Emails perceived as rude at work can range from a tersely toned request to a blatantly inappropriate cartoon. What may be acceptable to one person may not be acceptable to another, but employees should understand that inappropriate emails can impact productivity and morale. They can also expose the company for legal liability related to discrimination and workplace violence. Not every email interpreted as offensive warrants the intervention of the Human Resources department. Companies should have a specific electronic communications policy so it is clear when to involve HR.

Email and Computer-Use Policies

A company computer-use policy should be clear and comprehensive. Remind employees that the company computers and smart phones are provided for company business, and that the company has the right to monitor their use. Emphasize that emails should be professional and courteous. Emails should not contain any discriminatory, illegal or offensive content. The policy should also encourage employees to be respectful of cultural differences. In today’s social media age, it is important that a computer-use policy include guidelines on what employees can say about the company or coworkers on public sites. For example, the policy should make it clear that an employee whose profile shows where he works cannot post nasty comments about an executive or a project on Facebook.

Rude Is In the Eye of the Recipient

It’s not always easy to discern what a rude email looks and sounds like. Recipients often misinterpret the intent, tone and words of an email. Encourage employees to consider the sender’s intent and mindset before reacting. Everyone has quickly jotted off a note that didn’t quite convey what was meant. Encourage employees to take time replying. A quickly jotted response may be equally rude, thereby exacerbating the situation. Encourage employees to avoid sending demanding, tersely worded requests or follow-up notes. Emails written in all capitals or using multiple exclamation marks or question marks can be interpreted as yelling or being condescending. Emphasize to employees that they can escalate their concerns about rude or abusive communication to the Human Resources department if there is a pattern of rudeness.

Crude or Inappropriate Content

While rude emails may not violate company policy, crude emails almost always will. Emails with foul language, derogatory sexual or racial comments or other objectionable material should be clearly prohibited. Instruct employees to delete a questionable cartoon or joke email coming from outside the company. Forwarding such emails is unprofessional, unacceptable and may be grounds for termination. Courts have consistently ruled that companies must investigate and correct hostile or harassing behavior. When one email or comment might not be enough to substantiate a claim, escalating behavior or a pattern of harassment definitely can. The law protects employees from harassing comments based on race, gender and other protected classifications.

Communicating the Policy

Companies need to help employees understand what behavior is acceptable. Include the policy information in orientations, the policy manual, training and periodic communications. Incorporate educational content about how messages can be interpreted differently by different cultures or generations into any diversity or management training. Don’t be overly zealous either; communications that seem overdone or treat employees like children can backfire and encourage people to ignore the policy.