“The political firestorm surrounding the Democratic Party’s emails remind us all—once again—that all communications should be professional,” Mecoy says.
It seems every other month a major organization gets hacked. Reporters and the public go wild trawling through and writing about emails the senders thought were private.
Most of us might never be the subject of a cyberattack, but email snafus such as an auto-complete goof in the To field can expose our secret thoughts, tasteless jokes or ill-advised comments to people never meant to see them, says Laura Mecoy of Mecoy Communications.
Here are some tips for email etiquette, both to avoid embarrassment and improve readability:
Put yourself in the mindset of the recipient.
Before your press send, pause a moment to reread the email with the recipient in mind, Mecoy says. This helps you gauge how the content and wording will be received.
If an email is especially sensitive, ask a colleague or friend to read it first. An outside eye might help you reassess the perceived tone or word choice.
Be judicious about ‘reply all.’
It’s annoying for employees to check their email after a long day and discover an endless email chain—especially when responses aren’t meaningful to them.
Caregivers at Cleveland Clinic have asked people to be judicious about the use of “reply all,” says Kevin Kolus, senior communications manager on the employee communications team at Cleveland Clinic.
Those who are busy with patients don’t have much time to manage email.
Adds Glen Loveland, HR manager of CCTV News in Beijing, “The only reason to ever use [reply-all] is to help immediately correct something that will benefit the entire distribution list.”
For the same reason, think twice about whom you carbon-copy. Would everyone you’ve CC’d really want to get in on your big, happy email roundabout? Or are you just trying to impress bosses or throw colleagues under the bus?
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Summarize forwarded messages.
When you receive a forwarded email, sometimes it can feel like walking into a theater halfway through a movie. Here’s how to help out, contributes Kolus.
“Instead of asking them to ‘see below,’ be courteous and summarize the discussion points you’re asking them to address,” Kolus suggests.
Not only will you be appreciated, but it also improves your chances of getting a timely response.
Design it to make things easy for the recipient.
The people on the receiving end are not likely to be anticipating your email, says Michael DesRochers, managing director of PoliteMail software. They’re busy with work, they have 100 other messages coming in on a typical day. Here’s how you can make your message easier to read:
- Categorize your subject line. Indicate whether this something they need to act on, read or can just file away. Just as replies have an “RE:” at the start, you can come up with qualifiers to indicate how the recipient should categorize the message, such as “ACT:” or “FYI:”
- From address. If everything broadcast for all different subjects comes from the same HR@ address, it’s more difficult for people to prioritize. You might have your Exchange admin provide a set of from addresses for each of message, something like Benefits@ and a Volunteer@will help employees more quickly process and read your messages
- Keep your email short. Keep subject lines brief (50 characters or fewer), and edit your content ruthlessly. If you have more than 400 words to say on a topic, provide a link.
- Break up your paragraphs, says Jordan Brannon, director of digital strategy at Coalition Technologies. “Eyes glaze over the moment we see a big block of text on your screen,” he says. White space and short paragraphs help the eye move through your message more efficiently.
- Use common formatting—such as font size and color—throughout your email, Brannon says. Also, use high-contrast color combinations (black and white being most apparent) for your text.
“Email is more a processing environment, not a reading environment,” DesRochers says., when employees can quickly understand the context, categorize and prioritize, your message is less likely to get ignored.
Be courteous. Don’t write in ALL CAPS.
Writing in all caps makes it seem like you’re shouting, so avoid them. Also, be respectful of the recipients’ time and workload, says Nick Braun, founder and CEO of PetInsuranceQuotes.com.
“Keeping internal communication respectful and professional is a key trait of a healthy culture and work environment,” he says.
“Ghosting” is the practice of disappearing from a relationship and ignoring texts, phone calls and other attempts at making contact. This can baffle and infuriate those being ignored.
If you have decided not to participate in a business partnership or project, let the person know. It beats diving under the desk if they unexpectedly come looking for you in your cubicle to find out why you’re not answering emails.
Among the more common email failures is using the wrong tone, Mecoy says. Simple, old-fashioned words such as “please” and “thank you” will help. Using proper salutations also conveys respect.
Enter the email address last.
This helps you avoid sending the email prematurely, Mecoy says. It also gives you a moment to check and make sure the promised attachments are indeed attached.
Failure to respond in a timely fashion to an email can send a signal that the sender is not important, Mecoy says. Unfortunately, today’s mobile devices often mean you are expected to respond on weekends, nights and holidays. Setting “out of office” outgoing messages, even when your away time is short, can help avoid misunderstandings.
On the other hand, replying instantly to every email could leave the impression that you are “always on,” says DesRochers. If you are batch-processing your email—a good practice for efficiency—use the “send later” feature, providing a thoughtful pause.
Consider leaving your jokes for the phone or in-person.
Even with emoticons, jokes often fall flat in print, Mecoy says. Plus, it’s sometimes easier to talk rather than to read through a long email. “Pick up a phone if you wish to make a quip to someone or say something you wouldn’t want others to see in print,” she says.
Use a new subject line.
Don’t use old email threads to introduce new topics, Brannon says. If a few days have passed and you want to email me something new, don’t just search for an old email and hit “reply.”
Oh, yeah? Well, we’ll see what your boss thinks about this!
If that’s why you’re adding a name to the CC line, just don’t. Do not drag managers into private disputes, says Jasmine Powers, founder and chief marketing officer of J Powers Marketing & Publicity.
“Carbon-copying a manager out of spite is a no-no,” she says. “Resolving the issue or alerting the person that you will escalate the issue before doing so is advisable, so that you don’t become the town tattletale.”
Aim to keep one topic per email
The exception to this is if you provide a succinct, numbered list.