The Nanosecond World of Instant Messaging A How-to Guide on Using Instant Messaging at Work

By Nicole Davis


Chuckling, you send the message to your co-worker. He’s the only one who will read it, right?

Not so fast, instant messenger.

Stop, think and remember where you are. Are you at home in privacy, or are you at work? Different rules apply.

Business instant messaging (IM) is a relatively new but rapidly growing means of communication. When you use IM in the workplace, there are things you need to know, and guidelines to follow. While email is delivered to a mailbox, IM instantly pops up on the screen; it tells you who has logged on to the server and to whom you can talk.

Instant messages may not always be private, cautions Ben Watson, Manager of Platform Marketing for Microsoft.

“In some businesses, it is a requirement to keep a record of IMs. Most companies will give the employee the option to have a record of their messages,” Watson said. “It’s like email; anything you don’t want repeated, don’t put in instant messages.”

Rob McDiarmid, partner at Morelli Chertkow Law Offices in Kamloops, B.C., agrees. If something is supposed to be confidential, it should not be transmitted by instant message or email.

“If it’s the company’s computer, everything is owned by the company and the employee has no right to privacy,” he said. “Unless things are encrypted, they’re not secure. I don’t send private information to clients by IM or email because I don’t know if it’s completely secure.”

What’s good etiquette for co-workersis good etiquette for bosses. Be polite in your messages, says Watson, and you should be fine. Some businesses use instant messages for communicating with clients as well, and here, etiquette is crucial.

“You need to be even more professional when using IM with a client,” Watson said. “These are the people you are working for.”

Jeanne Hamilton, owner of, says that when people use IM, they must exercise restraint. “Employers would be wise to consider the potential loss of productivity that IM can cause,” she said. “As long as IM isn’t over-abused, it can serve a productive purpose for quick communication.”

A large problem with IM, says Hamilton, is its abruptness and the easy way it can be used to disrupt work routines for both senders and receivers. Once disrupted, a worker needs time to get back to the task. If you don’t want to be disrupted, she says, just shut down the messaging server. People will call or physically come to see you if they need to talk to you.

“It’s an important tool – if you have an important message to get out,” she said.

There are many ideas of what is important in IM. Here is a mix of what Watson and Hamilton think:

  • Be polite. To initiate a conversation with someone, don’t just start typing and assume the receiver has time to spare. See if the person you want to communication with is there first and ask if he or she can talk. Hamilton says that using IM sends the message, “I want you to talk to me now!” So make sure you are polite.
  • Use capital letters appropriately. USING ALL CAPITALS LOOKS UNPROFESSIONAL. Again, you want to be taken seriously.
  • Don’t include an entire document in a message. Instant messages are meant to be short and simple. Provide a link to the document or website instead.
  • Don’t use IM for conferences. Instant messages are mainly used for one-on-one conversations. However, if you need to connect with more than one person, it is preferable to do it with email because everyone knows how to reply to an email.
  • Please, please, spell check. Nothin sais stoopid lik a mispelled wrd.
  • Keep it short. If you are confirming plans with a co-worker, keep it under five minutes. You don’t want to waste your time; you just want a quick answer.
  • Never use colored text or a fancy font. Black text in a simple font is ideal for work. You want people to focus on what you’re saying, not how it looks. You want to appear professional.

Watson expects IM to grow tremendously as companies begin to understand all that is involved in messaging. “It becomes an extension of everything at work,” he said. “Your email can be connected, you can tie into documents, and connect to websites. At the same time, you can type and use a video feed and a microphone.”

Hamilton notes there’s a downside to IM and warns that it can diminish one-on-one contact. She sees IM as a good work tool, as long as it is used for the purpose of work. If you need to talk to someone about personal matters, she says, talk during a break or after work.

What is Hamilton’s bottom line? “You are at work and on the company system. You had better be doing company work.”

[From Connection MagazineJune 2004]