E-Mail Etiquette at Work

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • How to write an effective e-mail message.
  • What are the basics of business e-mails?
  • How to manage your inbox without wasting your whole day.
E-Mail Etiquette at Work

Ten years ago, most offices communicated by meetings or interoffice mail. Both allowed working SharpMen to maintain their schedules and consider their responses before answering.

Forget all that. These days, wired offices are abuzz with electronic newsletters, status e-mails and work-related questions. Throw in seemingly unlimited e-socializing, and many SharpMen find their productivity levels going down, down, down. More serious are the quick, flippant and often thoughtless responses communicated to coworkers in writing.

Has this become your work reality? Consider this: just as written documentation of good work can help you, hasty answers or personal communications can hurt you and make you look unprofessional.

In her new book Email Basics: Practical Tips to Improve Team Communication, management consultant Kristin J. Arnold offers the following guidelines for cleaning up your e-mail act and avoiding having your e-mail habits make you look bad:

E-Office Politics

Just as every company has employee rules regarding dress code and telephone use, most workplaces also have accepted policies — written and unwritten — regarding the use of e-mail. For example, a company that breaks work assignments up among "team members" may encourage members to copy ("cc:") all other team members on work-related communications. Try that at in an office that frowns on mass-copying, and you’ll come off as the annoying new guy.

Similarly, other companies allow employees to post "announcements" (e.g. "Doughnuts in the coffee room!" or "Couch for sale") or inquiries (e.g. "Can anyone recommend an intellectual property lawyer?") using office-wide e-mails, while other offices require senders to receive approval from a central message administrator. Again, failing to follow firm e-protocol can get you into hot water. Before spouting off electronically, Krsitin J. Arnold suggests you consider the following:

Company policies. Before forwarding the newest joke, find out if your company has a written e-mail policy. If not, ask coworkers what the generally accepted e-mail practices are. Ask about tolerance for forwards, copying ("cc:") and blind copying ("bcc:").

Once you know the "rules," consider modifying them to complement the professional image you would like to maintain or cultivate. For example, even if joke forwards are tolerated, consider whether you would like to be known as someone who spends company time keeping your coworkers entertained. If you must forward jokes, consider forwarding them to coworkers at your level and below; skip the forwards to managers and other supervisors.

Also consider your use of company e-mail for personal business. Think about how you will act when your boss "catches" you typing away at lengthy personal message. Should you jump off the keyboard in guilty fashion, or simply look up as if the e-mail were related to work? We suggest the latter. Finally, realize that even after a message is deleted, it still exists on one or more of your company’s e-mail servers. Keep this in mind before writing a sexy letter to your SharpWoman or an e-mail that is critical of your boss.

"Team" e-mail policies. If you’re working closely with one group of people, consider setting up some team guidelines for communicating by e-mail. For example, most offices have a guy who abuses the e-mail response button ("OK!" "Thanks!" etc). These endless confirmations waste time and clutter up your inbox. Consider having a group powwow about e-mail preferences. For example, do FYI e-mails require a confirmation of receipt? What is a reasonable amount of time for responding to a message? Who should be copied on what communications? The more you agree on up front, the less confusion and fewer time-wasting telephone follow-ups your team will require.

E-mail confrontations. Arnold encourages SharpMen to avoid the temptation to reprimand someone by e-mail. Sure, it’s easier to write a harsh e-mail message than to argue with someone to his or her face, but e-mail "fights" often turn into nothing more than "flame wars." Even if someone else sends you a strongly worded e-mail, don’t respond with one of your own. Confront the person to his or her face, or over the telephone. That way it won’t turn into a war of words with a permanent record. This is particularly important for personal e-mail communications. After all, do you really want your bare-all e-mail brawls to end up in some human resources file?

Giving Great E-Mail

Perhaps the most important change of the workplace e-mail revolution is that now SharpMen’s quick, everyday interactions are permanently recorded. Rather than picking up the phone or walking around the corner, many SharpMen quickly key out a casual message.

Ever thought about what that means?

Suddenly "did you" or "didn’t you" becomes a matter of permanent record when a fastidious coworker prints out your message for his or her "file." Remember, the ease of e-mail may make it seem casual, but it’s not. E-mail produces a written document that could reflect poorly on you and your professional image. Save yourself the embarrassment by taking a few minutes to create messages that reflect the image you want. In Email Basics, Kristin J. Arnold offers the following tips and guidelines:

Addressing your e-mail. Be choosy about whom you send e-mail to. Is everyone in the "To" line a necessary recipient? How about the "cc:" line? Think about whose e-mail box should be cluttered by your e-mail, as well as how often. Letting your boss know that you’ve sent off an important client e-mail is one thing; copying him or her on every team project communication may be too much.

Be sure to use the "cc:" and "bcc:" functions as they are intended. The "cc:" function is used to copy others on messages, and let them know they needn’t take any action — sort of like an "FYI." The "bcc:" function is like "cc:" except that it hides the identity of the person you are "blind" copying from the recipients in the "To" and "cc:" lines of your message.

