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Although we may have a host of communication and collaboration tools in the enterprise, such as those provided by a social intranet, email will always be the business communication tool of choice — for certain purposes.
The misuse and abuse of internal email, however, causes us to waste precious time, energy and office resources, not to mention the resources of the planet (read more about the cost of internal email spam here).
To guide us in using business email properly and efficiently, I’ve compiled some of the best guidelines for internal email etiquette. What better way to celebrate National Business Etiquette Week?
Feel free to copy and paste this post into your corporate intranet for the reference of your staff.
15 Guidelines for Business Email Etiquette
1. Write a descriptive subject line
The two things that help us determine the importance and urgency of an email are: the sender; and, the subject line. Keep the subject line short but reflective of what’s in the email.
If the email is urgent, add URGENT in the subject line. Do this sparingly, though, or it will lose its effectiveness.
2. Get to the point and stick to it
Tell the recipient what he or she needs to do in the first sentence of your email. Write like a reporter, putting the most important things in the beginning of the email, and the supporting information towards the end.
Use short sentences, and keep paragraphs only a few sentences long. Break things down with bullet points or numbered lists to make the message easy to read and comprehend. Keep your emails brief.
3. Think twice, three times, before copying others or replying to all
Don’t automatically click the “reply to all” button. Not everyone needs to read your reply. Also be very careful about copying many recipients (using Cc field). Send your email only to those who need to read it.
The blind copy or Bcc is particularly problematic. Other recipients of your email are blind to who’s in the Bcc, which means they don’t know that those people are receiving the same email as well. Some people even consider the use of Bcc to be unethical.
4. Attach files prudently
File attachments take up memory space and have the potential to spread viruses in your organization, so use them prudently. If you have an intranet, use that instead for file sharing.
5. Respond promptly
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, advises that, if the required action on an email can be completed within 2 minutes, then do it right then and there. If not, either delegate it or defer it by adding it in your Next Actions or To Do list.
Be aware of when your response is needed. A late response may be totally useless.
6. Never send an angry email
The problem with emails is they can’t convey emotions accurately. Plus, they’re saved in computers, and are easy to share. You don’t want your outburst, albeit on screen, to be preserved and spread like that.
If you’re upset, take a break and calm down before you send a reply. Consider responding with a phone call or even a personal visit instead.
7. Keep the message thread intact
When you reply to an email, the original message is often copied below your response. This is the message thread, and it helps readers keep track of the email messages that have been sent.
Keep this intact, so recipients will remember the context and history of the email discussion.
8. Never send chain letters
Chain letters waste time; never send them.
Another seemingly innocuous, even helpful, email that usually becomes a chain letter is the virus alert. These are usually false to begin with. Forward these to your IT Department to verify and leave the sending of virus alerts to them.
9. Don’t discuss confidential matters in an email
Never think emails are confidential, even if it’s just between you and a trusted colleague at work. You never know who else can access your emails. And trust me, someone else can.
10. Remember your magic words: “please” and “thank you”
No matter how high-tech we’ve become, the rules of courtesy and good manners remain the same. Always say “please” and “thank you” in your emails. They never hurt and in fact help make communications go more smoothly.
11. Stick to grammar rules and proper spelling
Just because you’re busy doesn’t give you an excuse for using shortcuts in emails. Txtng shrtcts r especially annoying!
Also avoid using ALL CAPS BECAUSE THEY MAKE YOU LOOK LIKE YOU’RE YELLING AT YOUR READER. And don’t over-use exclamation marks, if you must use them at all! They show intense emotion!!! But are inappropriate for work emails!
12. To smiley or not to smiley
Smileys are sets of characters that represent facial expressions or emotions. To a very limited extent, they help make up for the lack of feeling and nuance in emails.
However, smileys are usually out of place in business emails. Just don’t do it, ok? 😀
13. Don’t mix business with personal
Never, ever use your business email to send personal messages.
14. Use formatting tools to make your message easier to read and comprehend
I already mentioned breaking up text into short paragraphs and using lists. Other formatting tools to make your email more readable include using boldface and italics.
For example, you’re more likely to take notice if I use bold text when I remind you of our meeting on May 31, 2012, 2 pm.
As useful as these formatting tools are, use them sparingly. For one thing, you don’t know for sure that the recipient will see the email in the same way that you formatted it. Special font types and colors, for instance, may not display the same way in other computers. Also, if you emphasize everything, then nothing stands out.
15. Ask permission before sharing someone else’s email
Sometimes, you get an email so good you want to share it with others. That’s fine, but unless the sender says otherwise, don’t assume you’re free to forward it. Ask for permission first. It’s common courtesy.
Over To You
These are the behaviours I think should be in an organization’s business email etiquette. Do you agree with me? Can you think of others that should be included?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.