I have empathy for people who make bad professional decisions and must suffer the consequences of their actions. I just do.

Back in February, the online shame police went into overdrive when it became known that Kelly Blazek, a marketing executive who ran a LinkedIn job bank for professionals in Cleveland in her spare time, wasn’t particularly nice to people who don’t follow the rules.  When a nasty declination e-mail she wrote to a job-seeker went viral, other folks came out of the woodwork with stories of receiving similar missives from her.  Before too long, Cleveland’s IABC “Communicator of the Year” for 2013 was getting national media attention, issuing multiple mea culpas and being forced to return her award.

If you read her e-mails to these job seekers, while a particularly mean streak becomes evident, it is also clear that job seekers can come across as a bit entitled. When Wendie Forman reached out to join the list in pursuit of “project management” positions, Blazek denied her access saying that the job bank “isn’t a fit for your background or the types of jobs you seek,” adding: “Good luck in your search.” Hardly an awful response. But Forman wasn’t satisfied: “I must say I was surprised by the tone of your emails and by your quick denial of my request. I will certainly discuss this with (the colleague) who referred me to you.”

Online communication, whether via e-mail or social media, empowers people to be very different than they would be in live communication. E-mails meant to come across as “professional” sound snippy and overly formal. A Facebook post meant to provide background for one’s point of view instead sounds preachy and elitist. A blog post describing your philosophy of engagement sounds like an attack on your former colleagues. Because online, we’re all six feet tall with “how good it sounds in our heads” driving us forward.

It has taken me a while, including an awful exchange with a colleague years ago when I mistakenly sent her a snarky e-mail intended for someone else, but I’ve come to embrace the following rules for online communication:

  • Bite Your Tongue – It’s simple: if you see a Facebook post that gets you angry, or receive an e-mail that makes you steamed, close the application and walk away. Go get a glass of water, look outside the window for a while, take a few deep breaths and make sure you don’t let emotion guide your words.
  • Put It In A Memo – This one took me a while, but I realize now that a ten page long e-mail is a bad move. If you need to communicate a lot of content, put it in a memo and send as an attachment to a brief e-mail. This comes across as much more thoughtful and planned than a 10,000-word e-mail at 3:30am.
  • Don’t Respond – I typically dislike when business communication goes without a response, which is often used as a delay tactic or as a means to shirk a conversation. But I would much rather someone not respond at all than send something that person might someday regret.

Are these things easier said than done? Of course. But these days, when the holier-than-thou social media mob mentality can ruin your career, it is important you don’t make a misstep just because you had a long day.

Photo Credit: Zoran Zivkovic (123-RF)