Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Dec 25, 2011

Workplace Dangers: Meeting with Legal

Instructor, Caroline Bender

This is not Miss Bender's usual lecture about the paper trail -- of the CYA/Kumbaya variety.  We'd like to go a little wider and deeper in today's class.  These are habits you need firmly established before you need them.  Because you never know when you are going to be deposed.

Let's review some examples of a email reply, with attachment.

1) subject line: none.  No message text
2) subject line: "spreadsheet".  message -  "Here ya go."  or... "per our conversation," (however formal your environment tends to be)

3) subject line (name of attachment):  message text:
Hello Brenda,
Please find attached the latest version of the report we reviewed on today's call, which I downloaded a few minutes ago.  Please look it over and make any comments directly in the document.  If you have no changes, please let me know that too.  I will file it to the accountants as soon as I have heard from you.

Three months or 3 years after that report has been cited as evidence in a business issue, you will be glad you chose #3.

I acknowledge the tedium of email.  It is actually more annoying than business by phone (if that is possible) and can be terribly time-consuming.  In the corporate arena, especially, we are buried in it, and without secretaries to weed it out for us.  Most days, it seems the only way to get through it all is to reply-yes, reply-no, reply-see attached, reply-please reschedule... and you already made a macro to insert "Please."  F12 is nice for that.

I ask that you acknowledge this:  A stitch in time... saves several uncomfortable meetings with General Counsel.  Not only can you pull a timeline of your role in whatever is exploding, you can quickly check your own memory of what happened when, and why.

Take this Pop-Quiz
Pull a history of the last 6 month's emails on any given category of your work.  (If you are not yet using Outlook categories to reference your email, please set aside additional time to read this).   Based on what you find, could you put together a reliable discovery-worthy history of events, using only these official business documents you yourself created?   Then I urge you to begin tomorrow, writing business emails so complete you could come back to work after a traumatic brain injury and still know what you were doing last week.

These do not have to be baroque in style -- heretofore, forthwith, whereas -- or even particularly long.  They need to be

Thorough -  if you need a template, try this:
  • The Big picture this pertains to.  
  • The central message of this email.  
  • Action on the part of the reader.  
  • Next steps for the sender.  
Read the note to Brenda again -- more than 3 sentences, yes, but the structure is there.  This "next step" area also serves as a task for you.  And if you are not yet using Outlook Tasks as your To Do list,  please set aside additional time to read this).

Date and Time stamped - the easy part is done for you already.  What you also want to include are points of reference that can be useful, such as noting to Brenda that the report was run "a few minutes" before the time stamp on the message.  The action came out of  "today's call," which likely has minutes or notes stored elsewhere.  Date your attachments whenever possible, also.  If it is later modified, its properties will tell you that; the date in its name can signal when it was created, run, or what it refers to (Annual_Report_2010).  If you develop a consistency for your own dating convention, the document name will have immediate meaning for you and your recipients.

Who did What and When - Miss Bender developed an inclusive "we" habit early in her career -- a style she still prefers to "I," rather like referring to herself in the third person -- but "we" will immediately draw the question who out of the attorneys.  Naming names is good practice when asking for, or reporting, approval, sign-off, and other such authorizations.

Cross-Reference - Refer to supporting documents, work request IDs, meeting minutes, and the like by their full names.  This will be exceptionally handy even if no one seizes your records.  If the email is internal only, consider linking directly to shared documents from within the message so they can be retrieved immediately.

Recycle - Another handy tip for general productivity, and a sure thing for keeping the story straight.  Copy statements from your minutes, right to your action items, to your progress reports, your dashboards, your email messages.  No telephone game here -- and in a desktop search, you'll find all the documentation that pertains to that item. (And if you are not yet using a desktop search tool besides the one your operating system came with,  please set aside additional time to read this. ) 

Learn how to make a quick and relevant timeline out of your email archive.  Test yourself on a project some time back -- a year ago, even -- by making a 1 page document of key actions, milestones, decisions based only on what you can retrieve from your email.  Management is easily assuaged by
mm//dd/yyyy: AUTHORITY decides to DO/NOT DO

Store and backup - but don't overwhelm yourself.  It is not necessary to save every email if your end of the thread can fill in the blanks, and if your emails repeat and reinforce other documentation.  I recommend a Best Practice of keep the current year immediately handy in email form, the previous year in desktop folders or an email backup, and earlier things as Key decisions and documentation.  Your workplace may not allow the deletion of email.  That's becoming very common.

In which case, please set aside additional time to read this.

Happy New Year from the Business Women's Finishing School & Social Club.  
Tell us what's on your mind.

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