Professional Etiquette in the Digital Age

by James Welch

Perhaps more than any other professional culture, the military demands that Soldiers perform their duties with a particularly high level of decorum and professionalism.  This is manifested in our hierarchical rank structure and our daily interactions with superiors, peers, and subordinates.  While the rise of digital technology has the potential to make these relationships stronger and improve the overall performance of individuals and organizations, it also has the potential to significantly damage one’s image.


Photo Credit: Army Sergeant Christopher M. Gaylord, 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Technology in the digital age now enables military officers to communicate with others instantaneously while also providing access to treasure troves of information once found only in libraries.  The pocket-sized computers called smart phones can greatly enhance a career but they can also lead to great peril for users who fail to follow basic rules of etiquette.  While one’ s peers may not view particular technological habits as being disrespectful, your senior rater may wonder why you are typing on your smart phone in the middle of a meeting.  Chances are you are taking notes, tweeting, or looking up information pertinent to the conversation but unfortunately, it may signal disinterest.  While digital technology is a valuable tool for the modern military officer, we all must be cognizant of how we use it and observe the proper level of etiquette and protocol.

This article will point out some ways we have allowed technology to override our military professionalism, but it will also provide some recommendations on how one might continue using technology unabated, while still demonstrating a high level of professionalism.  This is not an exhaustive list but reflects my own experiences and those of many of my peers and subordinates.  It is meant to provide guidance but also for the reader to commit to a little self-reflection on their own actions.

“Use Caution When Handling this Email”

Perhaps the most ubiquitous use of modern technology is our daily, hourly, minute-by-minute use of email.  Whether we are in a garrison environment, training, or deployed, we often rely upon email as primary means of communication.  While email allows us to send information quickly and reach a large audience, there are many issues with using this as your sole means of contacting others.  I don’t mean to say that email should not be used; it is a great tool and it is not going away.  However, if your email content is of great significance or requires an action to be completed rather quickly, why not follow up that email with a personal visit or a phone call?  Don’t assume that the recipient of your email is sitting at their desk, waiting to take action on your request.

In addition, take the time to read your email a couple of times before sending it.  How many times have you received an email that has grammatical errors, misspelled words, and lacks any sense of etiquette or manners?  Unfortunately, this happens far too often and I am particularly appalled when these types of emails come from people whom I don’t even know.  The first impression I have of this person is they are unprofessional or just not very smart.  This impression is amplified if the email contains an emotional rant or complaint.  Do yourself a favor, and take a moment to review your message before you push send.  Better yet, if the email is particularly important, consider having someone proofread it.

In addition, when sending a professional email to someone for the first time, use a formal greeting.  Begin the body of your message with a friendly remark.  Afterwards, get down to business and then end your message with a proper closing (Best Regards, Very Respectfully, or Sincerely).  Once you’ve established communications with this new individual, then it may be proper to back off on the level of decorum, particularly if the other person does so.  However, when sending a professional email, always err on the side of proper etiquette.

Additionally, be sure to include a clear subject in the subject line.  It can be difficult to query emails if your subject line does not clearly state the content of your email.  Also, if you happen to be on the receiving end of a group email, don’t “reply all” to emails unless it concerns everyone.  If you have a particular concern or a personal gripe, reply to the sender individually or give him a call.  If there is someone else that should be aware of your email but don’t necessarily need to take action, then add them to the cc line.  Finally, make good use of your signature block, and include your title, phone numbers (mobile and landline), and all of your email addresses (NIPR, SIPR, etc). Do this for forwards and replies, not just new emails.

Using Smart Phones Smartly

Smart phones have made a tremendous impact on all of our lives.  They enable us to retrieve information quickly and communicate with others instantaneously.  Unfortunately, many of us act as if our smart phone is another appendage, and our constant use blinds us to the actions of those around us.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t use your smart phone, but be aware of your surroundings when doing so.  For instance, if your phone vibrates during a meeting or in the presence of your rater, resist the temptation to pull your phone out of your pocket unless you are expecting an emergency phone call.  Nothing says I don’t care like pulling out your phone in the middle of a conversation.  However, if you need to find information relevant to the conversation or text someone to inform them about your conversation, apologize and then state what you are doing.

As for large meetings, there is nothing wrong with taking notes on your phone or electronic device, but unless this is common practice in your organization, it may appear that you are not paying attention and doing your own thing while others participate in the meeting.  While most everyone knows to mute their ring tone during a meeting, some people seem to be ignorant of the disruption caused by their vibrating device.  This draws unnecessary attention to you and when you check to see who called you, the perception that you are uninterested in the meeting increases.  If you want to avoid this altogether, consider leaving your phone outside of the meeting.  If the call is important, the caller will leave you a message.  That being said, make sure you voicemail is set up and is not full.

As mentioned earlier, our smart phones allow us to find information at a moment’s notice and to share this information with others rapidly.  Social media allows us to share information to a nearly unlimited amount of people.  The ability to disseminate information quickly is a wonderful tool but it can also lead to great hazards if you do not adhere to some basic rules.  First and foremost, be aware of what you are saying on social media.  If you have a particularly strong feeling about your boss, you should probably refrain from posting it for all to see on Facebook or Twitter.  More than likely, you aren’t using an alias or pseudonym on your account, and your contacts probably include people from your unit.  Making disparaging remarks about your chain of command is poor form in any environment, but it is particularly bad when you share it with the world.

Along those lines, keep in mind that what you post will be around forever.  It stays around even after you realize the error of your ways and delete your post.  Just as you would in the office or around your troops, maintain your professionalism on social media.  Disparaging comments, drunken rants, and obscene memes may seem funny or warranted, but they will all be attributed to you and have negative consequences on your reputation.  If you feel particularly passionate about a particular subject or have a desire to make political comments, do so at your own peril, but at least consider doing so using an alias.

Professionalism Spans All Mediums

Overall, modern technology is a wonderful tool that can expand your ability to lead, enhance your ability to share information quickly, and enable you to find information on just about any topic.  However, it must be used with professionalism and in the right place, at the right time.  It wasn’t long ago that military officers did great things without email or smart phones, and some of those officers are now your senior rater.  Be aware of that, and just because you think your actions are no big deal, your boss may not share your point of view.

If this post resonates with you, it might also be good for your team.
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LTC James W. Welch is the Senior Military Intelligence instructor at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, GA.  He is a PhD student in the Public Policy and Public Administration program at Auburn University.

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