TMN’s 9 Laws for Work Email

There has been much discussion lately about email etiquette and email rules.  Everyone has experienced someone who can’t seem to abide by email standards.

Then it hit me… where are the standards?  (Well, yes, there are always etiquette standards.  Those are the socially accepted norms.)

But, does your company have published email usage standards?  Not the standard, “work use only” and no “offensive material.”  I am talking about email usage guidelines. Rules. Laws.

In other words, if you cannot abide by these rules… you cannot work here.

Just as we expect basic computer skills, such as Excel or PowerPoint, shouldn’t we expect a certain level of email proficiency?

Email rules are not meant to stifle creativity, they are intended to increase productivity and improve communication.

So, here are 9 email laws for the workplace…

TMN’s “9 Laws for Work Email”

  1. Only copy those that need to know – This is an easy one.  Just because you are not paying for stamps on these things, does not mean that everyone in the building should be copied on your weekly status update.  It may make you feel more important, but it only bogs down everyone else trying to get their job done.  Emails should only be addressed to those who need to read what you are sending.  End of story.
  2. Do not use BCC – BCC is one of the most misunderstood and most abused email options.  Here is a good thumb rule: “If they should be on the message, they should be on the message.”  Don’t think you are being cute/sly by copying your friend or boss without anyone knowing.  It will come back to haunt you.  BCC has a proper use, and it should only be used to mask distribution lists.   Nothing else.
  3. No colored fonts – No joke. Not kidding. Writing your email in red or green does not increase its effectiveness.   In fact, pretty much guarantees people are going to hit delete.  Does your workplace accept business memos written in green crayon?  If so, you can ignore this law.
  4. Your Signature – no pictures, quotes, or anything besides your contact info – We don’t need the latest pithy quote or a link to the charity you support.  It does not belong on your work email. Put it on your facebook or somewhere else.
  5. Do not “reply all” to thank someone – OK, the message was addressed to 24 people and you really needed to hit “Reply All” to say “Thanks?”  Even more annoying when 12 others like you do it.
  6. Do not expect an immediate response –  In our hyper connected world, email is the new snail mail.  Once upon a time, email was considered fast.  Wanted a quick response?  Send an email.  But it has since been demoted down the communication response priority list.  If you need a more immediate response: call, text, or come see me.  Many people check email only 2-3 times a day and are turning off their work email on breaks and weekends.
  7. No ALL CAPS – Ever.  Never.  Ever.  Never.  There is never a reason for all caps. Got it?  Try bold or italics, instead.
  8. Keep it short – In a previous post, I suggested that all emails be <5 lines long.  While you may not see this as realistic, no one wants to (or will) read your 3 page email manifesto.
  9. Your work email is for “Work” – Last but certainly not least, in the age of free GMail and smartphones, there is no reason for you to be using your work email for personal reasons.   Do not sign up for mailing lists.  Do not have your friends or significant other send spam and videos to your work address.

These are my email laws.

All companies should have published rules as part of their job standards.   After all, we want email to contribute to productivity, not be a timesink.

What are your personal rules?  Does your company have email rules?  Please share in the comments.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.theklarichter.com/ Thekla Richter

    Good morning Craig! Great post – I love these laws. Here are a few of my own rules to add:

    1. Use the to line for people who likely need to act or respond, and the cc line for people who just need an FYI.

    2. If you are adding a new person mid-conversation to either the to or cc line, include a short sentence mentioning that in the email itself drawing attention to it. This helps everyone save face by writing to their audience (for instance, knowing if their boss or yours has now joined the conversation!)

    3.Unless there’s a reason why you want everyone who looks at this email to see the whole long conversation history, delete everything but the topmost 1-2 emails in a long string before forwarding or adding a new recipient. Sometimes the start of a conversation has confidential info or statements that are not very professional/PC. If the email gets forwarded wisely or very high up, it’s more politic to leave that early history out.

    4. Use descriptive subject lines. Don’t just say, “Important issue” or “Quick question” but mention the specific project or task as descriptively as possible. This will help people respond to your email more quickly because they’ll see what it’s about when they are scanning their inbox or looking for it later to work on. If someone else had a vague subject line in their email to you and you are forwarding it, rewrite it to something more specific when you send it on.

    5. Send a brief acknowledgment if you know it will take you a while to respond. E.g. “Thanks for your email. I have meetings till 3 pm today and will respond by EOD.” or “I need to research this before I can resolve but will update you in more detail as soon as I can.” This way the other person knows that you’ve got the ball for now and that they should wait for you patiently rather than try to find someone else to resolve the issue.

  • http://www.theklarichter.com Thekla Richter

    Good morning Craig! Great post – I love these laws. Here are a few of my own rules to add:

    1. Use the to line for people who likely need to act or respond, and the cc line for people who just need an FYI.

    2. If you are adding a new person mid-conversation to either the to or cc line, include a short sentence mentioning that in the email itself drawing attention to it. This helps everyone save face by writing to their audience (for instance, knowing if their boss or yours has now joined the conversation!)

    3.Unless there’s a reason why you want everyone who looks at this email to see the whole long conversation history, delete everything but the topmost 1-2 emails in a long string before forwarding or adding a new recipient. Sometimes the start of a conversation has confidential info or statements that are not very professional/PC. If the email gets forwarded wisely or very high up, it’s more politic to leave that early history out.

    4. Use descriptive subject lines. Don’t just say, “Important issue” or “Quick question” but mention the specific project or task as descriptively as possible. This will help people respond to your email more quickly because they’ll see what it’s about when they are scanning their inbox or looking for it later to work on. If someone else had a vague subject line in their email to you and you are forwarding it, rewrite it to something more specific when you send it on.

