E-Mail Etiquette Best Practices

laptopfloorstudentOne time I sent in a helpdesk ticket and the helpdesk person would not answer it because I did not have anything in the subject line. I called him all upset but then he explained that they get so many e-mails they need to know quickly who to distribute them to. That same year I was having my yearly review and my manager at the time told me that one of the things I needed to work on was putting a topic in the subject line. I was telling a coworker about that and he said he has issues with me not doing that too. Wow! From then on I always made sure to write in the subject line, so much so that my husband pointed out that I write too much in there and sometimes my whole e-mail is in that line.  

Today I am at my desk going through e-mails and got one where I was asked to “answer the question below,” so I crossed my fingers that there would be a very obvious question right below that statement. There wasn’t. I had to go through a long string of e-mails involving too many people and never got to the actual question. I find this very irritating and disrespectful of my time. You want me to spend my time hunting for a question to help you but you could not take the time to make the question clear and obvious?

E-mails are tough because it is hard to figure out someone’s tone in writing and it’s hard to convey and decipher feelings in writing. Since so much business is now done over e-mail and we all use it all of the time, I decided to do some research and answer some of my personal e-mail questions. My main questions are: Is it correct to use emoticons in business e-mails? When I write someone back with a “thank you” to let them know I got their e-mail, does it instead bother them because it is something else they have to open? If I write something short and to the point does the recipient appreciate it or think I am being rude?

I asked my friends and co-workers how they feel about e-mails and came up with an e-mail etiquette dos and don’ts list:

Do

  • Include something in the subject line that is short and says what the e-mail is about.
  • Identify the action that is required.
  • Only cc people who need to be involved. If the e-mail changes directions do remove the people who are no longer applicable.
  • Proper punctuation.
  • Clean up your e-mail before you forward it, sending only what the recipient really needs to see.
  • Keep e-mails short. If they start to get long you may want to bullet your points.
  • Contact the recipient before sending a huge file. 
  • If it is a picture take the time to resize it to make it fit on the screen and compress files when you can.
  • If you are too busy to formulate a detailed answer, acknowledge you received an e-mail so the sender is not wondering.
  • Review your e-mail before it goes out (typos!).
  • If you are asking a question try to give all of the information the recipient needs from your side upfront.
  • Remember e-mails are permanent.
  • Review the e-mail thread before asking a question. Many times the answer will be right there.
  • If you are asking for action from the recipient, put that clearly at the top of the e-mail and not hidden in the text.

Don’t

  • Write the whole e-mail in the subject line.
  • Expect someone to read the whole e-mail string to find what you want them to see.
  • Just forward an e-mail without an explanation of why you are sending it to the recipient.
  • CC tons of people on an e-mail that has action items, this causes multiple people to do duplicate work.
  • Use acronyms (not everyone may be on the same page). 
  • Send an e-mail and call the recipient right away to ask them if they got it and what they thought of it. 
  • Combine many topics in the same e-mail.
  • Write in all caps, people will think you are yelling or angry.
  • Use emoticons (it’s cute but it could be condescending).
  • Be sarcastic.

Sometimes things can be resolved much quicker with a phone call or face-to-face conversation. We can get caught up in the e-mail frenzy at times, so instead of going back and forth just pick-up the phone and talk. If you need to keep a record in writing just summarize the call in an e-mail. 

Related Courses:
AMA’s 2-Day Business Writing Workshop
How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact, and Credibility
Project Management, Leadership, and Communication

Related Posts:
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4 comments

  1. Warren Reply

    Who doesn’t know they need to put a subject line in an email?

    1. Leah Kirby Reply

      You’d be surprised. 🙂

  2. Stephen Reply

    Did you get an answer to “When I write someone back with a “thank you” to let them know I got their e-mail, does it instead bother them because it is something else they have to open?”?

  3. Shari Reply

    I would add one more bullet point on the “DO” list…
    If your email is controversial, confrontational or has sensitive content, have a colleague read it before you send it. Ask the person how it sounds to them and find out if the message conveys what you intend it to convey.

    If you are still unsure, save it in the draft folder overnight and read it again in the morning.