Email at Work

by Barbara Buffton

Seven mistakes to avoid

We may add to other people’s sense of overload, either through laziness or ignorance. If each of us began to be more mindful of good practice with regards to email communication, then we could positively impact email culture within our organisations. Below are seven classic email mistakes to avoid.

1. Using the ‘cc’ (carbon copy) field indiscriminately

People in companies ‘cc’ others supposedly to ‘keep them informed’ or to cover their backs. What they are often doing instead is ‘keeping others from working’. Only ‘cc’ someone if

  • You want them to do something as a result
  • You want to share the email and make the recipients aware of who else is receiving this email, such as the whole of the management team.

If you are constantly copied in on emails unnecessarily, begin replying to them with three words: ‘Relevance to me?’ You may wish to inform people beforehand that you will be challenging anyone who sends you emails arbitrarily, the relevance of which to you is unclear. Tell them that your aim is to clarify, not criticise or put them down. Encourage people to send you relevancy challenges as well.

2. Blanket ‘reply to all’

This is as thoughtless as using the ‘cc’ indiscriminately and means that many people receive emails they do not need to receive. Inboxes then become cluttered. If just one person stopped doing this, it would make a difference. So why not be that one person who only ‘replies to all’ if everyone on the list absolutely needs to see your reply.

And if you do need to do a ‘reply to all’, make sure that your message is clear. For example, ‘Yes, I agree that we should do market research in Germany first’ is much clearer than ‘Yes, me too’.

You could also target each person in your reply, letting individuals know why they’ve been included. For example:

  • John – please action points 1 and 5
  • Sathnam and Kim – for your information only
  • PJ, Ethan and Usha – I await your confirmation on point 3.
Make your email relevant

Pointless emails cost one FTSE firm £39m a year.

3. Sharing people’s email addresses, without permission

Would you want someone to post your unlisted phone number on the web?

Would you want to give away your contact list to strangers?

Your answer is undoubtedly no to these questions. And yet we thoughtlessly share other people’s email addresses with all and sundry without their permission. We do this by putting their name in the ‘cc’ field or in the ‘To’ line of the email. There is a chance that if this email is then forwarded to other people, it could be circulated worldwide within minutes. This means that spammers could eventually get free access to people’s email addresses. All because we have not protected other people’s privacy. It is easy to hide other people’s email addresses by using the ‘bcc’ (blind carbon copy) function.

4. Being lazy about subject lines

A typical mistake here is to reply to an old email and start a new conversation without changing the subject line. This habit renders the subject line at best irrelevant and at worst misleading. It is a lazy way of working. It also makes emails harder to find if you’ve archived them or want to go back to them later.

5. Playing email ‘ping pong’

How many times have you sent emails back and forth with someone before one of you eventually picks up the phone and saves you both time and effort? It’s a judgment call as to when you do that, but just asking yourself, after a couple of emails to and fro, ‘is this the best use of our time?’ might give you a clue as to whether to ‘upgrade’ the communication channel.

6. Using humour inappropriately

Humour is one of the things that can easily be misconstrued face to face, let alone in an email. It is therefore best to use it in emails with extreme caution, particularly when dealing with cultures different to your own or with persons you don’t know very well.

7. Not practising what you preach

If you want to change the email culture within your organisation, it is important to show the way. Don’t send irrelevant emails and don’t commit any of the above mistakes. If you have some influence, suggest the introduction of email-free time.

Key action

Demonstrate for a month the changes you want to see implemented. Let your staff and colleagues know in advance what you are doing and why. Ask for feedback after the trial period. If people like what they see you doing, ask them to start doing it too, or incorporate any necessary amendments.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Mahatma Gandhi