In Person or Email: 3 Times When a Face-to-Face Is Best
November 1, 2016 | Business and Careers
Email is a wonderful tool. It’s quick, easy and often convenient. But sending an email (or a text) isn’t always the most appropriate way to communicate, especially in the workplace. Sometimes a good old-fashioned conversation is best, especially in circumstances in which the stakes—and emotions—can run high.
In my experience as a leader—and from observing other leaders—I’ve come to realize three specific circumstances in which it’s better to talk in person than by email:
1. When something is about to change. Any kind of change can be difficult to process and embrace. In the workplace, change can be particularly stressful because we tend to fear the worst as we envision how the change will affect us. There’s even a word for it—“awfulizing.” Will I still like my job? Will I still even have a job? What if I need to look for a new job? That’s why it’s so important to talk people through change in person.
For example, I recently changed the structure of my team, and that meant some of my direct reports would be reporting to a new person I hired. That kind of change can stir up all kinds of emotions and anxiety, so I met one-on-one with the individuals who were going to be affected to help them understand why the change was taking place and what it meant for them. Doing so gave them an opportunity to ask questions, get clarification and, hopefully, feel more confident about the path ahead. I do know that without individual conversations, people would be left to fill the information gaps on their own—which can result in people making inaccurate assumptions or worrying unnecessarily.
2. When giving constructive criticism. It’s so easy to misinterpret feedback that’s sent via email. That’s why I almost always give constructive criticism in person. When I’m talking with someone in person rather than by email, I can be sure my intent is made clear. Just as important, a face-to-face meeting gives me the opportunity to see how the other person reacts to my input and, if need be, take the time to talk through the issue together. This can be especially important in situations in which you sense the other person will not be receptive to the feedback.
That said, there’s one circumstance when I think it’s okay to send input via email: You’ve talked about an issue with someone in the past, and you’re simply following up with a reinforcing message. “Thanks for sending the report. This is a good start. But remember, we talked about being more concise when writing, and I think there’s an opportunity in section three to pare down the copy and get to the point more quickly.”
3. When firing someone. As a general rule, I think it’s important to let people go in person. I once flew across the country with my boss to let a woman on my team go. I’ll never forget how appreciative she was that we took the time to talk with her in person and help her through the process.
Under certain circumstances, however, I’ll admit that a face-to-face firing may not be possible, practical or necessary—especially if the firing will not (or should not) come as a surprise. I once had a direct report who lived in France whom I fired over the phone. I’d been giving him very direct, constructive feedback in performance reviews for a period of time, so he should have seen it coming. Plus, someone from HR was with him at the time of our call to answer, in person, all of the logistical questions that I’m sure he had—which made me feel more comfortable letting him go via a long-distance call.
If you’re ever in doubt about the most appropriate way to proceed with a communication, here’s a simple way to think about it: Put yourself in their shoes. If you were about to get a new boss, receive constructive criticism or get fired, would you want to learn about it via email? When the stakes—and emotions—are high, opt for in person vs. email.