What is the reputation of the IT department in your shop? Is it perceived as a well-oiled machine, with all the parts—from tech support to software development to network operations—working smoothly and seamlessly together as a unit? Or does the rest of the company think of the IT department as a bunch of overpaid prima donnas who are too busy with infighting to get any work done?

I’ve seen the consequences of airing the IT department’s “dirty laundry” in public, and it isn’t pretty. If end users decide that the IT folks can’t be trusted, those end users will do end runs around the level I and level II support staff and take their complaints to the company’s senior management. This week I’d like to offer two specific suggestions for protecting the reputation of the IT staff. Both tips begin and end with communication skills.

Rule #1: Stop the infighting and remember the customer
Recently I overheard a developer friend of mine—someone normally pretty quiet and dispassionate—ranting and raving about something. It turned out to be a squabble between the developer on one team and a developer on another team about the best way to address a business customer’s change request. The other developer had flamed on my friend and carbon-copied the message to my friend’s manager.

“Who does he think he is, copying my manager on something that we should have been able to work out ourselves?” my friend asked anyone who would listen.

You may be thinking, “so what?” After all, people have disagreements all the time, and in that respect, the IT team is no different from the other teams, right?

Unfortunately, this disagreement got out of hand; the nasty e-mails flew fast and furiously for several days running. All the while the infighting was going on, the customer was waiting for an answer.

Eventually the customer heard through the IT grapevine about the fighting between the two developers. The customer became impatient and complained to his manager that the developers weren’t making any progress. The customer’s manager complained to the developers’ manager about the lack of progress. Then came a meeting between the developers and their managers to discuss how to resolve the disagreement.

Meanwhile, the project slipped further behind schedule. In the end, the IT department looked pretty foolish to the nontechnical customers in the business unit. In my opinion, the damage to the IT department’s reputation could have been avoided if the quarreling teammates had kept the disagreement in the IT family.

Rule #2: Don’t copy e-mail to a customer’s manager, either
In addition to consequences you pay when you skip the chain of command within the IT department, you can pay an even higher price if you send a flaming e-mail to an end user and copy that user’s manager. It’s just smarter to let the end user decide when and how to contact the manager about a technical problem.

Here’s an example that illustrates this rule of thumb. Suppose you have to write an e-mail to a user with the answer to stupid question #122. And maybe it isn’t the first time you’ve written this same e-mail to this user.

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to copy your message to that user’s manager. You may get a reputation for “getting people in trouble,” and end users will make a point to request that anyone but you be sent to help them the next time they need tech support.

If you believe that somebody needs to intervene with a user on an official level, your best bet is to bring the matter to your manager instead. Your manager can decide when, and whether, to escalate an issue to an end user’s manager.

You want your users to trust you, and you can earn that trust by keeping all your communication—especially notes about their most bonehead mistakes—just between you and them.

Tell us what you think

To comment on this column, or to share your tips for improving respect for the IT department, please post a comment or write to Jeff.