Email Etiquette 101

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.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/DNY59, Image #813841

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/DNY59

Therefore, I would like to humbly offer up 18 suggestions for better e-mail communication and etiquette:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Don’t reply in anger. It almost never serves your purpose or long-term interests.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.)
  14. 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.
  15. Remember that company e-mail isn’t private. You have no legal protection.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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?”
  19. 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.
  20. 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.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • WLC

    I work for a company that has to communicate with clients overseas daily. We process orders for them, negotiate cost, arrange transportation, have technical managers review orders to make sure they are ordering everything they need, and my coworkers and upper management do not know how to communicate via email. They reply to emails by starting a new email with a new subject to our customers. Our customers are literally receiving five different emails about the same subject (how confusing). I know they do this because they probably don't have these emails filed properly or can't find the initial correspondence or just don't want to take the time to search their email for the initial correspondence. I do realize that if we have to print out these emails to keep as records in a file then after so much communication we are printing out page upon page of correspondence so I would like to know, is it appropriate to send new emails for the same subject or is it just me?

    Please Help!!

  • WLC

    Another issue is that there are people in our organization that insists on being copied on emails, however they neglect to read them and will later ask about something that was clearly stated in an email.

    This is truly frustrating and non-productive. I want to give out something to everyone at my workplace on email etiquette. How do I do that without seeming as though I am criticizing or stepping on someone's toes?

    Comments Please..

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  • Sophia

    I don't know the etiquette for this one but it is a pet peeve of mine: Follow up emails to, for instance "I will do this: that say Thanks! then the reply: Your welcome! I don't want to get 2 or 3 more emails that say nothing important. To me, it is a waste of time to stop and open and wait and read. AND these are replied to all!

  • Rich Quin

    Thanks for the post Mike. My company would benefit from the application of these 18 suggestions and from the comments here.

    I am writing a memo now with these suggestions in mind for all our managers and staff to consider.

    thanks.

  • Bryan

    XD …. i dont care about this =P

    lmao!!!!! XP

  • Donavan

    Here's one the ticks me off. When the reply has the original message in it and they argue with me by changing the wording of the message and add comments in the sentence body in red…

  • Ajo

    If you are sending an email to multiple recipients, who should you address first? Does email etiquette require that the higher ranking officers should go first?
    Thanks

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I think generally so.

  • jackie

    Don't send inflammatory political email to people you work with and don't know very well. I get offensive political email from a guy I work with and it just makes me angry, but I don't want to stoop to his level of hate mail. What can be done about these people who think that they are always right?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      My best advice is just to ignore them. The more you engage them, the more nasty they become.

  • Mary Defayette

    Because this is named 'email 101' I think it's important to talk to people that may just be learning about email rules.
    I have many emails that come to me as forwarded messages with lists and list of recipients. Can you explain to the novice how to delete former recipients and how and why to use BCC for multiple recipients.?
    (in Entourage for Mac, you must put an address in the 'TO' box, so I always make my address that one.)
    Great tips, thanks so much.

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  • ACB

    I'd also suggest waiting until the entire email is written and proof read before filling in the "To:" field. Often, especially on laptops, a slip of the thumb across a mouse pad on a laptop can be interpreted as enter/send. If the "To:" field is not filled out, this slip will result in no harm because the email can't be sent without someone in the address fields. This will prohibit any half-completed messages from going to recipients, thus requiring another message that says, "Sorry, the last message was incomplete, here's the remainder…"

  • Craig Abbott

    I dislike receiving forwarded emails with all the addresses of who the email has been sent to already. Also, there is often a lot of white space before you reach the substance. And, of course, the email that refers to an attachment that has not been attached.
    Thannk you,Craig Abbott, Realtor EmeritusLongboat Key, FL

  • Aidana

    If you are asked by A to contact B about xyz, give B as much background information as you can.

    I observed A ask C to ask B to include C in a meeting. C wrote B, almost verbatim, "Hi B, can you please invite me to this meeting?" The response was a confused phone call where B basically said, "why should I invite you?" C didn't mention A, didn't mention any reason why he should attend the meeting, and B said, "don't come". If C had written, "Hi B, Person A suggested that I attend this meeting because it would give me a better understanding of xyz that I'm working on. Would you mind if I attend/Could you send me a meeting invite?" things would have gone a lot better.

  • http://indeedly.blogspot.com Jennie

    As an unusually serious/bitter/sarcastic 13-year-old girl –
    Please. Do not overuse exclamation marks.
    When you change your Facebook status to "im so tired!!!!!!!!!!!! today i got a B on a test!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! gee that was hard work!!!!!!!!!1shiftone!! well im going to bed now baiz!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" it looks like
    a) You're high on caffeine or sugar.
    …Or drugs.
    b) You're an insufferably silly person.
    c) You consider everything you have to say extremely important.
    So just stop it. :)

  • http://mediasocietypages.blogspot.com/ Leigh

    As a student journalist, I often have to send emails with requests for interviews or information to people who are far more important than I am. I therefore begin my emails with ‘dear’, and sign off with ‘regards’ to show that I respect them.
    Nothing irritates me more than when I receive a request via email and it starts of ‘Hi Leigh’, and ends ‘cheers!’

