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If an e-mail is in “all caps” and no one is around, does it make a sound?

September 4th, 2009  |  Lucas Otto

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IS WRITING IN “ALL CAPS” ANNOYING, DISTRACTING OR EVEN INSENSITIVE? AM I SHOUTING AT YOU? WOULD THIS STYLE OF WRITING, IF PUT IN AN E-MAIL AND SENT OUT, CONVEY A CONFRONTATIONAL ATTITUDE TOWARD ITS RECIPIENTS? WOULD IT BE WORTH TERMINATING AN EMPLOYEE FOR SENDING OUT AN E-MAIL IN “ALL CAPS?”

Well, at least in one instance, this perceived “e-mail shouting” was a costly endeavor. Just ask Procare Health, which fired Vicki Walker in December 2007 after colleagues in New Zealand complained about her e-mail messages that were in “all caps,” and sometimes bolded and in red font. It cost Procare Health $11,500 U.S. dollars ($17,000 NZD) for unfair dismissal, and garnered the company a lot of negative media attention.

Okay, so maybe “all caps” is a bit annoying, but is it something worth firing an employee and going to court over? Although this was a case in New Zealand, it is not a stretch to think that this kind of situation is coming to a courthouse near you. Ms. Walker’s employer determined that her e-mail, making use of “all caps” and sent to other employees, was far too confrontational, and was the equivalent of “shouting” at the employees. Essentially, the employer worried that one employee had hurt the feelings of, or intimidated, another employee, and it took action. If this type of situation doesn’t sound familiar, it should, as the employer clearly thought this kind of “confrontational” e-mail style had the makings of a workplace harassment or discrimination claim.

If this all sounds like a trivial, even silly, employment problem, well, it might be, but as ridiculous as it may sound, it has the potential to cost an employer thousands of dollars, not including court costs and legal fees. Yet, the idea of e-mail usage costing employers shouldn’t be so unbelievable, as there have already been a litany of problems associated with employee e-mail, e.g., inappropriate e-mails sent out, using e-mail to threaten, and using e-mail for personal business on company time. However, firing an employee for “all caps” in an e-mail may be more knee-jerk reaction and less common business sense.

The fact is, e-mail use is so pervasive and necessary in our daily work lives that it has almost single-handedly replaced most telephone calls, so it is no wonder that something so seemingly inconsequential like using “all caps” in an e-mail could lead to a workplace mess. That is why it has become so important for employers to not only teach employees how to utilize e-mail effectively in the workplace, but also how to use proper e-mail etiquette.

The Web site emailreplies.com cited an excerpt from Nancy Flynn and Tom Flynn’s book, Writing Effective E-mail, which stated:

By requiring employees to use appropriate, businesslike language in all electronic communications, employers can limit their liability risks and improve the overall effectiveness of the organization’s e-mail and Internet copy in the process.

The website goes on to further list the 32 most important email etiquette tips, and notes that a company needs to implement etiquette rules for the following three reasons:

  • Professionalism: by using proper e-mail language your company will convey a professional image.
  • Efficiency: e-mails that get to the point are much more effective than poorly worded emails.
  • Protection from liability: employee awareness of e-mail risks will protect your company from costly law suits.

While the concept of an “all caps” e-mail may not be discharge-worthy at all businesses, the fact that it occurred at all, or that there were employee complaints, shows that today’s work environment might be a little more “tech-touchy” than anyone thought. So, take the time to train employees and senior management on e-mail etiquette, because a little training can potentially save a business all the TIME, MONEY AND EMBARRASSMENT OF LITIGATING THESE TYPES OF CLAIMS.

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