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Woman Fired Over a “Confrontational” E-mail

2009 August 31
by Richard N. Landers
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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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  1. September 1, 2009

    I know this is probably not funny to either of the parties involved, but I can’t shake the image of of a manager reading the email and replying “OMG Caps!” This is a near compulsory response whenever someone writes a message in all caps on discussion forums, or multiplayer games. I never thought this would leak out into the professional world, much less lead to termination and litigation.

    On a related note, I was once told that people from the US military are trained to use all caps when typing. I learned this when approached a co-worker about this once. So before anyone else gets fired, lets get on the same page about this.

  2. September 1, 2009

    Well, I think as the number of Millenials in the workforce continues increasing, this is only going to get worse. Many of this group have been chatting online since they were pre-teens, and we’ve already seen some of the side-effects of no one instructing these people in how to behave online.

    I hadn’t heard that about the military though! Now that I work 5 miles from Norfolk Navy Base, maybe I should ask someone…

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