Last week, my Makovsky Health colleague Chris Loblundo outlined steps to ensure you make realistic 2015 New Years’ personal resolutions – and then keep them. As a practice, we at Makovsky Health have done the same. Chief among these were two communications tropes: Less e-mailing and messaging (i.e., call or get out of your seat to speak with someone), and minimizing “reply all.” Well, who is not in favor of those? Accomplishment; however, takes discipline and forethought.

As a fresh start to the year, I came across a policy brochure from a previous employer. Called “Good Documents: Tools & Guidelines for Business Writing in a Litigation Age,” this missive was designed to provide colleagues with “keys to making your writing clear, precise and impervious to hostile interpretation.”

The reasons for this are twofold:

  1. It is important to create records that are clear, accurate and difficult to distort or misinterpret
  2. It is equally important to prevent “bad documents,” not creating them in the first place

What, exactly, is a “bad document?” Unfortunately, too many of us treat e-mails as conversations: an opportunity to convey information and also express opinion – or as platform for venting. Conversations are ephemeral, e-mails are permanent documentation – and, in the legal sense, discoverable. These are a permanent footprint. The next time you are tempted to “let off steam” in an e-mail, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Would I behave that way in person – face-to-face (probably not)
  2. Would I say things that way in a formal memo or letter (again, probably not)

The most effective ways of starting a communication are to:

  • Define a reader outcome. What would like your readers to do, feel, think, or conclude? Be specific.
  • Choose your medium. Do I need this in writing? If so, do I need it in an e-mail?
  • Develop a satellite outline. This is not as labor-intensive as it might seem. In fact, once you define your desired reader outcome, a focused outline will actually keep you from rambling aimlessly.

But how do you handle being on the receiving end of a “bad document?” As with e-mails you send, e-mails you receive cannot be undone. However, there are measures you can take to set the record straight:

  • If the e-mail contains accurate information, but the tone is inappropriate or inflammatory, send back a brief note that you would like to take the conversation offline – and then immediately call the sender to resolve outstanding issues.
  • If the e-mail contains misinformation or is misleading, respond with accurate information – without addressing any inappropriate tone. That would only incite further unwanted discourse.

Need more guidance on what constitutes a “Bad Document?”

Here’s a handy checklist of “think-twice” behaviors:

  1. Vehemence
  2. Strong language
  3. Rumors
  4. Commenting on someone else’s area of expertise
  5. Publicly pointing out someone else’s error (known as “The Hero Syndrome”)
  6. Blaming
  7. Sarcasm or irony
  8. Speculation
  9. Attributions to others
  10. Limited information
  11. Violation of individual privacy

At Makovsky Health, we have a helpful “cultural policy” that e-mails that require more than a simple response be reviewed by a colleague for clarity and tone. This outside-in perspective can preserve many a relationship.

So start the year off on the right foot. Just watch that footprint you leave behind you.

– Lee Davies

thought leadership


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