“Never send me a project e-mail.”

This was one of the first things the owner-CEO told me after employing me in a small but highly tech-oriented marketing firm. It may seem counterproductive, but he had his reasons. Sending an e-mail, he noted, is akin to dumping tasks on somebody else’s desk. It is a way of fleeing responsibility by making it somebody else’s – asynchronously.

Can this be right? In a heavily tech-oriented business in the computer era, surely e-mails is a great way of communicating. Even if we’re in the same office, sharing information and asking questions in an e-mail is a great way of getting and receiving the information we want – when we want it. (Of course, it is also a way of drowning in information – as well as spam.)

E-mails leave a “paper” trail of inquiry that can be very useful, and it is certainly a great way of communicating over distances or when the sender and receiver are not simultaneously present. The problem with a phone call (or a meeting) is that all parties need to be present at the same time and focused on that very communication process. This may be very inefficient as well ineffective, especially if the task at hand is the simply inquiry for specific information that is not time-specific. An e-mail seems to be the way to go.

But, as the owner-CEO of this firm had identified (but also did not adhere to in his own actions), e-mail has become a means by which you can easily “get rid of” problems, tasks, and responsibilities. Most of us have done it. Rather than properly and responsibly digging into an issue, attempting a solution, and figuring out all information – we quickly type an e-mail and send it to someone who knows (or, we believe, should know).

Students use this extensively nowadays. Any question or problem they encounter (or so it seems), they send their professor an e-mail and thereby place the responsibility on his or her shoulders. I have received many e-mails from students, often consisting of a single sentence (no greeting, no thanks, only a question or statement), that have only one purpose: to flee responsibility. Examples include “I cannot find the documents for the homework,” “I cannot make it to the exam, but have to take it later,” and their counterparts expressed as questions. They’re often sent after 11 pm at night, sometimes around 3 am or 4 am in the morning of the day they have an exam.

The obvious reason for these e-mails is that the student is covering his or her back. E-mails such as “I cannot find the documents” or the question “Where are the documents?” often end up in the professor’s inbox in the last minute before an exam or project deadline – not seldom when the documents are posted on the course web site (how about checking under “Documents” or “Projects”?) and have been available since before the semester started.

By sending such e-mails, the student has escaped all responsibility and made it the problem of the professor. How are you supposed to do the homework or project if you have not been properly informed? And how can you be expected to take an exam if you don’t know what to study? Those are relevant questions, but not the night (or only hours, sometimes minutes) before the homework or exam. And they are never relevant if this information has been supplied in class or is available on the course web site.

The same goes for excuses. It seems a lot of families are poor planners. For instance, they obviously don’t plan funerals for beloved grandparents (who tend to die en masse close to midterms and final exams) until late the day before. So students are forced to send an e-mail to their professors around midnight the day before an exam saying the cannot make it because of a funeral. The implication of such e-mails is that the professor needs to put together a new test for this individual student as well as wrestle with university administrators to find a place where the test can be taken – at a time that works for both the professor, the student, and others on campus.

In the case of students, these e-mails are obviously meant as dumping one’s responsibility on somebody else’s (the professor’s) desk. And they are very often ridiculously bad at concealing the real intent, but unfortunately professors are sometimes not allowed to react in the obvious way (that is, simply refusing the student’s request).

These students would benefit from having a first job in a firm like the one mentioned above, where their manager is very outspoken about not using e-mail to dump stuff in others’ courts. But this may not be the case, which would be unfortunate for both the student and the employer. But it is nevertheless an important lesson: sending an e-mail, simply because it is asynchronous, means it can be used opportunistically. It is easy to attach one’s spreadsheets and shoot a line or two to a colleague saying “please have a look at this, I need to pick up my kids at school.”

The meaning  of this is obvious. Your co-worker now has the task in his inbox, whether he or she knows about it, and then you can leave early to pick up the kids. But whose is the responsibility, really? It is hardly the case that we use letters (also asynchronous) in the same way. Who has ever sent a half-finished section of a term paper via mail to fellow students saying you cannot do more right now, so “please take a look at it”? This has probably never happened. But with e-mails it happens pretty much every day.

The question is why this has almost become a standard way of using e-mail. Perhaps it is because people feel anonymous behind the screen (the same phenomenon as the nasty comments in discussion for a online), or that it is so quick and costless (letters take pen and paper and envelope and postage – and then mailing). But it could also be as simple as being a new means of communication for which an ethical standard has not yet emerged.

In my own case, since I am almost always online, I tend to fall in the “dumping” trap simply because I (erroneously) assume others are also online. I treat asynchronous e-mail as synchronous communication, which means I can send a quick question to someone I think is also online instead of spending time to search for the answer myself. Oftentimes this fails, since the person is not online (or ignores the question), which means I am forced to search for the answer anyway. And then send an e-mail apologizing and saying I found it…

This is, however, a lesser problem than “responsibility dumping” since asking a question in this manner is not really pushing responsibility unto someone else (it can easily be ignored or postponed by the other party), and since I’m dependent on the answer – not the party receiving the e-mail. Responsibility dumping via e-mail is much worse, since it is an effective means of forcing one’s responsibility on others – even if they are unaware.

Unfortunately, it is quite common in businesses today that group projects fail to meet deadline and when asked why this is the case, one claims “responsibility dumping” and the dumped-on party was unaware of this (or didn’t notice it in time or simply didn’t accept it). Managers should treat this not as a communication problem, which it is not, but as a problem of much greater severity. Employees engaging in “responsibility dumping” not only affects the profitability of projects, but makes the firm looks bad to customers, undermines cooperation and trust in teams, and contributes to a culture of avoidance and conflict.

Needless to say, this can be very costly for a firm and it is therefore advisable to have a policy for how e-mail is to be used within the organization. Nobody would think of phoning co-workers, bosses, and clients in the way they use e-mail. There is already an informal set of rules for how we communicate with people over the phone, but there isn’t when using e-mail. So unless management has stated from the get-go that they won’t accept responsibility dumping via e-mail, it may be prudent to treat this issue seriously – and perhaps even repressively.

If you have comments on this essay, please post them here. Don’t e-mail me.