Email Etiquette for Professionals

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Email has become the most-used means of communication in business. While phone calls and face-to-face meetings still play important role, and text messages and SMS are being used more frequently, emails are still a preferred method to exchange information clearly and quickly, all while creating a “paper-trail” that can later be referred back to.

The problem with email is that we are usually inundated with it. To make sure your emails are being read and taken seriously, make sure to follow these

15 Rules of Professional Email Etiquette

1) Include a clear, direct subject line.

Examples of a good subject line include “Meeting date changed,” “Quick question about your presentation,” or “Suggestions for the proposal.”

People often decide whether to open an email based on the subject line. Choose one that lets readers know you are addressing their concerns or business issues.

2) Use a professional email address.

Always send emails from your business email address. If you must use a personal email account be careful when choosing that address.

You should always have an email address that conveys your name so that the recipient knows exactly who is sending the email. Never use email addresses that are not appropriate for use in the workplace, such as “babydoll@…” or “beerlover@…”

3) Be careful about hitting “Reply All” and use it sparingly.

No one wants to read emails that have nothing to do with them. Refrain from hitting “reply all” unless you really think everyone on the list needs to receive the email (see The Proper Way to Use To, Cc, and Bcc Fields for more on this).

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4) Include a signature block.

Let the recipient know who you are, your role, and how to contact you. Chances are, your company has branding guidelines on your email signature – stick to them, i.e. don’t change the font of your name because you want to stand out – this is not the place for being unique when there is corporate branding in place (see the next point, #5)

5) Follow the company branding guidelines for fonts and backgrounds.

For business correspondence, use the prescribed branding rules of your company. Do not change the background colour of your email – nobody appreciates receiving an email that has been made difficult to read because someone has decided to add in a cloudy sky background and nobody is going to take the email seriously if you’ve decided to change the body of the text to Comic Sans.

6) Use professional salutations.

Avoid laid-back, informal, colloquial expressions like, “Hey you guys,” or “Yo”. A Relaxed nature of our writings should not affect the salutation in an email. Use Hi or Hello with the person’s name instead. Do not shorten anyone’s name. Say “Hi Michael,” unless you’re certain he prefers to be called “Mike.”

7) Use exclamation points sparingly.

If you choose to use an exclamation point, use only one to convey excitement. Putting a number of exclamation points at the end of a sentence can result in the sender appearing too emotional or immature – they should be used sparingly in writing.

8) Be cautious with humour.

Humor can easily get lost in translation without the right tone or facial expressions. In a professional exchange, it’s better to leave humor out of emails unless you know the recipient well. Also, something that you think is funny might not be funny to someone else. When in doubt, leave it out.

9) Reply quickly.

It is easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of emails that we receive daily. Try to prioritize which ones needs to be handled first (see if any are marked “urgent” or have a subject line that you know needs to be addressed immediately. For those emails that you can’t spend as much time as you need to on them, let the individual know that you have read the email and that they are not forgotten about. “Hi X, thank you for the email about Y, I will look into this later in the week and get back to you with an answer next Monday.”

 

10) Reply to mistakes.

Make an effort to reply to every email message ever sent to you and in a timely fashion. This includes when the email was accidentally sent to you, especially if the sender is expecting a reply. Here’s an example reply: “I know you’re very busy, but I don’t think you meant to send this email to me. I wanted to let you know so you can send it to the correct person.”

11) Proof-read every message

Your mistakes won’t go unnoticed by the recipients of your email and depending upon the recipient, you may be judged for making them. Don’t rely on spell-check. Read and reread your email a few times, preferably aloud, before sending it off.

12) Add the email address last – and double-check the recipient’s name.

This ensures you don’t accidentally send an email before you have finished writing and proofing the message. Even when you are replying to a message, it’s a good precaution to delete the recipient’s address and insert it only when you are sure the message is ready to be sent. Pay careful attention when typing a name from your address book on the email’s “To” line. It’s easy to select the wrong name, which can be embarrassing to you and to the person who receives the email by mistake.

13) Be mindful of your tone.

Tone can be easily misconstrued without the context of vocal cues and facial expressions. Accordingly, it’s easy to come off as more abrupt that you might have intended. You meant “straightforward”; they read “angry and curt.” If you are unsure, read your message out loud before hitting send. If it sounds harsh to you, it will sound harsh to the reader. For best results, avoid using unequivocally negative words (“failure,” “wrong,” or “neglected”), and always say “please” and “thank you.”

14) Nothing is confidential – write accordingly.

Every electronic message leaves a trail. A basic guideline is to assume that others will see what you write so don’t write anything you wouldn’t want everyone to see. Don’t write anything that would be ruinous to you or hurtful to others. Email is easy to forward so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

15) Assess the situation – is an email the best solution?

Email is the most popular form of communication but we can become overly reliant on it. The problem with this reliance is that sometimes another communication method might be more effective. If a quick response is required, or a customer issue needs addressed, a phone call is the best method for this communication. An email follow-up can always be sent after the call to have a paper-trail, e.g. “As per our conversation earlier today…”. If correspondence is going to be repetitive, it is better to speak on the phone than sending back and forth emails when possible. Face time is the best way to build a rapport and relationship. Keep emails short and to the point, as much as possible.

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Emailing from your Smartphone? Email etiquette still applies.

The Proper way to Use the To, Cc and Bcc Fields

When to Use the To Field?

The To field should only include those users who are directly affected by the message you are sending. Think of it as asking somebody to do something; whether that’s replying with information and comment, forwarding on to someone else or simply reading and noting the content.

Typically, those people you include in the To field will be included in your email’s opening line e.g. “Dear Chris and Earl”. Remember that you can usually include an unlimited number of email addresses in the To field. A common mistake is using the CC or BCC field when sending a mail to multiple users.

Ask yourself what action you are requesting of the recipient. If there is no action and you are simply adding the person for informational purposes, it’s probably best to use one of the other fields below.

When to Use the CC Field?

The CC (Carbon Copy) field is intended for those who may need to know about the main content of the email but need take no action themselves. Think of it as “for information only” but only when the information is not critical. Consider whether the information is genuinely of interest to the receiver or just a “nice to know”.

The CC field is often used inappropriately. Many users will CC a recipient’s manager as a form of informal escalation. There is no such thing as informal escalation. A formal escalation requires that a message be sent directly to the appropriate person. Copying in an employee’s line manager in CC can be construed as bullying or being passive-aggressive.

When to Use the BCC Field?

The BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) field means that recipients in the To and CC fields will be unable to see users addressed in this way. This can be useful when you want your manager to be aware of something that you are dealing with, but don’t want them to take action. You do not need to have recipients in the To or CC field to use the Bcc field.

The blind carbon copy field is also useful when you are sending a communication to a list of individuals who need the same information but shouldn’t be able to see the email addresses of every other person receiving the message.

This field may also be used in sensitive situations where you do not want the recipient to know you have added others to the email. For example, adding your manager to BCC when dealing with a complaint. This allows them to see what action has been taken without the customer being aware.

Other Points to Consider

Appropriate use of these fields is not restricted to the first time a message is sent. Every time you reply to or forward an email consider the use of these three fields. Clicking the ‘Reply All’ button if the message wasn’t correctly addressed in the first place creates confusion and frustration.

If a colleague is repeatedly sending you messages via carbon copy that do not require your participation or knowledge of, don’t be afraid to request to be removed from subsequent emails.

Hopefully these tips have been helpful in improving your professional emails. For additional thoughts to consider, see Inc 5000’s article 25 Tips for Perfecting Your Email Etiquette by Lindsay Silberman.