Woman Fired Over a “Confrontational” E-mail
Vicki Walker, a financial controller in New Zealand, was fired for sending confrontational e-mails to her coworkers at ProCare Health. How confrontational, you ask? Take a look at this quote from the New Zealand Herald:
The email, which advises her team how to fill out staff claim forms, specifies a time and date highlighted in bold red, and a sentence written in capitals and highlighted in bold blue. It reads: “To ensure your staff claim is processed and paid, please do follow the below checklist.”
To better let you appreciate the horrifying nature of this e-mail, I will simulate it here:
8/31/2009 12:00PM: TO ENSURE YOUR STAFF CLAIM IS PROCESSED AND PAID, PLEASE DO FOLLOW THE BELOW CHECKLIST.
Now, I understand that’s pretty offensive to look that from an aesthetic point of view, but is it just cause to terminate someone’s employment? I don’t think so. And apparently, neither did the New Zealand legal system, which awarded her $6,000 in lost wages and $11,500 in punitive damages from ProCare.
What’s amazing to me about this case is that the employer read so much into the use of color and capitalization. I can only imagine that each time he received an e-mail in this style, he pictured Ms. Walker shouting at him at the top of her (perhaps blue) lungs. Yet no such thing occurred. Instead, an assumption was made about the tone and intent of the e-mail simply from its formatting, which ultimately resulted in job loss. Was an effort made to instruct Ms. Walker in polite, formal online communications in a work setting? Was training provided on the intricacies of computer-mediated communication? Did her supervisor ever simply ask her to please tone the e-mails down?
I imagine we’ll never really know. But it does make me wonder – does such e-mail training exist, and would it be useful to most organizations? Most people learn to communicate online by necessity; I doubt many people ever take the time to learn to write e-mail, as might have been done with pen-and-paper letters many years ago. Instead, I imagine most discover one day that they need to write an e-mail and simply do it.
From my experience in organizations so far, that has produced a hodgepodge of writing styles within the office. Some people write in all caps, some in peculiar fonts, some with jarring background images, some ignoring spell check, and some simply eschewing proper grammar altogether. Does such lack of consistency hamper intra-organizational communications, or is such self-expression valuable? Unfortunately, research is sparse.
Although if I could find a business that wanted to help, perhaps that could change…
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