The use of e-mail in corporate culture is pervasive. I rarely get letters any more. Even phone calls are uncommon. But I get scores of e-mail messages every day. Yet, I am continually surprised at how people often misuse this medium.
Therefore, I would like to humbly offer up 18 suggestions for better e-mail communication and etiquette:
- Understand the difference between “To” and “CC.” As a rule of thumb, the more people you send an email to, the less likely any single person will respond to it, much less perform any action that you requested. The people you include in the “To” field should be the people you expect to read and respond to the message. The “CC” field should be used sparingly. You should only CC people who have a need to stay in the know. The “BCC” field should be used even more sparingly. People you include in the “BCC” field will not be visible to others.
- Keep messages brief and to the point. Make your most important point first, then provide detail if necessary. Make it clear at the beginning of the message why you are writing. There is nothing worse for the recipient than having to wade through a long message to get to the point. Worse, if you send long messages, it is much less likely that the person will act on what you have sent or respond to it. It’s just too much work. It often gets set aside and, unfortunately, forgotten.
- Don’t discuss multiple subjects in a single message. If you need to discuss more than one subject, send multiple e-mails. This makes it easy to scan subject lines later to find the message you need. It also contributes to briefer e-mail messages and a greater likelihood of a response. Also, the more specific you can be about your subject heading, the better.
- Reply in a timely manner. I don’t think e-mail demands an instantaneous response. I have written about this elsewhere. Responding once or twice a day is sufficient, unless you are in sales, customer service, tech support, or some other field where a faster response is expected. Regardless, you must reply in a timely manner, otherwise you will incrementally damage your reputation and decrease your effectiveness.
- Be mindful of your tone. Unlike face-to-face meetings or even phone calls, those who read your e-mail messages don’t have the benefit of your pitch, tone, inflection, or other non-verbal cues. As a result, you need to be careful about your tone. Sarcasm is especially dangerous. If something gets “lost in translation,” you risk offending the other party. The more matter-of-fact you can be, the better.
- Don’t use e-mail to criticize others. E-mail is a terrific way to commend someone or praise them. It is not an appropriate medium for criticism. Chances are, you will simply offend the other person, and they will miss your point. These kinds of conversations are usually better handled face-to-face or, if necessary, over the phone. Especially, don’t use e-mail to criticize a third party. E-mail messages live forever. They are easily forwarded. You can create a firestorm of conflict if you are not careful. Trust me, I’ve done it myself more than once.
- Don’t reply in anger. In the heat of the moment, I have written some brilliant replies. I have said things in writing that I would never have the guts to say face-to-face. This is precisely why you should never ever fire off an e-mail in anger. They almost never serve their purpose or your long-term interests. They burn up relationships faster than just about anything you can do. If it makes you feel better, go ahead and write the message, then delete it. Usually a day or two after you didn’t send an angry e-mail, you’ll understand the wisdom of restraint.
- Don’t overuse “reply to all.” Last week I received an e-mail from someone who needed to know my shirt-size for a golf tournament. He sent the e-mail to about ten or twelve people. No problem with that. However, some of the recipients, hit the “reply all” key (out of habit, I am sure) and sent their shirt size to everyone on the list. This, of course, just adds more clutter to everyone’s already unwieldy inbox. Your default response should be to reply only to the sender. Before you reply to everyone, make sure that everyone needs to know.
- Don’t forward chain letters. These can be forgiven when they are from your mother, but they only add clutter in the workplace. Nine times out of ten, the information is bogus. It is often urban legend. If you feel you absolutely must pass it on, please make sure that it is valid information. If in doubt, check it out at Snopes.com, a Web site devoted to tracking urban legends and rumors.
- Don’t “copy up” as a means of coercion. It’s one thing to copy someone’s boss as a courtesy. I do this whenever I am making an assignment to someone who is not a direct report. (I don’t want their boss to think I am going around them, but I also don’t want to bog my communication down in bureaucratic red tape.) But it is not a good idea to do this as a subtle—or not-so subtle—form of coercion. You may be tempted to do this when you don’t get a response to an earlier request. But I would suggest that you will be better served to pick up the phone and call the person. If they are not responding to your e-mails, try a different communications strategy.
- Don’t overuse the “high priority” flag. Most e-mail programs allow you to set the priority of the message. “High priority” should be reserved for messages that are truly urgent. If you use it for every message (as one person I know does), you will simply be ignored. It’s like the boy who cried “wolf” one too many times.
- Don’t write in ALL CAPS. This is the digital equivalent of shouting. Besides ALL CAPS are harder to read (as anyone in advertising will tell you.)
- Don’t send or forward emails containing libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene remarks. If you do so, you can put yourself or your company at risk. You could be sued for simply passing something along, even if you aren’t the original author.
- Remember that company e-mail isn’t private. You have no legal protection. Anyone with sufficient authority or access can monitor your conversations on company-owned servers. If you need to communicate privately, then get a free account at GMail. Use it for anything personal or private.
- Use a signature with your contact information. This is a courtesy for those receiving your messages. It also cuts down on e-mail messages, since people don’t have to send a second or third e-mail asking for your phone number or mailing address.
- Provide “if-then” options. This is another tip I picked up from Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Work Week. He says to provide options to avoid the back and forth of single option messages. For example, “If you have completed the assignment, then please confirm that via e-mail. If not, then please estimate when you expect to finish.” Or, “I can meet at 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. Will one of those times work? If not, would you please reply with three times that would work for you?”
- Use your spell-checker. I take my correspondence seriously. It reflects on me. As a publishing executive, the bar is even higher. If I misspell words, use bad grammar or punctuation, then it reflects negatively on me and my company. Lapses in grammar or punctuation can be forgiven. But misspelled words are just too easy to correct. That’s why God gave us spell-checkers. Make sure yours is turned on.
- Re-read your e-mail before you send it. I try to do this with every single message. My fingers have difficulty keeping up with my brain. It is not unusual for me to drop a word or two as I am racing to transcribe a thought. Therefore, it’s a good idea to re-read your messages and make sure that you are communicating clearly and observing good e-mail etiquette.
If you have other e-mail etiquette suggestions, please post a comment at the end of this post. If there’s something that drives you crazy, I’d like to hear about that as well. Most of us, I’m sure have ideas that can make e-mail a more civilized, effective tool for communication.