Special Topics in Email
Email offers powerful communication features — and some attendant risks. This section addresses a sampling of communication issues unique to electronic correspondence.
Senders of email can easily copy someone on an outgoing email message. Copying features offer convenience, but they are sometimes used in ways that test the limits of business etiquette. Naturally, you should copy managers who have requested that you copy them on certain types of communications. In addition, if your industry has regulatory requirements regarding the use of email, you should certainly do whatever is necessary to comply with those requirements.
Otherwise, you should generally copy only those people who truly need the information you are sending in a given email. Don’t automatically emulate what your co-workers happen to be doing. For example, don’t copy five of your colleagues just because you noticed that another of your co-workers did that on his last communication. Perhaps that person’s judgment was flawed! The important question is whether those five colleagues really need the information you are sending.
Unfortunately, excessive copying has much to do with the email inundation of American business today. Sending co-workers unnecessary emails is irritating to them and counterproductive for your firm.
One way to reduce email volume is to use the “Reply All” option sparingly. If someone sends a mass email and you want to send a response, in many cases you should choose the “Reply” option, which sends a message just to the sender — and not to all the other original recipients. Of course, if everyone needs to see your response, then “Reply All” is the only choice — but do not choose “Reply All” to send an email consisting of nothing more than “Thanks!” or “Got it.”
If you want only a subset of the original recipients to receive your response, select “Reply All” but then, before you send the email, remove names of recipients you don’t wish to include. Your response will then go just to an appropriate subset of the original group. A moment of careful thought on your end can save time for many other people.
The fact that email can be forwarded so easily creates business communication challenges that did not exist in the past. Although the ability to forward email messages is a powerful feature that allows information to be shared quickly with others, one of the most disturbing habits in modern business correspondence is the unexamined forwarding of messages that were intended for the recipient’s eyes only. Before you click “Forward,” consider carefully how the sender of the email would feel about having the message passed on to another reader.
Whether it is acceptable to forward a given message depends on various factors, including the relationship between the writer and recipient, their relative status, and the content and context of the message. But in general, forwarding something private or sensitive is likely to reflect poorly not only on the writer, but also on the person who forwards the email.
At the same time, you should write your messages as though they may be forwarded. Forwarded messages have cost careless email writers their jobs, so it is wise to be cautious about what you put in writing. Clearly you shouldn’t email inflammatory content.
In addition, it is a good idea to structure email messages so that they can easily be forwarded for maximum benefit. Consider splitting up unrelated topics into multiple emails. For instance, in the sample message in Figure 2, the writer of the email combines a message about a marketing report with an apology for arriving late to a morning meeting.
The first part of the email discusses a revision of the report, a subject of potential interest to other employees at the company. Therefore, the message may well be forwarded.
Unfortunately, though, if this email is forwarded in its current form, the allusion to the writer’s tardiness will automatically be passed on as well. Instead of providing a purely positive reflection of his efforts on behalf of the company — exemplified by his work on the report — the email will also inform people who would never have known it otherwise that he was tardy to a meeting that morning. In addition, the email contains personal information about family that the writer may not wish to share with others at his firm.
The writer would be better off doing one of two things: (1) splitting the email into two messages, one apologizing for the tardiness and one addressing the report, or (2) apologizing in person or over the phone for the tardiness and sending an email about the report. In either case, the content relating to the report could then be forwarded to people who may be impressed by it. They will not hear about bronchitis, tardiness, or other personal matters.