Communication Currents

Teaching Millennials the Ps and Q of Professional Emailing

August 1, 2015
Instructional Communication

Growing up in the age of the Internet, cell phones, and social media, members of the millennial generation are “digital natives,” texting and emailing from young ages. Their entry into the workplace and its increasing reliance on electronic communication have challenged widespread assumptions about these digital natives’ knowledge of how to professionally use the digital technologies on which they’ve been raised. Many of them are efficient and effective users of electronic communication mediums such as Facebook, Twitter, and any number of new social media platforms, but they often are more confident in their communication skills and preparation for the workforce than hiring managers are. This discrepancy often becomes apparent in millennials’ email messages in professional settings, a failing that has direct effects on students’ college and career success.

As millennials rapidly become the largest segment of the global workforce, their communication practices have widespread impact and currently leave some employers and teachers fearing for the future of interpersonal interaction skills. Employers report struggling to fill jobs with qualified candidates because they find that a majority of college graduates lack “soft skills” such as oral and written communication, interpersonal skills, and professionalism. Consistently, digital literacy and communication skills make the short list of necessary and desirable traits for prospective employees, all of which require effective use of mediums such as email to interact with teachers, students, supervisors, colleagues, and clients.

In an effort to stem the tide of poorly executed, ineffective, and even rude emails arriving in my inbox, several years ago I instituted an “email competency” exercise for students in online classes or early in their college careers. The exercise requires students to demonstrate their technical skill in writing effective emails using a professional tone, and offers us an opportunity to connect outside the classroom, similar to how they will interact with colleagues in the years to come. On its surface, the email exercise is basic: 1) Discuss professional “netiquette,” how it applies to email, and how it may vary by context; 2) send the instructor a “professional” email, answering assigned questions; and 3) receive an individualized feedback email from the instructor.

Millennial students’ familiarity with the terrain and “rules” of digital communication is apparent during our conversation about “netiquette” as it applies to email messages and online interactions. Most students can identify examples that may affect how messages are interpreted, no matter the sender’s intentions. They quickly label examples of poorly written emails as “unprofessional,” “inappropriate,” or “lazy”—perceptions that are unlikely to inspire employer confidence and could be harmful to their interactions with others. Despite this, students often stumble when called to the carpet to demonstrate the skills themselves, reflecting what some refer to as millennial generational traits: overconfidence in their own skills and an expectation of success that doesn’t match the effort they’re willing to put into it.

Within the discussion is an explanation of my six criteria for professional emails, developed from consistent email issues I witness and a variety of “netiquette” resources (such as 101emailetiquettetips .com and, among others). In an email to the instructor, students are expected to meet the standards listed below as they answer assigned questions about their interests, comprehension of course requirements, etc.

  • Personalized: Contains an individualized greeting, sign-off, and message appropriate to your relationship.
  • Prepared: Pays attention to detail and directions, includes pertinent information, and/or requisite research and preparation are completed before sending the message.
  • Precise: Features an accurate subject line and clearly and concisely addresses the purpose of the email. 
  • Polite: Uses a formal tone, makes small talk as appropriate, and includes social courtesies such as “please” and “thank you.”  
  • Proofread: Read over for spelling, grammar, formatting, accuracy, and especially tone.
  • Queries: As needed, answers inquiries, asks for clarification, and does not pose questions as statements.

These “Ps and Q” standards are broadly applicable and adaptable, so discussions should address how they may vary across digital technologies, or across personal, professional, and institutional contexts. Reviewing how to craft effective messages should include reminders that communication mediums such as email are “lean” and thus easily misinterpreted, some conversations and questions are better handled in person, and context affects message content. In a university setting, for example, we discuss including the course name in a subject line allows instructors to organize messages from numerous students; sending an attachment file requires an accompanying message; and erring on the side of caution, such as referring to instructors as “Professor” rather than defaulting to “Mrs.” or “Mr.,” is more appropriate. In a workplace setting, scenarios worth considering are conducting team-based project interactions, receiving praise or feedback from a supervisor, sending a thank you to a colleague, or even informing clients of a departure from the company. 

In class and career, millennials value receiving feedback to develop their skills. While critiques of their email communication skills may be low priority for many students and employees, the effects are far-reaching. Invariably, some members enter class well-practiced at effective digital interactions and specifically email, but many express appreciation for the guidance. A common post-exercise refrain from students is, “No one’s ever told me I should include these things.” For them, the exercise clarifies the expectations to which they are held, opens opportunities to interact in multiple communication settings, and in some cases even helps level the playing field for those on the other side of the digital divide who didn’t grow up with consistent access to technology.

Admittedly, it may seem inconsequential in the moment to discuss and practice email messages with students—or young employees—when there’s so much else to cover and include in training. However, it’s precisely because they have grown up emailing, texting, and posting online that many digital natives write off professional online communication as “common sense” and forge ahead, (mistakenly) assuming their expertise. Even as some workplaces shift from email to other digital interaction technologies, learning how to craft effective and context-specific professional messages remains crucial for long-term college and career success.

About the author (s)

Christy-Dale Sims

University of Denver