    5. Send a brief acknowledgment if you know it will take you a while to respond. E.g. “Thanks for your email. I have meetings till 3 pm today and will respond by EOD.” or “I need to research this before I can resolve but will update you in more detail as soon as I can.” This way the other person knows that you’ve got the ball for now and that they should wait for you patiently rather than try to find someone else to resolve the issue.

  • http://projectsimplify.com/ Shawn Tuttle

    No using work emails to further personal interests.

  • http://projectsimplify.com Shawn Tuttle

    No using work emails to further personal interests.

  • http://www.simplepclife.com/ Jovan

    Everyone I work with breaks every single one of these rules. Drives me nuts. The all caps is the killer! As soon as I open an email and it’s all CAPS the first thing that pops in my head is “OH MY GOD! THE SKY IS FALLING!”

    I’m going to make this a mandatory read for everyone at my company.

  • http://www.simplepclife.com/ Jovan

    Everyone I work with breaks every single one of these rules. Drives me nuts. The all caps is the killer! As soon as I open an email and it’s all CAPS the first thing that pops in my head is “OH MY GOD! THE SKY IS FALLING!”

    I’m going to make this a mandatory read for everyone at my company.

  • Fernando

    I agree with all your rules. For me the killer are those loooong emails that one gets lost in the middle wondering what is being said. I would add one more rule:

    Use TO and CC appropriately. If I need to respond to it – I want to have the e-mail directed to me – if it’s just for my information – then CC should be used.

  • Fernando

    I agree with all your rules. For me the killer are those loooong emails that one gets lost in the middle wondering what is being said. I would add one more rule:

    Use TO and CC appropriately. If I need to respond to it – I want to have the e-mail directed to me – if it’s just for my information – then CC should be used.

  • NOLASmitty

    1. Do not forward a string of 10 emails and simply put “see below” or “please advise”. Do not make me dig for the information you want me to see.

    2. Do not use the subject line as the body. Writing a really long subject line and then having nothing in the body of the email is again a waste of my time. 1. Few thing in my line of work can truly be effectively communicated in 1 sentence. (however a book is not necessary either). 2. I still open the email only to find that there is nothing in there, grr!

    3. ASAP. This means nothing in an email. If it is truly urgent you should call me.

  • NOLASmitty

    1. Do not forward a string of 10 emails and simply put “see below” or “please advise”. Do not make me dig for the information you want me to see.

    2. Do not use the subject line as the body. Writing a really long subject line and then having nothing in the body of the email is again a waste of my time. 1. Few thing in my line of work can truly be effectively communicated in 1 sentence. (however a book is not necessary either). 2. I still open the email only to find that there is nothing in there, grr!

    3. ASAP. This means nothing in an email. If it is truly urgent you should call me.

  • Lisa K

    Great post. If the subject of the message has changed significantly – change the subject line to reflect it.

  • Lisa K

    Great post. If the subject of the message has changed significantly – change the subject line to reflect it.

  • http://www.miningman.com/ Jamie Ross

    And don’t use email when you could use the phone or go to see someone in person!! Not only do you lose tone of voice and non-verbal communications, you don’t get immediate feedback on what you are saying. I hope we don’t lose the art of talking face to face!

    How many people have had an email just to them from the person down the hall??

  • http://www.miningman.com Jamie Ross

    And don’t use email when you could use the phone or go to see someone in person!! Not only do you lose tone of voice and non-verbal communications, you don’t get immediate feedback on what you are saying. I hope we don’t lose the art of talking face to face!

    How many people have had an email just to them from the person down the hall??

  • Marc DeBower

    Another great website is 43folders, Merlin Mann talks about productivity and emailing as well.

    http://www.43folders.com/2005/09/19/writing-sensible-email-messages

  • Marc DeBower

    Another great website is 43folders, Merlin Mann talks about productivity and emailing as well.

    http://www.43folders.com/2005/09/19/writing-sensible-email-messages

  • http://twitter.com/patman2520 Patrick Sledz

    Hi Jamie,

    I think you are so right in having personal contact with people you work with, but I disagree on what you say. Well, I partly disagree. If you really need a quick answer, phone might be a good communication to use. Just going to somebody and asking isn't always the best thing to do. Especially not to person who will receive the question.
    Therefore, If you don't need an immediate answer, I would say that you send en email. Your colleague can treat and answer the email at an appropriate time (for her/him).
    When you go to someone with your question, and this person is really busy doing her/his tasks you are just an interruption. You are disturbing a high productive worker.
    If I get people at my desk, and I'm really into something, I just say: Is it ok that you come back in xx minutes. I am really busy now, and if we talk later I can assure you that you will get 100% of my attention. I really want to talk to you, but I have this thing I am working on right now and it is not easy to change context (mind).
    I feels unusual the first times, but after a while you'll get used to it, and your colleagues too.

  • hackaugment

    Simple rules, almost evident. Yet these are the basics and lots of people do not respect them! Nice article, straight and clear, glad I stumbled upon this nice blog!

    • TMNinja

       @hackaugment Thanks! Appreciate the kind words. :)

  • Dj123

    If you have to write a long email, and it needs to go to more than one person, write a summary at the top. This is particularly good if some of the people are management and some of the people on the email are techy people.
     

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      DJ, interesting technique. Kind of like an exec summary?

      I like it.

  • http://www.espressoenglish.net/ Espresso English

    Use focused, descriptive titles.

    Example: Don’t title your e-mail “Meeting.”Instead, title it:”Reminder: Phone meeting this Thursday at 4 PM EST”

    or

    “Agenda for Monday’s development meeting attached”or”Response needed: Questions about direction of tomorrow’s meeting”That way, it gives me a sense of what EXACTLY the e-mail is about before I open it.