You return to your office from an afternoon meeting and decide to check e-mail. An hour later, having downloaded your messages, selecting those you should read, deleting junk, crafting replies and filing others that you want to work on later, you wonder where your day went. It was like that when you arrived at work this morning, and tomorrow, unfortunately, promises to be no different.

What is this e-mail explosion?

E-mail has become the core of our communications system over the last several years. Because massive amounts of information can be quickly and efficiently disseminated via e-mail, the medium has become our favorite method of communication with each other, as well as with others in the business world. At the same time, not everyone knows how to use e-mail professionally, and if we are not aware of certain aspects of e-mail, we may find ourselves involved in litigation.

Your e-mail is as much a part of your professional image as the clothes you wear, the postal letters you write, the greeting on your voicemail and the handshake you offer. If you want to build positive business relationships and avoid the court room, pay attention to what you say and how you say it!

Don't assume no one else will ever see your e-mail. Once it has left your mailbox, you have no idea where your e-mail will end up. Don't use the Internet to send anything you couldn't stand to see on a billboard on your way to work the next day. E-mails can be intercepted at numerous points before reaching their intended recipient, and anyone intercepting your e-mail can read and forward it to anyone. E-mails are not private - use other means to communicate personal or sensitive information.

It is important that you understand that information and misinformation once sent via e-mail cannot be eradicated by the sender. Even deleted messages can recovered. In today's litigious environment, people often fail to realize until it is too late that an e-mail is a permanent record. More and more e-mail messages - including deleted messages - provide crucial evidence in criminal and civil law suits every day. Some of the same characteristics that make e-mail an effective communication medium also increase our potential liability.

As the speed and number of transmissions increase, so does the probability of releasing confidential and legally protected information to third parties.

Be mindful of what you say and how you say it. When you communicate with another person face to face, 93 percent of the message is non-verbal. E-mail has no body language. The reader cannot see your face or hear your tone of voice, so chose your words carefully and thoughtfully. Put yourself in the other person's place, and think how your words may come across in cyberspace.

Research has shown that simple messages delivered by e-mail are two times more likely to be misinterpreted than telephone conversations, and three times more likely to be misinterpreted than face-to-face communication.

Consider the consequences of forwarding e-mail. Most everyone is guilty of this one, but think about it: If the message was sent to you and only you, why would you take responsibility for passing it on? Too often, confidential information has gone global because of someone's lack of judgment. Unless you are asked or request permission, do not forward anything that was sent just to you.

Additionally, as the number of transmissions increases, so does the potential that someone who receives it will be offended. Employers today face more and more claims of sexual harassment and discrimination based on the misuse of e-mail. Chevron recently paid $2.2 million to four female employees to settle a sexual harassment suit that stemmed from an e-mail that was circulated by an employee. Be mindful that your employer is at risk for legal liability based on the use of electronic communication media.

Make your communication brief and professional. E-mail is meant to be brief. Keep your message short. Use only a few paragraphs of a few sentences each. People skim their e-mail, so a long missive is wasted. If you find yourself writing an overly long message, pick up the phone or call a meeting.

In the early days of e-mail, someone created the notion that this form of communication did not have to be letter-perfect. Wrong. It does. It is a representation of you. If you don't check to be sure e-mail is correct, people will question the caliber of the other work you do. Use proper capitalization and punctuation, and always check your spelling. Leave the smiley faces, text abbreviations and clip art for personal communication. They are inappropriate at work. It is important to understand that, although e-mails are viewed as an informal means of communication, the courts give electronic communication the same status as hard-copy letters.

Sometimes e-mail is too convenient. People do not put the same time and effort into writing an e-mail as they put into a letter. As a result, things are sometimes said that would not be said in a traditional letter.

One of the most serious business offenses is the transmission of client information. Sensitive client information should not be sent via electronic mail unless the client has provided explicit consent.

Situations where e-mail is not likely to be an appropriate communication medium:

* Complex issues or concepts;

* Items of a confidential or sensitive nature; and,

* Messages that have a meaning that is sensitive to tone and interpretation.

Follow common e-mail rules. While it is true that everyone is doing it, not everyone knows the rules. For instance, writing in all capital letters means that you are shouting at the recipient. In addition, the courteous e-mail includes a signature block with contact information such as your phone, fax and street address. The recipient may want to call you to talk further or send you documents that cannot be e-mailed. Creating a formal signature block with all that data is the most professional approach.

Proper "to" and "subject" descriptions are also important. The subject line should be brief, yet offer enough to enable the recipient to interpret and prioritize the message quickly.

Be sensitive and use judgment regarding the CC and BCC functions. Consider which parties should be receiving the communication and those that should be copied. Don't hit the "reply to all" button unless you are sure that is what you mean.

Lastly, the name or address of the person to whom you are writing is actually the last piece of information you should enter. Check everything else over carefully first. Proofread for grammar, punctuation, spelling and clarity. Did you say what needed to be said? How was your "tone of voice?" If you were the least bit emotional when you wrote the e-mail, did you let it sit for a period of time? Did you include the attachment you wanted to send? If you enter the recipient's name first, a mere slip of the finger can send a message before its time.

Another professional courtesy is making plans for how your e-mail will be dealt with if you plan to be away for an extended period of time. Providing alternative contacts or stating that it will not be read at all in an auto-reply informs your sender that you are out and what arrangements you have made in your absence.

The golden rule. Avoid e-mails that might be misinterpreted by the recipient now or in the future. If you can't explain a concept adequately in an e-mail, you should write a letter, make a phone call or schedule a meeting.

Create a firmwide e-mail policy. In response to the impact that e-mail has had on the business environment, many firms have created a written e-mail policy in response to the proliferation of litigation involving electronic communications. A company also needs to implement etiquette rules.

E-mail makes everything easier and faster, including making a powerful business impression and establishing a positive professional relationship. The businessperson who uses the technology effectively and appropriately will see the results of that effort reflected in the bottom line.

Barry M. Brant, CPA, is a partner with the firm of Berkowitz, Dick, Pollack & Brant in Miami.

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