I ran across a statistic on the site TechJury that says the average office worker receives 120 emails each day. Even if that number is inflated, people are subject to reading and writing a lot of email. Obviously, email is not a dying and/or dead method of our business communications. Maybe someday it will be, but we’re not there yet.
Given how much email we generate, it’s amazing to me that we don’t have formal written rules on what’s considered to be acceptable or unacceptable. We have structure around the way we draft resumes, write business letters, and use social media. Email? Not so much. And let’s face it, nothing frustrates people more than when others break what are considered the accepted (but not written) rules of email.
So I decided to put together a list of the top ten things that business people expect in email communications. That being said, you’ll notice that I’m not including typing in ALL CAPS as one of the rules on the list. I’d like to believe we’re past that even though I still get a few (sigh).
- Email isn’t 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 business email. Many cannot. The last thing organizations want is to start a conversation via email and then, after lots of emails fly around, call a meeting to actually deal with the issue.
- 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. Both the sender and receiver realize it’s a tough message. Delivering the message voice to voice isn’t designed to be a form of punishment. It’s to demonstrate empathy, sincerity, and let the other person know they’re important. Email is never a substitute for that.
- Auto-signatures serve a purpose. Consider having multiple auto-signatures. Like one 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 email addresses so add a layer of customization to your auto-signature for each audience.
- Change the subject line when you change the subject. If you ask an important question under a business email subject “Birthday Cake in the Breakroom”, there’s a chance that readers will not see it immediately. 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.
- 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 designed to keep others informed. The bcc line is to keep others informed without everyone knowing. The biggest challenge with bcc line 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…
- 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. Enough said.
- Use spell check. Then realize at some point, we will all send a business email with a typo. Here’s my small rant about grammar. I sincerely believe that everyone tries to use proper grammar. 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.
- 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’s a strategy to force an answer. Or get a tacit approval. If you don’t want to send a “no” email, see rule #2 about voice to voice messages.
- Set a reasonable expectation for replies. I once did a focus group where people said 24 hours was a reasonable time to reply to a business email. Even when you have a smartphone, it’s not reasonable to think everyone is going to reply within 15 minutes. If it’s going to take a couple days to research an answer, let the other person know. Email is a communication medium. It’s not designed to drive people crazy with urgent requests.
- “I never got your email.” isn’t a technology issue. It’s an avoidance technique. It’s possible I’m being a bit harsh here. I understand there are moments when email doesn’t work because the network was down. 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.
Business email may very well go away someday, but that’s not an excuse to do it poorly while it’s still being used on a regular basis. The better we are at email communication, the more others will pay attention to our emails (when we do send them).
What are your business email rules? Leave your suggestions in the comments. Thanks!15