With the influx of social media, online-based communications and the ability to have both business and personal email sent directly to smart phones, I have found that the unwritten rules of business email etiquette seem to be losing their hold. While most business people understand that emails can be a useful way to convey information, we have started to use them like we would an instant messenger or a personal account instead of the business document they really are. Business emails are just written letters that are online instead of on paper.
Aside: Most companies have email servers on the network that are monitored by a number of IT professionals. While IT professionals are there to keep the system up and running, it is also their job to monitor everything coming into and going out of the company. This means that your private business email you sent complaining about your job? Not so private. Think about that the next time you swear in an email.
Here are a few tips to keep your business email etiquette up at a professional level.
1) Subject lines
As I’ve said before, having an informative subject line can mean the difference between getting someone’s attention and being deleted unread. Now if you are like most people, odds are you will read or at least open the vast majority of your work email. The only difference is when you read it, and how long you spend reading it when you do. If you are skimming through your email in between meetings and you see one with the subject line “Urgent! Decision needed by 11:00am” and one entitled “Hey”, which one do you think you are going to open first? If you didn’t answer the urgent one, you need to reevaluate. Now I’m not saying that you should put “urgent” on everything you send out just so your email won’t be deleted. Do that enough times without reason and people will start to ignore you completely. All you need to do is have a subject line that gives the reader enough information about the subject, the importance of that subject, and the time frame required on their response. Some companies even code emails with numbers or colours based on their level of importance. Find out what works best for you and your office.
2) Addressing your contact
When emailing someone for the first time use their prefix and full name.
- Ex. Hello Mr. Jon Snow
If you don’t know their prefix (if they prefer Miss to Ms. for example) and you can’t find out, just use their full name.
- Ex. Hello Clara Oswald
It is also a good idea to go with “hello” instead of “hi” or “hey” which sound too casual, personal and unprofessional for what is essentially your first meeting. Since emails don’t allow us to use the 90% of non-verbal communication we use in regular conversations, it is important that our words reflect our professionalism and respect. It is hard to hear tone in typed words, so be cautious. Once they have emailed you back and shown you how they would like to be referred to as (how they sign something is a clear indication of the level of formality they are looking for), then you can switch up your introduction.
- Ex. Hi Jayne
3) Signing your email.
If you don’t already have a pre-made signature that attaches to all of your outgoing email, I strongly suggest you do that now. Most companies have one already set up that automatically attaches itself to every email that you send. It is standard for this signature to include your full name, title, company, business contact information and website, but may also include logos, graphics, social media icons, and a number of other design features. Most of those things are decided for you, what you do get to choose however, is how you will sign your email. The more formal the email, the fewer choices you have to sign and the closer to an actual written letter your email becomes.
- Yours truly, Yours,
- Best regards, Warm regards, Warmest regards, Regards,
- Thank you, (better than “Thanks,”)
- Cheers (the most informal)
HINT: In your closing, the first word is capitalized, the second isn’t and there is always a comma at the end.
4) Overusing Bcc, Ccc and Reply All
Next time you go to send an email and cc a whole bunch of people, stop and think about who really needs to see it. Think about all of the emails you currently receive and how many you could do without. Is it enough to just be included even if you have no say, opinion or purpose in the email? How much time will you dedicate to something you don’t have to respond to? If everyone was more selective about who they broadcasted their emails to, everyone would have fewer emails to go through in general, giving us more time to focus on the emails that actually require their time and attention.
Think carefully before you Bcc someone in an email. You are sharing something discretely so that one part doesn’t know that another has seen it. If the original recipient found out that you were covertly sending your correspondence to someone else, they probably wouldn’t be very happy with you. Just as you wouldn’t be happy to find all of your correspondence was being fielded to someone else as well. You can’t help the fact that IT sees everything, but you can choose who else sees it, and whether they know who sees it as well.
5) Be careful when using personal views and absolutes
Often when we are writing emails we are communicating as if we are speaking instead of writing. For many of us however, our business email constitutes a binding contract with whomever we are conversing with. An email is first and foremost a written document and as such can be taken as a written contract or an official statement made by the company. You, and by extension your email are representatives of the company, and things you say in them can be used as facts. This is one reason many companies enforce a no-politics rule for their employees. Outside of expressing negative, controversial or political views, it is also a good idea to avoid words such as “always”, “never” and “everyone”. Absolutes are rarely factual and should therefore be used with discretion.
Since the invent of smart phones, everyone is checking their email at all hours of the day and night. In order to not be a slave to your email, try setting times during the day to check it and turning off noisy notifications in between. It takes 20 minutes after you have been distracted to fully focus on the task at hand, so if you are checking your email every five minutes, you are distracted all day long. Think of how much more productive you could be if you only checked it once an hour.
When you do go though your email, don’t just skim and decide “later, later, later” after opening and reading through all of them. If you are going to take the time to open and read something, respond right away if you can. That way, you won’t have to come back later and read it again, thereby doubling the amount of time you spent on an email. It is only those emails that may take a while to respond to that you can wait for. If you are going to wait to respond to something, is a good idea to email back saying that you received it, that you will work on whatever problem it contains, and when they should expect to see a full answer. That way the person who sent the email will not feel ignored or slighted by the lack of response, instead they will feel assured that you will give it the time and attention it deserves instead of a partial answer or no answer at all.
7) Other things you should avoid.
Emoticons, All-caps, slang, netspeak, l33t and swearing should not be used for business emails. Best case scenario you will sound unprofessional, childish and unintelligible, worst case scenario you will be considered extremely rude, disrespectful and unfit for your job.
8) When in doubt, sensitive issues should be discussed in person or over the phone.