Sacked for Poor Email Etiquette

By Craig Buckler
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IE8 Feeding AmericaNew Zealand accountant Vicki Walker was been sacked for sending “confrontational” emails which broke good etiquette practices by using “shouty” uppercase characters, bold fonts, and red lettering. She was fired in December 2007 following two years employment as a financial controller for ProCare Health. ProCare claimed that she had caused disharmony in the workplace.

ProCare could only offer one message as evidence. The email advised her team how to complete standard staff claim forms and specified dates and times in bold red. Another sentence, written in uppercase, read: “To ensure your staff claim is processed and paid, please do follow the below checklist.”

Despite the bad grammar, Walker commented:

To say that is confrontational is ridiculous.

Fortunately for Ms.Walker, The New Zealand Employment Relations Authority agreed that she had been unfairly dismissed. ProCare did not have a written etiquette guide for employees and failed to issue a formal warning. Ms. Walker has been awarded $17,000 for unreasonable work termination and loss of earnings.

While this is an extreme case (and I suspect ProCare used bad netiquette as an excuse for the sacking), it highlights the problem of internet messaging. Emails never convey the same tone, nuances, or body language as a face-to-face or telephone conversations. No one can see the cheeky smile on your face as you type that mild insult. It’s too easy to inadvertently offend a recipient with a misplaced word.

Email has it’s place, but you should certainly avoid using it as a soapbox for long-winded rambling rants. Stick to short informational messages and you won’t end up in the same situation as Ms Walker.

Have you accidentally insulted someone by email? Does your company have a messaging style or email etiquette guide?

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  • To be honest, if she had been instructed how to use her email, and still refused to comply, it’s entirely fair that action got taken. You wouldn’t stand for someone running around SHOUTING AT PEOPLE in person, and this seems to be trying to create a controversy out of something that isn’t.

  • I would never hire anyone who uses caps for more then one word. Also, I wouldn’t hire anyone that uses colours in text other then what is needed.
    Well that is a bit extreme, I would tell them not to do those things and if they did then they would be on their way to being sacked.

    I work with people from all over the world in various projects (no profit projects) and have to be careful with my wording. Some things that I would say as a joke to Aussies seems to be an insult to others. We just take things less seriously.
    I have also noticed that when I criticize someones work with feedback that ‘should’ help them make it better they can get very defensive. Well if they are from overseas, when I critisize Aussies they see that I’m not doing the whole “My epenis is bigger then yours because I don’t like your stuff”, they see I am giving feedback and liking what they are doing. If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t even bother giving feedback.

    I just think people need to relax on the Internet more. It’s not like it’s life or death if someone thinks less of you on the Internet.

    Seems I might have just written a whole lot of bullshit. But I don’t care :)

  • sharky

    Well, who knows how many times she had to instruct her team to do what had to be done – maybe that’s why she resorted to caps and red text.

  • TheBuzzSaw

    This is one of those situations where, on one hand, it was totally unfair treatment, but on the other hand, such punishment is indicative of how lousy a business it is. She probably does not want to work there anyway. Still, I’m glad she sued and won.

  • loganathan

    really companies must told to their employees about email etiquette guide

  • Often a well placed smiley face can disarm a cheeky sentence :-)

  • Random Genius

    Bogus. Her intent with the uppercase sentence obviously was to place emphasis on the required action. She did not write a whole message in all caps. If anyone took offense at that, THEY are too thin-skinned to be working for anyone.

    That said, it’s better to convey key directives verbally, in person. This way, miscommunications can be recognized immediately and corrected.

  • Why should they need an etiquette guide? As far as I know no companies tell me not to shout at people and be courteous to them in person, why should email be any different? Why do you need a guide to tell people not to be rude over email, but not in person?

  • Michael Houghton

    I agree with much of this but you’ve broken a key rule of blogging. You’ve taken a sideswipe at a grammatical error and subsequently made a more serious one yourself.

    Personally I don’t think the all-caps email is the problem, instead it’s where you go from there when you want to add more emphasis. That’s when the red text, larger fonts, angry smiley graphics and Comic Sans MS creep in. Those should all be instant sacking offences, even in my own blessed Blighty with its wise and sensible labour protections. All-caps, perhaps not.

  • Aleksandar Jovanovic

    Sometimes you just have to use bold or caps. Where there its email or a simple info about something. There are important thing that people just skip through while reading that’s why bold is for, to make the word or sentence stick out. As Random Genius said: If you can’t accept some pointing out the important, maybe this job is not for you.
    Basically its easy not to set any rules and latter to accuse someone of braking the unspoken rules.

  • LoisH

    I’m hearing more and more stories like this one. I think that some people are targeted because of personality conflicts, and upper management can use this lapse of judgment against them. Any email that you send out should be proofread; if it is a serious matter, wait 15 minutes, reread and edit if necessary. If in doubt ask a trusted colleague to review it before releasing it.

  • Assuming the NZ employment laws are similar to ours in Australia you can’t sack people without warning them first unless their transgressions are serious: like assault, sexual misconduct etc. Netiquette hardly falls into this area. It’s like someone licking their knife in the cafeteria, unpleasant to be around and a violation of etiquette, but hardly a sacking offence.

    Using all caps is hardly shouting, someone precious made that up. Telegrams, teletype, military signals were in all caps, but no one got offended. It’s just difficult to read and would not be tolerated in a letter or other forms of written communication.

  • Shweta

    It seems to be a case where the company was bent on sacking the employee and grabbed at whatever excuse it could lay its hands on. While use of all-caps is annoying to the reader and is difficult to read, its hardly a Capital offence ;)
    Using bold or different colored fonts is also ok sometimes depending on the context, like emphasizing key words in this case.

  • Dorsey

    In my experience, this kind of thing happens after a long string of such instances. There’s more going on here than meets the eye.

    The points regarding personal vs. impersonal communication are well-taken. Tone of voice, timing, volume, body language, and eye contact convey as much as words, and NONE of that comes across in e-mail. Or, in a blog post such as this…

  • evie


  • lolaz