Nothing can take you from hero to zero like breaking the unwritten rules of email communication.
So if you interested in moving forward in your career take heed.
This is not a complete list, and the items listed are based on my education and personal experience.
1. 60-70% of all communication is non-verbal. So when a subject is of great importance and miscommunication is not an option, schedule a face to face meeting or, at the very least, make a phone call—Do not email.
2. Never write an email in anger or utilize ALL CAPS (denoting anger.) Remember, once you send an email it becomes a permanent record that can (and most often will) be used against you—I have seen professional careers ruined by one angry email.
3. Remember that company email is not private. Write every email as if your boss is going to read it.
4. Know when to put an email address in the To: Cc or Bcc boxes. Below is a brief summary:
- To – People required to take action or directly responsible for the information given (this is the most common way to address emails.)
- Cc – People who are to be kept informed of the content, but no actions are typically required from them.
- Bcc – Recipients will receive the message without any of the other recipients knowing. Also good for group mailings.
i. Don’t put a group in the To or Cc areas if you don’t want to share the entire address list with each person. Rarely do you want everyone to respond to everyone else, so using Bcc for group emails is usually best.
ii. Unless your email was in the To section of the email, you probably shouldn’t respond (as you are typically being copied for informative purposes or Bcc’d as a way of sending you information without the other recipients knowing.)
iii. When you do respond, make sure the Subject line is accurate. Multiple responses to the same email often move from one subject to another and can be very confusing when, after a day or so, you forget what the original subject had to do with the current conversation.
5. Know the difference between Reply and Reply All, and Forward.
- Reply will send an email back to everyone in the To box with the same Subject prefixed by RE: (this is the most common way you should respond to emails)
- Reply All will send an email back to everyone in the To and Cc boxes again with the same Subject prefixed by RE:
- Forward will, in effect, create a copy of the email with the same Subject prefixed by FW: but with the To, Cc and Bcc fields blank—often this is used to forward an email on to recipients who were not part of the original email list.
i. Avoid using Reply All unless you really want everyone to respond to what you are saying or you are sending information that the whole group would need to know—Example: if you receive a group email reminding you of a softball game and you know the game has just been rained out, then it is appropriate to click Reply All.
Now that you know the basics (and the big don’t ever do—Angry Email) here are some other etiquette tips to get you to the next level.
6. Keep your message brief and to the point. Really brief if you know or think the recipient may read your email via smart phone.
7. Communicate action steps first not last and include a deadline. This goes back to keeping it brief. Make sure you tell the recipient what action you want and when you expect it—in the subject, first paragraph or sentence if possible.
8. Use expressive or compelling subject lines: FYI, For Approval or Scheduling Request. This ties the last two points together.
9. If you have to communicate more than one question in an email then number the items. Use the numbering feature of your email program so that each paragraph wraps correctly and is properly formatted. The numbered list aids in getting concise answers to multiple questions.
10. Reply in a timely manner. If you can’t reply fully right away, mention that you received the email and the time frame in which you will reply (then make a copy of the email and paste it into your calendar with a note of what to do).
11. Provide options to your email so that you don’t need 3 email exchanges when one will do
(Email Example from the author Tim Ferris): “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 a.m., 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. today. Will one of those times work? If not, would you please reply with three times that would work for you?”
12. When responding to an email, address all of the questions raised or at least acknowledge you understood what was asked. If you need more time or to consult with others, say so in your response and state when you will get back to them. Follow up here is important. Just like before, if you need to follow up, make a copy of your reply (it’s in your sent items box) and paste it in your calendar with a note of what to do.
13. Mirror your response to the tone of the email received. By doing so you can loosen up a bit and have fun. If a coworker emails you as “Hi B” (for Bob), it is ok and actually preferred to reply as “Hi J” (for Jason). I think you get the idea.
14. Don’t use email to criticize. Email works great for recognition, but not so much for criticism. Usually, the other party will be offended and the one way dialog doesn’t foster understanding or change.
15. Don’t Create, Reply To or Forward libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene remarks (usually Jokes). It’s not wise to make fun at others expense. When you put it in writing, you are likely to offend those you didn’t mean to while putting yourself at personal risk of disciplinary, or worse, legal action.
16. Leave the sarcasm at the door. I have a very dry sense of humor and on occasion catch myself trying to say something in an email that gets misunderstood. Since email lacks the subtlety of in-person communication, it is best to forgo nuanced communication via email.
17. Spelling and grammar are easier now than ever. There is a spell/grammar checker built into your email program so use it. Write for your audience and remember you only have one chance to make a good first impression.
18. Provide a quality signature (name, contact info and device – for mobile—so that the recipient knows who you are, how to reply, and where you are emailing from.
19. Don’t email or forward chain emails, jokes, funny stories to groups of people. Nothing will get you on the “Not Cool” list faster than spamming a group you are associated with.
20. Now that you have written your email, re-read it. Often I find small mistakes that completely change the meaning of my email. Or I leave out important details (like an attachment, date, and/or place.) Just like when you turned in homework, take some time to make sure you got it right.
Editor’s note: Scott Olson has more than 18 years of experience as a software instructor, software engineer and project manager. He recently took a position at LANB as a web developer in December of 2012. Prior to moving to New Mexico, Olson worked for a software development firm in South Dakota (BPro Inc) for 15 years where he developed or managed the development of more than 100 business applications and became a certified project manager (PMP) and Vice President. Olson graduated from Brigham Young University in 1991 with a degree in Communication then returned to his home state of South Dakota.Olson lives in Los Alamos with his wife Angela Rush Olson.
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