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Business Email Etiquette

On any given day, I receive 100 or more emails, and after sifting through them all, only half are ones that I really need to pay attention to. Some of the others are emails on which I was copied (with no action item for me) where the primary recipient(s) frequently hit “reply to all” with one-word replies like, “Thanks” or “Sounds good!” …Yep, that’s how my inbox looks.

When it comes to business-email exchanges, think of the impression you want to leave to your recipients because like it or not, your career advancement, credibility, leadership skills and intelligence are all judged by your written email communications, even if your verbal communication skills are top notch.

Below are 9 tips to master business email etiquette in today’s workplace:

Be Professional

Sending non-business related e-mails, jokes, forwards or chain letters on company time to friends or coworkers will reflect a lack a professionalism. Use your judgment when sending these types of emails. Visiting websites that are questionable or not necessary to your job’s responsibilities will reflect poorly on your ability to be trusted. Never assume that these activities are not being monitored. When I was a human resources executive, I once had a CIO tell me that he knew how much an employee had in their bank account because the company took snapshots of the employee’s screen to monitor their computer usage on company time. Assume that while you’re on company time, you have no privacy when using company resources and equipment, regardless of whether you’re working in the office or remotely. If you wouldn’t want your email to be broadcast to your entire company, don’t send it.

The 3-Email Rule

A rule of thumb is that if the message you’re trying to convey to someone in an email has not been resolved by the 3rd email, pick up the phone and call them. It’s faster and leaves less room for confusion.

Sometimes it’s Best to Pick Up the Phone

Body language, facial expressions and tone cannot be conveyed in an email, which is why it’s important to use your judgment when sending an email that can be potentially misconstrued as negative, inflammatory or antagonistic. A rule of thumb is to think about yourself in the recipient’s shoes – if you received the same type of email and may question the intent of the sender, pick up the phone and call, or if applicable visit the person face-to-face. This is especially true in cases where the message is clearly not positive, such as in cases where disciplinary action is required or a layoff is being communicated.

Use of Emoticons is OK

Many of us spend our days corresponding to people electronically, including the use of instant messenger. Emoticons, or combinations of symbols that loosely depict the human face, is now widely used in the corporate environment because the reality is that until a font is created that conveys the sentiment, “I’m not mad, I’m just really busy,” emoticons are the best way to quickly convey tone and emotion electronically.

Level of Formality

Generally speaking, try not to assume that email by its very nature allows you to be informal in your business communication. Only time and relationship-building efforts can guide when you can informalize your business relationships and your email’s tone. One should communicate as if your email is on your company letterhead.

Addressing Colleagues and Clients

How do you address your new contacts? If you are addressing an internal colleague, it’s OK to address them by first name. However, when addressing external clients, particularly within the context of a global economy where people in different cultures have different expectations about formality, addressing them by first name can be perceived as taking premature liberties in the relationship if used too soon. Hence, I would recommend that initially you assume the highest level of courtesy. For example: “Hello, Mr. Anderson,” “Dear Ms. Jones,” “Dr. Osborne,” etc. until your new contact says that you can “call me Bob” or “you can me Susan.” You will also be able to pick up clues on when you can have a more relaxed tone by how external clients approach you as well as how they sign off in their email.

BCC: and CC: Fields

Blind Carbon Copy (BCC: field): In certain situations when you are emailing individuals who do not know one another (within the context of external business clients), it is preferable that you put your name in the TO: field and the names of all other individuals who do not know one another in the BCC: field. This is a privacy issue. By visibly listing the names and email addresses of those you are trying to build relationships with in a group of strangers, you will make them wonder what other privacy issues you may not respect or understand.

Carbon Copy (CC:field): Use this field when there are a handful of employees involved in a discussion that requires all to be on the same page. These business people know each other or have been introduced and have no problem having their email address exposed to the parties involved. Ensure that you have the right person in the TO: field and CC: fields, as this determines who’s expected to respond to your question or comment. For example, if you want John Doe to respond, don’t put his name in the CC: field.

Use of Caps, Bold Text, and Underlining Words

Although there are times we need to emphasize certain language to ensure our recipient pays special attention to a particular issue, do so with caution to avoid any misinterpretations of tone. For example, I am always surprised when employees use all caps – this is equivalent to yelling. The use of bolded text and underlining is less inflammatory, but still warrants caution when using them. Use your discretion.

Check Your Employee Handbook on its Email-Use Policy

Companies regard the use of email and company technology seriously, and if it’s used contrary to their policy in their employee handbook, it can have serious ramifications, up to and including termination.