Finally, when sending a complaint e-mail, consider first writing to the next step up, rather than going straight to the top. In most cases, complaints don’t need to reach the highest level (your CEO needn’t know that the toilet on P2 is leaking). The lower problems can be resolved, the better.

Using the subject line to your advantage. Often, people are too busy to open an e-mail right away. In this way, the subject line of your e-mail is similar to the headline of a newspaper article: it will make or break whether someone reads the e-mail. For this reason, Arnold suggests quickly identifying your purpose — and its importance — in the subject line. Simple phrases like "FYI" and "Reply ASAP" can provide insight into the importance of the message. Alternatively, write a short thesis statement to sum up the message.

Making your message readable. Many e-mail users attempt to "spice" up their correspondence by using unusual fonts, font sizes and colors in the body of their e-mails. Don’t do it. Most recipients find these variations annoying and distracting. Instead, send e-mails in a simple Times New Roman or Arial font. Avoid fonts with cursive writing or thick letters, which are hard on the eyes. Finally, make sure your font size is a standard 12 point. Anything smaller is difficult to read.

Writing your message. The "five Ws" are as important in the workplace as they were in your seventh grade English class. When a coworker opens your message, he or she needs to quickly learn five things: who, what, when, where and why.

Keep your message short. If your recipient wants to read a novel, he’ll buy one. An e-mail message should be simple and to-the-point. The following points will help you keep things brief, readable and easily digestible:

  • Stick to one issue and give all the facts required to understand your point and the action required. If you’re addressing multiple issues, it’s helpful to send multiple e-mails. That way, coworkers can tackle one subject at a time instead of various subjects all at once.
  • Make your most important point first.
  • After your most important point, create a short summary of the rest of the e-mail by briefly listing other items in order of importance from top to bottom. This way, if your reader doesn’t have much time, he or she can simply read the first part of the message to understand.
  • If you have questions to ask, list and number them. Then, highlight any main ideas by bolding the words. Make your point, but don’t clog up the system with needless anecdotes and long-winded ideas.

Editing your message. Once you’ve written your message, you’re nearly home. But don’t press that send button yet! All writers make mistakes. Arnold suggests taking a moment to catch a couple of your own:

  • Run a spell/grammar check.
  • Since machines don’t catch everything, reread your message to ensure that it communicates your point.
  • Is your message too long or confusing? Break it up. Arnold suggests breaking your points down into a horizontal list, like this:
    1. Use numbers to reference each point.
    2. Start each new point with the same word form (verbs vs. nouns); for example, the verbs "use" or "start."
    3. Use an extra line space between points.

Think before sending. Finally, before you send your message, think like the risk management folks do: would you mind having this published in a newspaper? Or, could your e-mail be used against you? If either answer is "yes," don’t send the e-mail.

A Note on Using Attachments

Attachments present a whole new set of e-mail concerns. Because not all computers can open all attachments, they can often be unreliable. Additionally, if the attachment is a large file, it may clog up the recipient’s e-mail gateway and become an annoyance. When adding an e-mail attachment, Arnold suggests the following:

"Introduce" the attachment. Often senders forget to attach the intended document or the attachment does not "take" or go through. For this reason it makes sense to let your recipient know that you have attached a document and give a short description of its contents in the body of the e-mail. This short introduction is also helpful when your recipient is busy: he or she can quickly see what the attachment is about.

Preventing e-mail blocks. If you are attaching a bulky file, it’s helpful to convert the attachment into an Adobe Acrobat or WinZip file in order to make transmission faster and less onerous on the recipient. Arnold suggests calling before sending anything more than 500 KB, and faxing or mailing documents that are extremely lengthy.

Managing Your Inbox

The typical corporate e-mail user receives more than 30 messages a day, and spends up to two hours dealing with them. Managing your inbox is like managing snail mail: you toss junk mail, respond to bills and requests and save information that might be valuable later. Don’t let e-mail use take over your day. Instead, develop quick and easy procedures for incoming messages.

Check your e-mail sparingly. Be the master of your inbox instead of letting it be the master of you. Limit checking your messages to three or four times a day. Morning, noon and the end of the day are great times to do this. Delete junk mail, and save lengthy messages until you have time to deal with them.

Clean out your inbox systematically. Many SharpMen employ "systems" for keeping their desks clean or staying on top of their work. Consider setting up a similar system for managing your e-mail so that it doesn’t take over your day. Arnold suggests:

  • Scan your inbox for messages from your boss, clients and coworkers with whom you work closely. Answer these first.
  • When responding, only reply to messages that need to be replied to. Unless otherwise required by the boss or client, avoid several responses that say "thanks."
  • Delete messages you won’t need again. For messages you may need in the future, create inbox subfolders and label them for easy reference.
  • Finally, resist the temptation to forward jokes and junk mail to coworkers (see above). Forward only those messages they need to read.

Post a vacation message. When you know you’ll be out of the office, set up an auto-response message letting senders know when or if you’ll be checking messages. Consider including a colleague’s or assistant’s phone number for urgent matters. If you have an assistant or coworker that you trust, let them handle your e-mails while you’re away. Leave a phone number where they can reach you with something urgent.

This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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