The Rules for Using Email in the Workplace

Kevin Bailey, a digital communications specialist at the American Bar Association, is the manager of digital periodicals development for ABA Publishing.

Email is dangerous business. Unfortunately, we have to use it for professional means. It’s unreasonable to think people don’t form opinions of us based on our messages. They miss our subtle senses of humor, call us jerks, or, if we’re lucky, understand us better from our email. We all have sent an errant message to the wrong person and, perhaps without knowing, insulted colleagues. But what to do?

The following rules will help you write messages that are straightforward and efficient. While they might not land you a fat bonus, they just might help you lay the groundwork—or, at the very least, keep you out of hot water.

  • Call an in-person meeting or make a phone call instead. Consider whether you want your points etched in stone and easy to share with unintended audiences.
  • Think about tone. Consider a liberal use of “please” and “thanks,” though there is a fine line between being pleasant and sounding obnoxious. I recently heard about an email with a deadline of “no later than COB Wednesday.” Seems innocuous, but “no later than” sounds a lot like an ultimatum.
  • Don’t forget your audience. That ultimatum above was sent by a lower-level employee to the company CFO, who was not pleased. The inverse holds, by the way; some supervisors use email to intimidate subordinates. Bad idea. Also, be judicious in whom you cc; it sends a signal to other recipients.
  • Organize the information for quick digestion. Include action items for specific recipients. Bulleted or numbered lists and a hierarchy of importance aid consumption.
  • Edit it down to the bare essentials. Avoid excessive description and editorializing. Commanding vocabulary can come across as patronizing in business messages. Email isn’t the place to write a novel.
  • Don’t dodge problems or create confrontations. Accept responsibility for mistakes. It’s refreshing to see someone own their mistakes.
  • Include a salutation and valediction. Omitting either suggests you’re short on time and/or rude, neither of which is helpful. But avoid the unorthodox (skip “ahoy,” “g’day,” “ciao,” and the dreaded “cheers”).
  • Review before sending. Add recipients when you are done to avoid accidently sending before a message is final. If you’re in a dicey situation, have someone else review before you hit send.

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