Email Etiquette 101

E-mails are perhaps the biggest enabler of business today, but at the same time one of the top 5 things people complain about at work.  Corporate culture today depends on instant communication and the sheer volume of e-mail traffic to and from your mailbox every day continues to rise.

So why are many of us so bad at writing e-mails?   You’d think that with all that practice we’d be experts by now.  Building on some great ideas from Michael Hyatt on his blog site, www.michaelhyatt.com here are few 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. For “sparingly”, read almost never.  You should only CC people who have a real need to stay in the know. The “BCC” field should be never be used – unless you are a CIA agent or James Bond.

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. 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. Every e-mail doesn’t demand an instantaneous response. 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 are 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.

7.    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.

8.    Don’t overuse (or use) “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.

9.    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.

10.    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.

11.    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.)

12.    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.

13.    Attachments – don’t overuse them. Sending e-mails with multiple attachments is like dumping a huge pile of papers on your colleague’s desk.  In fact it’s even worse than that as the recipient has to open each individual attachment before they can start wading through the content.  Try to identify the most important attachment and only send that one.  If they want more, they’ll ask.

14.    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.

15.    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.

16.    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.

17.    Use the delay send option.  Ever typed an e-mail in anger, or added someone you didn’t mean to in the “To” list and hit the “send” button?  Aaarrgh!  To avoid this I have my e-mail delay set up permanently for 60 seconds.  That 60 seconds may seem like a short time but it almost always enough time for me to realise what I’ve done and recover the offending e-mail from my outbox before it departs.  A lifesaver.

Let us know if you have any more e-mail etiquette suggestions, we would love to hear about them.

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