  • Magdalena

    I agree with the frustrating long emails listing 3 topics in one email. Criticism and sarcasm are 2 things I find difficult to deal with when in an email, as an electronic response does not resolve the issue. You are, however, now burdened to deal with it in some way, more appropriate than email. Back and forth emailing can often be shortened by a simple phone call (if the other person is available). By the third return email, I think, one must realise that emailing is probably not working and try another way of communication.

  • http://www.niceandnew.wordpress.com Sosha

    SO many people lack e-mail etiquette. Thank you for putting up the list. It made me check if I follow all. Thankfully, I do follow most :)

  • Mark Cleghorn

    The one we use at work is this:
    Follow your chain of command when sending your email. If you don't go to their door, don't go to their inbox unless specifically directed by your chain of command

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  • Christine Madden

    I would like to better understand why people utilize the "read receipt". I do not use the "read receipt" funtion. It drives me crazy when I hear someone state that they received the "read receipt". For me, it actually does not mean anything other than the email was opened. If something is that important, shouldn't it be either introduced or followed up by a telephone call?

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  • http://jeffgoins.myadventures.org Jeff Goins

    Taking notes here… This is good. I tend to overuse email and have become aware of how ineffective it is if you abuse it. I think I’ve done a lot of these at one time or another and still struggle with a few them. This list really helps identify what I need to work thru. Thanks, Mike!

  • http://jeffgoins.myadventures.org Jeff Goins

    Agreed. It’s also a passive-aggression thing, I think, Kyle.

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  • http://twitter.com/briantjaggers Brian Jaggers

    The “if-then” option is great!  This will Definitely cut down on back and forth emails. I learned very quickly that although ALL CAPS IS STANDARD IN THE ARCHITECTURAL FIELD; it is considered rude in email correspondence. As always… great advice!

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  • Ali

    I’ve got a couple:
    - Don’t send out mass e-mails about your personal life to company lists. We had an admin who regularly would send our entire department (of about 50 people) cute pictures of kittens or weather reports from her previous hometown…you name it. I used the “create rule” function to send her mail straight to my deleted folder. I tried to at least glance at the subject line when they showed up in my deleted folder, but it’s possible I missed real e-mails she wanted me to follow-up on as a result of her misuse.
    - Don’t add needless clip-art, especially if you’re sending the e-mail to a list. As noted above with attachments, this multiplied by 50 recipients can really bog down servers. And it really doesn’t add anything. It just looks tacky. [Insert clip-art of personified thumbtack here.]
    - Several people have commented about evaluating the best method of communication. That’s definitely true – sometimes phone or face-to-face is a faster and better way to resolve a question – but I would recommend following up those conversations with a brief, bullet-pointed summary e-mail. It ensures you both understood the same things from your conversation, and gives you a record of the conversation to refer back to if you have a memory lapse later.
    - If someone sends you a mass e-mail and CCs people you don’t know, don’t add them to your prayer e-mail list. Or your “I should’ve checked Snopes but I’m gullible enough to believe anything” list. This seems like a no-brainer but I’ve been a victim of this on multiple occasions, and have had to e-mail the original sender to resolve the issue. (That’s another reason why BCC is so useful!)

  • Anonymous

    Really great advice.  Re #13 & 14 … to remind yourself, think: “E is for evidence when it comes to email” Employment Law lawyer Mindy Chapman drives home the point here:
    http://e.busdly.com/index.php?action=message&l=4&c=3583&m=2161&s=63cc8fcb00cdcbe673c503870419a59a&cigx=d.nac,stid.3583,sid.118924,lid.4,mid.2161

  • Anonymous

    somehow this practice (perhaps because I have hit reply all?) seems to clutter up my  address book with zillions of emails of people I do not know, whose names annoyingly pop up when I type in a couple of letters trying to send to a person I DO know.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a great article (as are most of the comments) but yes, it could use an executive summary…

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  • Chris Jones

    One thing I do on important emails is to not fill in the recipient(s) until the message is complete. I learned to do this after accidentally hitting “send” on some notes before I had finished typing, editing, or adding an attachment. It’s comforting to know that an email isn’t going anywhere until I’m for sure ready to send it.

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  • Ricky

    I would add that the last thing you should do before sending a message is populate the “TO” and if necessary “CC” field.  That way, you avoid any problems if you accidentally hit send.

  • hermit

    An addendum to #14: private email isn’t necessarily private, either. All email sent between different servers (such as from @Gmail.com to @yahoo.com) is sent “in the clear,” meaning there is no encryption or security. Don’t say or send anything you couldn’t have on a billboard.

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  • Acreggy

    I find that when people email all in bold text the tone is very harsh regardless of what the message is itself.  Your thoughts?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Absolutely. All caps has the same effect.