Email Etiquette…

OK, so this is mostly a work related post. And re-reading it, its not all that short. (Sorry!) I have been getting a little saddened lately by email etiquette, or the lack thereof, and how it impacts people at work that I care a lot about. So I figured it was time to write something. It’s been done before, maybe a million times, but hopefully I can add something useful… probably not, but it’s worth a go! (At the very least, I will get this issue off my chest!)

Email at work is becoming the de facto means of communication, I think for 2 main reasons – one, it’s convenient (read “lazy”), and two, it’s becoming regarded the best way to “cover yourself” in a contentious situation.


By lazy, I mean we used to prepare our thoughts, plan a conversation which was actually a living dialogue with a living person, pick up the phone, and talk about something, working through issues as we went along…. Nowadays we can write a note, or even a expansive tome, and never have to field another person’s thoughts. No danger of getting interrupted with someone else’s reasonable perspective or different idea. And, we can just hit send and it’s done. No calling back, leaving messages, etc etc. All very convenient. We have, in our own eyes, “comMUNicated”! Hooooaaah!

Communication when done face to face is a very precious thing. We generally take care to be on our best – or at least reasonable – behavior, and the golden rule is only say things we would be proud of. Very rarely would we invite strangers or unrelated people into the conversation. Even more rarely do we record it and distribute the recording afterwards to others without telling the person we were with! (That is what a Bcc is, really). In face to face contact there are ethics and rules of politeness, and they make us each socially pleasant and likeable. I am concerned that when we put up a computer screen, for some reason, these things become less important! People lose their value, and because we are writing to a faceless email address, we change our behaviour.

No decision-making

It also means we can circle an issue with many one sided monologues and never get to a decision – or at least not one we can be held accountable for! This is something we don’t have the luxury of in face to face situations. It’s really great to be able to pretend we resolved an issue, but really we didn’t… we batted it around, nudged it to one side; and passed it off. We can easily make it look like the initiative was with the other person and THEY are the one who dropped the ball…

Bad manners

I often get emails that start off halfway though a sentence. No greeting, no introduction, no context. Sometimes that’s ok, like in the middle of an existing conversation. But not often… Greetings set the whole TONE of the interaction. First impressions LAST. So why would we want the start of a conversation to result in that whole conversation being viewed through a lens of aggressiveness/defensiveness? Why on earth would we leave off the “Hello, Bob” or “Hi, Mandy” at the start. We need to be really careful with that.

Our manners are so important. Especially in a medium where personal contact is already reduced. Very few people are wordsmiths who can craft awesome emails, so it is really important that we take care of the basics. It’s just plain lazy and disrespectful to leave out a greeting or a context. (Epiphany – You know what I think it is? I do this sometimes, and I have to go back and fix it… We type their name in the address bar, and then feel like we are needlessly repeating ourselves to say hello in the body of the email)

The message is the message RECEIVED, which is NOT always the message you sent

Choosing words is very important if we are going to trust communications to email. It’s really really important to find the right WAY to say something. I never send a first draft; hardly ever a second draft, sometimes a third draft and usually only a fourth or fifth draft. Especially in contentious situations. It’s really important to let a difficult email “settle”. It ALWAYS takes less time to write a good email than to fix the mess left by a bad one.

Covering our Tracks

We have all been there. We need to make sure our side of the story is documented. There is usually a time, at least once, where we are scrambling to appear as if we got it right, when actually we flubbed it and are now at risk of some blame attaching to us. Or, occasionally, we are legitimately needing to communicate something important where evidence that we did so, is necessary.

What happened to trust, and notes, and taking time to meet and deal with issues, and communicating with tone of voice? What happened to the ability to work through an issue WITH the person that was hassling us?

Shallower relationships (and they aren’t that deep to begin with!)

The biggest problem here is the increasing gap between us and the person next in line. Essentially we have a digital barrier in between us and huge numbers of people, where in the past we would know their faces. When meeting them, the initial small talk would mean we know their kids names and what grade they are in, and what sports they play. By the time we got round to real discussions there was something of a bridge between us that we could both stand on and appreciate each other’s perspectives. We had met the human being behind the issue.

I think we need to get that back. Its not hard to pick up a phone, it’s just unfamiliar now. It takes planning, and engagement.  That’s all!

Cc and Bcc

I have a serious problem with the issues surrounding (forgive me) the “Cover Your Ass” issues. Its here that the Cc and the Bcc fields wreak havoc on workplace relationships. There is the straight up Cc that is ok, of course, a legitimate copying of necessary or involved colleagues; but then there is the more subversive kind… The power playing, the one-upmanship; the exposing of another’s vulnerabilities and the dropping of your colleagues to keep your own hands clean.

When we are emailing it is really important to always re-consider the Cc line – does this person still need to be in the loop? If I remove someone, I also remark on that in the email, so that there is clarity as to why.

Honest and upfront

To copy someone in, there should be an upfront and honest reason that is actually mentioned in the email. The last paragraph, perhaps, in brackets… for example :

(Bob, I included John by way of Cc because he was intimately involved with the design of the item we are discussing and he may well have great perspectives on how to adapt it)

The Blind Carbon Copy (Bcc)

The Bcc field has very few virtues, and should hardly ever be used. I mean this. Too often the Bcc field is seen as a clever way to pass information under the table. I have a problem with the culture of any place, or the integrity of any person who does this regularly. For me it is a clear sign of underhandedness and of insufficient social skills.

It is useful when sending out identical emails to a group where knowledge of each other’s identity is irrelevant or counterproductive (such as mass responding to CV’s in a recruitment situation, or publishing an item to a group of people where there is no issue of who knows (like a generic email list or a club distribution). It can also be valid when privacy constraints dictate that not everyone should see the other people on a list.

The only consistent exception I have permitted for myself, as an HR Manager, is when I am in the process of workplace counselling, and I can REALLY TRUST the intentions and heart of the person I am Bcc’ing – usually a very senior manager. The recipient would be likely misunderstand the reason that “X” knew what was happening. I would only be telling ”X” for one reason – their support is integral to the success of the counseling, but the positive dynamic would be too easily affected by too much transparency.

I only Bcc when I would be more than happy to stand by it if it were to come out – which, by the way, it sometimes does. And I often prepare the ground in advance for just that reason.

The other possible reason is when a situation growing difficult, and obviously being seen to include someone would be incendiary, yet they need to be informed. In this case, I prefer a meeting or a phone call.

Bcc especially just feels like gossip to me. Usually, when I have seen it in action, it is passive-aggressive schoolyard stuff, and the person doing it comes off worse than the person they did it to!


OK, rant over. Happy emailing!


About Vaughan Granier

Just Thinking...
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2 Responses to Email Etiquette…

  1. Gordon Solomon says:

    Totally agree. As you could imagine being in a different country from your head office, email is the main point of contact. I find many times that the message you send can get very misconstrued due to language and cultural differences whch can cause problems. We also need to look at what greetings we use to ensure that it is in line wih the culture. As you could imagine in OZ “G’day Mate” can work, but it doesnt go well with Japanese culture. There are many other tools available to us that may not be as good as face to face like skype and video conferencing but at least you can do a bit of idle chit chat and guage the reactions of people.
    Maybe you should post around the company as I think there are many people in the business who could benefit from this.

  2. Pingback: Email Etiquette… — The Good Men Project

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