What I wish I’d known when I started my career: Work Email Etiquette

Looking back in the early days of my career, there are several things I wish I’d known. Now that I’m the CMO of Leyard’s international business and vice president of marketing and product strategy at Planar, I’m sharing lessons that would have been helpful when I started my career, in hopes they will help recent graduates as they enter the professional workforce.

In most professional environments, email is the most commonly used communication tool. While you have likely used personal email for many years, there are different protocols in the work place. These 10 guidelines will help ensure you are communicating what you want to communicate and how your message is being received.

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1. Never use email to criticise or gossip

Never say something on email that you don’t want printed and put on the company bulletin board. Never gossip or take a harsh tone in email. Assume every email will be read by more than the recipient – before you hit send, would you be comfortable sending it to everyone in the company?

2. Never use email to discuss a heated or controversial topic.

Because you can’t read an email and determine the intended tone, it is not a good medium for discussing sensitive things, being sarcastic or delivering feedback. A good rule of thumb is that if there are more than 3 replies in the thread, it is best to take the conversation off-line to a meeting (in person or at least on the phone). You can reply to the thread saying, “It looks like this topic is a good one for us to discuss further. I suggest that we don’t continue in email, but rather schedule a call or meeting. How would tomorrow at 3 PM look for you?” Plus, a measured response demonstrates maturity and self-control, which are always good in the workplace.

3. Use proper language and full sentences

Do not use text slang (do not use LOL, BRB or the number 2 in place of “to” or “too”). In some offices, using this shorthand in messaging applications (like Lync or Skype or WeChat) is okay, but not in email. By using proper grammar and spelling, you are showing that you are professional, intelligent and do not take unnecessary shortcuts.

4. Respond to every email

Unless it says that no response is necessary, reply to all emails addressed to you. It can be with an answer or with more questions. It can be with a simple “thank you” or a message of completion to a project request. If you want to acknowledge the email, but don’t yet have the answer or have anything to report, reply back saying when you will respond. “I wanted to say that I got this request and have begun work on it. I expect to be done on Tuesday and will let you know when it is complete.” Keeping it short is fine, and often preferred. Responding to emails is a way to make and keep commitments while building trust.

5. Set your out of office when you are away

When you are on vacation, travelling for business, or even away from your desk in meetings (if they last longer than when people would expect a reply from you, which varies by job and person), set your out of office message. Most email programs allow you to set your out of office for a particular time and deliver different messages to internal and external parties. Keep it short and professional. Say how long you will be out of the office. Tell them you will get to their message as soon as you can, but they should expect delays. Offer them an alternative contact for immediate assistance, if one is available. Never disclose personal information in an out-of-office intended for external parties (i.e., “I’ll be partying on the beach in Miami for Spring Break”).

6. How to use the To: line: strategically

If you want someone to take action or the email is addressed to them, put them in the TO line. Most emails should be to one person or to a small group where all of the roles are clear and be sure to clarify who you need to respond to which aspects. For example: “Kevin, I am copying you so that you can help me estimate the costs. Gary, can you help me greet our guests at 2 PM tomorrow?”

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7. How to use the CC: line: judiciously

Include people in the CC if they need to be aware of the discussion, but are not active participants. If you are sharing good news or a compliment, feel free to copy in that person’s manager. Avoid the temptation to copy the world in on emails, especially if the content is bad or difficult. (And remember it’s often better to handle difficult news in person rather than over email.)

8. How to use the BCC line: carefully

Blind carbon copies are often used to complain or as a way to “cover your tracks”. My advice is to be honest and do not use it to be sneaky. In general, I don’t think it is a good form of communication and I don’t use it. The times BCC is acceptable is sending company-wide email to avoid unnecessary reply-alls, or if someone introduces to you to someone else via email. For example, a good use of BCC would be if Bill thinks you should know Sue and sends an email suggesting you have coffee sometime with Sue. You can move Bill to BCC to thank him for the introduction (telling him you are moving him to the BCC), then remove him from the conversation you and Sue as you figure out when to schedule the coffee.

9. How to use “reply to all”: rarely

Replying to all is rarely a good idea. It clogs up emails and makes people look like amateur communicators. The exception to this is when someone is trying to schedule a meeting or brainstorming to build upon each other’s ideas. But even then there are better ways, such as using the busy/available tool in the calendar.

10. Don’t forget how to write a letter

I like to send hand-written notes. It is bit old-fashioned, I know, but because it is rare, the gesture is genuinely appreciated. I have gotten thank you calls and emails from folks who received a thank you note and felt compelled to respond. It is a great way to build relationships.


Jennifer Davis is a senior executive, industry presenter, business leader, mentor and volunteer. She is the vice president of marketing and product strategy for Planar Systems, a global leader in display and digital signage technology. More information about Jennifer is available at her website: http://atjenniferdavis.com/#homeinfo