Curing Toxic Email Syndrome in An Organization

When's the last time that you had an offensive, rude or snarky email in your inbox? If you don't remember then consider yourself lucky. If you're looking at one right now then maybe your organization suffers from Toxic Email Syndrome. Luckily we have a cure for that and it isn't so difficult to apply.

Toxic Email Syndrome seems to occur spontaneously in many workplaces. One person has a bad day and sends a mean-spirited email that they might regret later. Others respond to that in the same way and even more are influenced by the tone to follow in the same style. Over time the culture of sending toxic emails becomes sedimented in the company culture. But there is no reason for this to start and once it has started it can actually be stopped simply by following three best practices:

MANAGEMENT HAS TO SET A GOOD EXAMPLE. People don't do what you tell them to do, they do what they see you doing. When the management is sending impolite and disrespectful emails to each other and to employees this sets the tone for the communications in the entire organization. So the management has to be trained or at least advised to reflect carefully before clicking send. Management can also help by making sure that employees who send an offensive email are told by their direct supervisor that this is not the right way to do things and that they don't want to see emails like that again. When the response of management to a hostile email is always swift and negative people quickly learn the new company culture.

EMPLOYEES SHOULD NEVER SEND A TOXIC EMAIL. Employees should all be trained in some way that toxic emails are strongly discouraged by management -- which they will see in action if you are doing the first point. They should also be trained that toxic emails are also ineffective. In most cases they worsen the problem and, more importantly, they fail to achieve results. Remind employees that they are measured on results like sales booked, lines of code written and so on. Nobody gets a bonus for winning flame wars. Once employees realize that their work becomes easier in a non-toxic email environment it gets easier to convince them to follow policy.

EMPLOYEES SHOULD NEVER RESPOND TO PROVOCATIONS. Even if you apply the second point there will still be the occasional email that is out of line, perhaps coming from a newcomer or from outside. Every employee has to be taught how to deal with this. I have covered this in more detail in Three Tips for Responding to Angry Emails but the key learning is that you respond to the substance of a message and ignore all the parts that you perceive to be rude, hostile or just snarky. Answer the factual questions and ignore all the rest. Not only does this help work get done, it also de-escalates conflict and makes people feel better.

Once a workplace email system has been purged of toxic emails employees will be more productive and less stressed. The negative consequences of toxic email syndrome are often underestimated so this small effort can yield impressive results. When people are no longer afraid to open emails, when they don't feel their blood boiling when the email notification appears then the are able to focus more energy on constructive work.

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For lectures and workshops about effective email and effective email in a global business contact me on or by phone at 0033 6 79 61 42 81 or 0046 730 894 475. You can also find more contact details on my website at 


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