Section 7.4

Email Forwarding

The ability to forward email messages is a powerful feature that allows information to be shared quickly with others. But the fact that email can be forwarded so easily creates business communication challenges that did not exist in the past.

One of the most disturbing habits in modern business correspondence is the unexamined forwarding of messages that were intended for the original recipient and not for a broader audience. Before you press “Forward,” consider carefully how the sender of the message would feel about having that email passed on to another reader.

At the same time, a healthy sense of self-preservation should inspire you to avoid writing emails that you yourself wouldn’t want to have forwarded. Email does get forwarded, so it is simply good defensive emailing to avoid saying anything inappropriate, contentious, or undiplomatic in a work-related message.

7.4.1 When Not to Forward

Whether it is acceptable to forward a given message depends on myriad factors, including the relationship between the writer and recipient, their relative status, and the content and context of the message. But in all cases it is important to remember that forwarding something private or sensitive is often likely to reflect poorly not only on the writer, but also on the person who forwards the message.

Proceed with caution when you are contemplating forwarding an email from anyone, but be particularly cautious when the email is from someone senior to you. In general, don’t forward messages containing:

  • Personal content. Professionals should not embed personal information in business emails, but when they do, think twice (or thrice) before passing it on.
  • Confidential information. Be very careful in your treatment of sensitive personnel information. The same caveat applies to confidential business information that is meant only for your eyes or for the eyes of a select few people at your firm.
  • Lengthy dialogues. It is inefficient to forward a long dialogue when all the recipient needs is a subset of the information from the ongoing exchange. Instead of forwarding, consider writing a synthesis of the key issues. If you do forward an email that contains a series of email exchanges, make sure the entire dialogue is appropriate for forwarding. There may be sensitive content further down the page; check before sharing it with others.
  • Content that is worded in a way that might not suit a different audience. Be aware of the writer’s intended audience. Someone writing quickly to a colleague might word things with less care than he or she would have taken in writing to a manager. Passing on an email that the sender might have preferred to edit a bit more before sharing with others may be viewed as a violation of email etiquette.

7.4.2 Making Your Messages Forwardable

Any email you send can be forwarded. That fact has caused people to lose their jobs, so it is wise to be cautious about what you put in writing. Don’t email inflammatory content. In addition, structure your emails so that they can easily be forwarded for maximum benefit.

How does one do that? For one thing, it helps to divide multiple topics into multiple emails. In Figure 17, the writer of the email fails to take this advice and combines a message about a report he has been working on with an apology for arriving late to a morning meeting.

Figure 17 • Message That Can't Easily Be Forwarded

Figure 17 • Message That Can’t Easily Be Forwarded

The first part of the email discusses a revision of an online marketing report, a subject likely to be of interest to other employees of the company. It is quite possible, therefore, that the message will be forwarded. If the writer did a good job on the revision mentioned in the email, the forwarding may well benefit him professionally.

Unfortunately, though, if this email is forwarded in its current form, the allusion to his 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 the report — the email will inform people who would never have known it otherwise that he was tardy to a meeting that morning. The email also 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 addressing the report and another apologizing for the tardiness, or (2) sending an email about the report and apologizing in person or over the phone for the tardiness. 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 tardiness, bronchitis, or other personal matters.

In a second example, shown in Figure 18 below, the recipient is the sender’s client. This email is polite and clear, but it is less than ideal from a practical point of view. By covering two separate and unrelated issues — an upcoming project and an unpaid invoice — each of which requires the client to undertake a separate action, the writer reduces the chance that both actions will occur.

In fact, it is reasonably likely that the recipient will take care of one thing and then forget about the other. Because of the reference to the unpaid invoice, the recipient may forward the email to the accounting department without remembering to answer the sender’s question about the upcoming project. If the writer doesn’t follow up quickly, she may lose the business!

Figure 18 • Message That Bundles Two Ideas into One

Figure 18 • Message That Bundles Two Ideas into One

In addition, the person in accounting who processes the sender’s invoices really doesn’t need to know that she is bidding on a new project. All the person in accounting needs is information on the late payment.

It is a sound business writing practice to include no more information in an email than is relevant to your relationship with the original recipient and anyone else to whom your message is likely to be forwarded.