Ask Annie

Online etiquette flubs could crush your career

March 24, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

More than three-quarters of HR executives said in a recent survey that technology-related gaffes can be hazardous to your job.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I absolutely agree with your post about office distractions like March Madness being no big deal, but it reminded me of a question I've been meaning to ask for a while now. To wit, at what point does multitasking morph into plain old rudeness?

Certain people where I work seem to be so addicted to their BlackBerries that they miss half of what is said in meetings. Then they waste other people's time afterwards asking about things that were covered while they were texting, checking their messages, etc.

Also, the same individuals seem to have no sense of boundaries, so they will send tweets that embarrass other people by raising issues that are really better discussed privately, one on one. A few people here also use texting abbreviations for everything, even in regular emails, so that half the time you can't tell what they're trying to say. Then there are those who constantly "ping" others with instant messages, which is distracting when you're trying to concentrate on actual work.

Sorry to rant, but I'd love to know whether it's just me, or do others find this kind of behavior unacceptable as well? What do you and your readers think? —Biting My Tongue

Dear BMT: Funny, isn't it, how some people seem to view technology as an excuse to abandon basic courtesy and simple common sense? Rest assured that you aren't the only one who finds this tendency alarming, or at least annoying.

Consider: 76% of human resources managers believe that "technology etiquette breaches" --including checking email during meetings -- could "adversely affect a person's career prospects," according to a report from global staffing giant Robert Half International.

"Mistakes like sending a confidential email to the wrong person, or impulsively posting an offensive comment on Facebook or Twitter, can have serious, career-impacting consequences," observes Robert Half executive Brett Good.

If you would like to help your clueless colleagues avoid such fallout (which I realize is a big "if"), one alternative to biting your tongue would be to suggest they download RHI's new, free online guide, Business Etiquette: The New Rules in a Digital Age.

A compilation of advice from Robert Half's own executives and half a dozen etiquette experts and new-media gurus, the guide includes a few cautionary tales, like the one about a job candidate who, when offered a job by Cisco Systems, sent out this overly candid tweet: "Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work."

Someone from Cisco tweeted back: "Who is the hiring manager? I'm sure they would love to know that you will hate the work."

Gulp.

That hapless candidate could have used the DM (direct message) feature on Twitter to limit distribution of her comment to a close friend or two, the guide notes, rather than broadcasting her ambivalence to the world at large.

Two other handy Twitter tips: The shorter a tweet, the more likely it is to be retweeted so, if you want your message to reach the broadest possible audience (are you sure?), keep it well under the 140-character limit.

Also, consider connecting your LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, which can be "a way to gain more traction, further build your reputation, and establish yourself as a go-to person", the guide says. You can display tweets in your LinkedIn profile by using the hash tag #in within your Twitter post. But, the guide advises, "use a light hand. It can be annoying when all of a person's tweets indiscriminately show up on LinkedIn."

Some additional advice to pass along to your coworkers: Instead of treating every type of communication like a text message, slowing to edit out "odd or informal abbreviations, poor punctuation, and spelling and grammatical goofs" will require less effort from the person who has to decipher the end result, and makes a far better impression besides.

When it comes to instant messaging, the guide's authors are with you: Less is more. "IMs are fine for quick volleys of conversation," but it just isn't reasonable (or considerate) to expect that everyone will always drop what they're doing and chat: "For many, email is immediate enough." No argument here.

Talkback: What technology-related etiquette blunders do you see most often? Which ones bug you the most? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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