies to shift to working from home, thus becoming extra reliant on digital communication platforms like email and Slack. Perhaps most important of all, fear of an uncertain future is burdening employees with a growing amount of stress and distractions, leaving more room for errors that can lead to misunderstandings — and potentially career-damaging consequences.

Here are six tips on how to navigate the gray area surrounding digital communication:

1. Assume that anything you send will one day be public.

It happens more than you think: an employee sends an egregious email to a colleague, which then initiates a domino effect of others chiming in, often with expletives or off-color remarks. When the exchange get exposed to the employer — or, even worse, the public — reputations are officially ruined.

That's why I always recommend using Warren Buffett's "newspaper test." If you're ever uncertain about a decision, the billionaire once said at a Q&A, ask yourself how you'd feel if it were to be written about in your local newspaper "by a smart but pretty unfriendly reporter" the next day — and read by your family, friends and neighbors.

"It's pretty simple," Buffett said. "If [the decision] passes that test, it's okay. If anything is too close to the lines, it's out."

2. Be direct and clear, not short.

Unlike face-to-face conversations, emails and direct messages don't always have an obvious tone or much context, which is why short responses can often land flat.

"No." "OK." "Fine." "Right." Nothing is more frustrating than getting a one-word email. Are you being be begrudging? Agreeable? Enthusiastic? It can be impossible for the other person to tell, and their assumption might not match your intentions.

That doesn't mean you need to write long, elaborate emails. Just keep it concise and to the point. Be confident about what you write. If you're in a hurry and don't have time to draft out a clear and direct message, pick up the phone.

3. Skip the emojis.

It might be appropriate depending on how comfortable you are with a co-worker or boss, but I suggest getting rid of this bad habit once and for all.

Not only are emojis hard to read, but they just add to the confusion. To one employee, simply sending a yellow face with open eyes and clenched teeth might be mean, "I'm a bit nervous." But the recipient could easily read it as, "I'm totally screwed."

If you're stressed about your workload this week, just spell it out: "I have a lot on my plate today and I don't think I can meet the deadline for this sales proposal. Can I get it to you tomorrow instead?"

4. Save the venting for close friends and family.

No work relationship is perfect. We all have complaints about our bosses, colleagues, clients and departments we work with. But it's never a good idea to vent with the assumption that what you say will stay only between you and a colleague.

Someone could easily take a screenshot of the conversation and send it to another person for amusement purposes. And if the person you complained about gets ahold of the exchange, they'll never look at you the same again.

Another note about forwarding emails: Unless there is an HR issue involved, don't forward a message without someone's knowledge. Even if you don't consider the message to be offensive, it's essentially the same as talking behind someone's back.

5. Don't send anything when you're angry.

Think about the last time you fired off an email in haste. It might have felt good at the time, but if you have even the slightest bit of emotional intelligence, you probably regretted it the next day.

The more riled up you are about something, the more time you need to take to cool down. Be like the good carpenter who measures twice and cuts once: Draft your words in a blank email with no address it. Get it all our of your system, then delete it. Once you're in a calm and rational state of mind, write the real email, reread it, and when you're sure it won't backfire, send it.

Also, never wage a digital war. If you need to hash something out with a co-worker, pick up the phone or speak to them in person.

6. Recalling a message does not absolve all. 

While some email programs may come with the option to recall an email, using the feature does not always actually remove the message from a recipient's inbox.

In many cases, the feature just sends a second message saying that the sender wishes to recall the first. And let's be honest, if you received a "recall" notification, wouldn't you be eager to open it anyway to find out what the issue was?

Bottom line: Read twice, never pout or spout and, when in doubt, use Buffett's "newspaper test."

Gary Burnison has been in the business of hiring and interviewing for more than 20 years. Currently, he is the CEO of Korn Ferry, the world's largest executive recruiting firm. Gary is also the author of "Advance: The Ultimate How-To Guide for Your Career" and the New York Times best-seller "Lose the Resume, Land the Job." Follow him on LinkedIn here.

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