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10 Questions to Flag Sensitive Situations

Sometimes you can recognize instantly that a message will lead to trouble. When you are angry or upset, you know better than to bang out a hostile email. But some sticky circumstances may not be obvious. Ask yourself these 10 questions to recognize potential problems. If you answer yes to any question, think twice or get advice before communicating in email.

1. Could this be someone else’s news to share?
In your excitement about good news, you may want to broadcast the information quickly. Maybe your company has won the contract, grant, or lawsuit. Maybe the amazing candidate has accepted the job offer. But before you email the news, ask yourself whether it is YOUR news or someone else’s to share. Sharing news that is not yours can deflate other people’s pride and excitement. It can even suggest that you were responsible for the accomplishment. On the job, don’t think of yourself as a newscaster, sharing updates whenever they happen. Let the good news come from those who own it.

2. Do certain people need to learn this news before others? 
People who will be most affected by news should receive it first. For instance, if several internal candidates apply for a position, the applicants should learn which one of them got the job before everyone in the company finds out. If a team will move to another city, the people on the team need the information before the entire company requires it. Informing people in advance shows them respect, and it eliminates the embarrassment of their not knowing before others do. Avoid needless problems by thinking about your various audiences before sending one all-company message.

3. Could including others on the Cc line hurt someone’s feelings, relationships, or reputation?
It is easy to get in the habit of Ccing the team or replying to all to keep everyone informed. But everyone should NOT be informed when there is any chance that the information will embarrass or harm others. Tasks such as communicating constructive feedback, denying a request, disagreeing—even sending a straightforward reminder to someone who has missed a deadline—can create embarrassment and bad feelings when other people get a copy of the email. In these situations, do not Cc or reply to all. Communicate privately with the individual involved.

4. Do I have feelings of discomfort about sending this message? Is there a small voice warning me not to do this?
When you have any doubts about sending an email, listen to them. Doubts and feelings of discomfort are huge signs of likely insensitive communication. Maybe the solution is to wait, not communicate, or ask your manager or your human resources representative for help. It is better to delay communicating than to have to heal a strained relationship or apologize for a serious blunder.

5. Might my manager, my human resources rep, or another professional have advice for me to consider?
You may know that you need to communicate, and there is no small voice telling you not to. Yet other people may be able to help you express yourself more diplomatically or appropriately. When you suspect that your email will fall short and may damage relationships, seek advice from a trusted guide. The advice may be to call or meet in person rather than emailing.

6. Would a face-to-face or phone conversation manage this situation more effectively? 
Sometimes email does not work because it is just crisp words on a screen, not the voice of a human being in conversation. Situations in which email may be insensitive are communicating bad news, denying a request, apologizing, and giving performance feedback. Email isn’t always wrong in these circumstances, but it can be.

7. Could the timing of this communication be unfortunate for any reason? 
Sometimes a message is right but the timing is wrong. Maybe the timing affects one individual badly, or maybe a whole group will rebel if they receive such a message now. If an employee has just shared with you that his spouse is ill, for instance, he will not welcome a message saying overtime is required until the project is completed. If a team is preparing for a huge implementation, learning that the leader has given two weeks’ notice may cause an uproar. Such delicate situations don’t require that you hide the news but that you communicate it sensitively—maybe individually, maybe in a group meeting—and allow two-way communication.

8. Is it possible that I do not have all the information to understand this situation?
Assumptions and incomplete information damage workplace communication every day. You may think that someone is ignoring your email, when you are using an incorrect address. A delay may suggest to you that your boss has rejected your proposal, when she is really taking time to gain approval for it. Do not send email inspired by assumptions, or you risk creating a problem unnecessarily.

9. Could this topic be inappropriate for a workplace communication? 
In most workplaces, religion, race, politics, sex, sexual orientation, and physical appearance are off-limits as topics. Words, cartoons, and other images on these topics will be hurtful to some people, which is the reason workplaces prohibit them. It is not acceptable to send a message on these topics to even one person because of the necessity of keeping the workplace safe and welcoming for everyone.

10. Could anything about this communication make my company look bad? 
Your unstated purpose in every communication is to present your organization as positively as possible. Imagine your email featured on a six o’clock evening news program. Would it make your company look like a good corporate citizen and employer? Or could it lead to scandal and embarrassment? If anything about the message might present the organization in a negative light, talk to your human resources and legal departments before moving forward.

Do you have any questions to add to these? Have you learned any of these lessons the hard way?

To continue to build solid work relationships, get my award-winning book, “Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time.” Learn more and download the first chapter.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “10 Questions to Flag Sensitive Situations”

  • Hi, Ms. Lynn. Hope you are doing well.I am in situation where I have to request management for extra hours payment.
    I got bit hesitate after reading #6, should I go face to face before to send an email or approach directly.

    here is the content of draft for review.

    “Dear Sir,

    I wish to request for the extra hours payment. As you witness from my previous assignment for XY project where I had been working daily minimum 14 hours to contribute for timely completion of the project undergone through many challenges which was acknowledged by the Management and the Client with appreciation certificate and sincere recognition letter. But because of the contractual obligation we not being paid for our continuous efforts. However my performance and management skills was appreciated and assured that the Company would consider necessary incentive in future work.

    As I spoke to Manager – Finance & Accounts regarding the payment condition, he mentioned that it would be paid xyz times of the basic salary as per revised policy instead gross salary. Whilst consider my current basic package the incentive will be very minimal after all the hard work. Therefore please take my case separately instead of paying under normal calculation at least sanction it to gross salary or to fixed amount.
    I believe and look forward for kind consideration to get encourage in future endeavor.
    Thank you for taking time”.

    Searching for assistance so do I got this post. Don’t know whether you could reply.

  • Hasan, I suggest that you try a face-to-face meeting first, prepared with all your arguments. In a meeting, you will be able to discuss the issues and respond with details.

    Your message is very complex. Your second sentence is 47 words long and hard to follow. If you intend to send the message, I recommend that you break up your sentences so each one has just one idea.

    I also suggest that you use a grammar and spelling checker. Grammarly, whose basic version is free (see the ad on the right), identified many errors in your message and supplied accurate corrections. Errors detract from your message, reducing your persuasiveness.

    Good luck!


  • Thanks for taking time to respond. I really appreciate your feedback and advice. Awesome and very helpful as usual.
    I tried Grammarly for basic version but it did not show up.

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