10 Essential Rules of Business Email

by Sharlyn Lauby on November 10, 2013

There’s been a lot of talk over the years that email is dying and/or dead. That may be true. I can definitely see a time when email isn’t part of our business communications. But we’re not there yet. Given how much email we generate, email is experiencing a long, drawn out painful death. And it often amazes me that there isn’t more conversation about the rules of email. We have structure around the way we craft resumes, write business letters and use social media. Email? Not so much.

email, technology, hrtech, communication, grammar, meeting, e-mail

Nothing frustrates people more than when others break what are considered the accepted rules of email. So I decided to put together a list of the top ten things that business people expect in email communications.

Now, you’ll notice that I’m not going to include typing in ALL CAPS as one of the rules on the list. I’d like to believe we’re past that. Although, I do still get a few …

  1. Email is not a meeting substitute. Meetings happen for specific reasons – to convey information, to solve problems or to make decisions. Some of those things can be accomplished via email. Many cannot. The last thing we want to do is start a conversation via email and then, after lots of emails start flying around, call a meeting to actually deal with the issue.
  2. Some messages are better voice to voice (whether that’s in person or over the phone). Difficult messages are best delivered when people can hear your voice. We know it’s a tough message. That personal delivery isn’t designed to be punishment. It’s to show sincerity and let the person know they are important.
  3. Have several auto-signatures. Consider having a signature for new emails and an abbreviated version for replies. One for your primary work and another for your side hustle. Possibly a different one for personal emails. People today have multiple emails so add a layer of customization to your auto-signature for each audience.
  4. Change the subject line when you change the subject. Readers prioritize responses by using the subject line. Help the reader give you a timely response by changing the subject line when you change topics. You’ll get the info you need, when you need it.
  5. Learn how to use the cc and bcc functions. If a person is expected to reply, their name should be in the “To” line. The cc line is to keep others informed. The bcc line is to keep others informed without everyone knowing. The biggest challenge with bcc is people who hit reply all and make a comment. No one was supposed to know that they knew. Which leads me to the next rule…
  6. Ineffective use of the reply all button will kill your career. Same with read receipts. People get angry at their co-workers who excessively use the reply all button. Or who send every email with a read receipt.  Occasionally, that’s fine. There are times when both are appropriate and necessary. But not all the time.
  7. Use spell check. Then realize at some point, we will all send an email with a typo. Here’s my small rant about grammar. I sincerely believe that everyone tries to use proper grammar. And we should read our emails before sending to make sure we don’t have any typos. Even though we do those steps, we will occasionally have a typo. I’m not justifying them. Just pointing out that we are human.
  8. Not responding to an email is not the same as saying no. Individuals who avoid answering emails thinking the issue will go away…well, that really doesn’t happen. People get smart. They start sending emails saying “if I don’t hear from you by Thursday, I’m going to do this…” That is a strategy to force an answer. Or get a tacit approval. If you don’t want to send a “no” email, see rule #2.
  9. Set a reasonable expectation for replies. It’s not 10 minutes. Even when you have a smartphone. I once did a focus group where people said 24 hours was a reasonable time to reply to an email. If it’s going to take a couple days to research an answer, let the person know. Email is a communication medium. It’s not designed to drive people crazy with urgent requests.
  10. “I never got your email.” isn’t a technology issue. It’s an avoidance technique. Well, maybe I’m being a bit harsh here. There are moments when email doesn’t work. But in today’s business world, we should know to check our junk folders regularly, especially when we are expecting a reply. Habitually using the line “I didn’t get the email.” is an indicator of something else. 

Email may very well die someday, but that’s not an excuse to do it poorly while it’s still drawing a breath. What are your email rules? Leave your suggestions in the comments. Thanks!

Image courtesy of HR Bartender

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Matt November 10, 2013 at 2:27 pm

There is something that is inherent with email based on trust and relationships. It may be the two way communication between two parties that is just between them. It is still probably the best way to communicate outside of person to person or phone contact.

Darlene November 11, 2013 at 9:25 am

It’s a little annoying when folks put their entire message in the subject line of an email – this does not translate well on handheld devices.

Miss Sharen November 11, 2013 at 10:47 am

Is email really dying; or do we just have a huge segment of the workforce who rudely try to ignore them as an excuse for not carrying their weight? Considering the number of emails that fly around the workplace my guess is that email is alive and well; and will continue to live on for some time. It’s been my experience the employees who ignore the email requests for information are the very employees who expect you to respond immediately to the email requests that they sent you! So many companies do not allow the use of cell phones for official business communication due to security concerns – there will always be a need for email. The slackers who think they can continue to ignore them and still succeed will eventually learn otherwise – probably via an email! ;-D

Jennifer Keninitz November 11, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Miss Sharen, very well put. I agree with you. Better than 1/3 of my day is devoted to email. It can work for you or against you.

Satish November 12, 2013 at 7:51 am

The shorter the emails are, more they make sense. Yet we started from emails only and now we are admitting its slow exit.

Melanie November 12, 2013 at 9:27 am

Thank you for writing this, Sharlyn! These are great tips.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone, who is maybe 1 or 2 doors away from me, sends me an email with a request to do something or asks me a question that could’ve been done by just calling me into their office. In most of those cases, I just go talk to that person; not only to save time but to decrease the amount of emails our inboxes.

Sharlyn Lauby November 14, 2013 at 10:20 am

Thanks for all the great comments and suggestions!

@Matt – Totally agree. Trust is the foundation of all communication, whether it’s in person or online.

@Darlene – I see your point. Maybe it would be better as a text message – which is becoming more mainstream in business communications.

@Miss Sharen – I do agree that just because someone dislikes email doesn’t mean it’s dying. But I can see as companies adopt social collaboration technologies, email taking a secondary role. It will be interesting to see where that leads.

@Satish – Brevity is awesome. It does mean the writer must be skilled at conveying their message succinctly. Not a skill that everyone possesses.

@Melanie – I think it depends on the message. If it’s an urgent request – then yes, walk into my office and tell me. If it can wait, then email is fine because I can deal with it on my time.

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