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In Emails, Tone and Context are Everything

As emails emerge as the primary mode of workplace communication, it is inevitable that their use (and abuse) will be subject to comment by a range of adjudicators. In a recent arbitration conducted pursuant to the Canada Labour Code, arbitrator Frank Borowicz weighed in on the subject.
The case before Mr. Borowicz involved a complaint of unjust dismissal pursuant to Part III of the Canada Labour Code.
Mau had been an employee of the Canadian National Railway Co., in the position of Trainmaster, between 1999 and 2007.   His employment had been terminated by his supervisor, Roberts, for “insubordination” and “lack of professionalism”.
In the course of the arbitrator’s reasons (in rejecting the employer’s just cause position) he addressed some comments Mau had made via email. The allegation was that these emailed comments had “subjectively affronted” the supervisor.
“One of the weaknesses of that media is that it permits immediacy without context. People tend to write emails in a manner reflective of their verbal speech, but the communication presents itself to the recipient cleansed of all the visual and tonal cues that give verbal communication so much of its meaning, allowing the reader to impress onto the [emailed] communication whatever tone and emphasis they imagine is appropriate.”
The arbitrator clearly came to believe that Roberts had misinterpreted Mau’s email. He stated, “… it is significant to note that in every email statement referenced in Mr. Roberts’ memorandum, he consistently attributed the least charitable and most offensive reading possible to Mr. Mau’s words. This approach led Mr. Roberts to apprehend insolence and insubordination where there actually was none.”
I’ve previously relayed the story of Vicki Walker who was fired from her job in New Zealand, in part, because of her “confrontational” emails. She had apparently made a practice of using block capital letters, bold typeface, and red typeface in emails.
Her employer was reported to have viewed her habits, including her email style, as creating disharmony in the workplace. Although the employer’s case against Ms. Walker was unsuccessful, scenarios such as hers and Mau’s raise questions about the efficacy of email as a medium of workplace communication.
Put simply, it’s not just what is communicated that is important but also (perhaps more) how it is communicated that is important.
Part of the problem is that, as arbitrator Borowicz stated, bare text strips a communication of its visual and tonal clues. A second problem is the fact that many emails are dashed off quickly without a whole lot of consideration of how the message might be perceived. And, we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that many people are simply not skilled communicators when the printed word is the medium.
Creative people have found some ways to add tone and context to their messages. Whether by using block capitals, different coloured fonts, bold and italicized emphasis, improvised symbols such as ;^) and abbreviations such as LOL, emailers have begun to figure out that there are ways to enhance the meaning of the bare text.
Nonetheless, I believe the first key to cordial emailing is that all employees (including bosses) should think about what they are typing from the perspective of the recipient. They should focus on how the words, and the way in which they are organized, will be perceived.
Doing so will increase the chances that your intended message will be received and will minimize the likelihood of your getting fired.
Robert Smithson is a lawyer in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, or to view past “Legal Ease” columns, log onto