Email has emerged as an essential business tool, allowing faster and wider communication than ever before. But we all know that email has its downsides: it can carry security risks, people can feel flooded with too much email, and the intended tone of voice is not always apparent, to name three.
This guidance sets out some of the pitfalls of email and is intended to encourage you to use email more effectively. It is by no means an exhaustive list.
When not to use Email
The golden rule is that an email should not be sent to do a conversation’s job. Complicated subjects are often difficult enough to explain face to face, and more so by email. It is rarely an appropriate means by which managers should manage their staff. Instead of firing off a complicated explanation via email, pick up the telephone or set up a short meeting to address the issue in person.
Using CC and BCC correctly
Most email programs have a CC (carbon copy) and BCC (blind carbon copy) function. Some rules of thumb are:
- Make sure that there is a legitimate reason to copy a message to someone. When using a list check that all the members of the list need to receive a copy.
- Use the BCC field to avoid disclosing all recipients’ email addresses. However, it many cases it is polite to say in the email which groups have been sent the email.
- Think twice about using BCC to communicate about sensitive topics. It may be better to speak face to face.
The general rules of email etiquette apply. In addition:
Help out the recipient by writing a suitable covering message to explain why they have been sent the forwarded email
Think twice about forwarding sensitive or confidential emails, particularly to external addresses
Before you send, double check whether the contents of the whole email are appropriate for each recipient.
Tone of voice and flame wars
It is really easy to misunderstand and be misunderstood in email communication. Unlike writing a letter, when the send button is pressed, the email flies off instantly. A ‘flame war’ is a heated exchange that is more emotional than reasoned – it creates more heat than light. If you suspect you are in a flame war, or likely to be drawn in to one:
Take some time before responding – and then decide whether to respond
If a response is required, reply rationally
- Consider resolving misunderstandings face to face or by phone.
Giving the right impression
It is possible and totally acceptable to be informal in emails if the circumstances are right. At most other times the usual practices of letter-writing apply:
- Use proper grammar, sentence structure and paragraphs
- The spell checker is your friend (usually)
- Don’t SHOUT by typing all in capitals
- Give your message the once-over before pressing send. It is difficult to get back afterwards
- Check the tone of your message.
File attachments, pictures and file size
Email attachments take up lots of server space, network bandwidth and are the main way to spread viruses. But they are also the easiest way to share files. These guidelines will help:
- Do not attach large files to email – anything over a megabyte or two should be sent with care
- Follow the guidelines with regards to viruses
- If you are sending pictures, make sure that the file size is as much as the recipient requires. Similarly, be aware that photos pasted into Word documents still take up a lot of space.
Sensitive or embarrassing content
Whilst it is often thought that emails are purely private, in fact they are not. It is almost impossible to delete email – copies will always exist on a server somewhere. It has been said that you should never write in an email something you would not be comfortable putting on a postcard. This applies particularly to messages sent outside the organisation. For this reason, care should be taken in using email for highly confidential, sensitive or personal matters. Whether internal or external, email should not be used for making inflammatory and emotionally-charged comments.
Manage your inbox
Come up with a way that works for you. Some suggestions include:
- Sort your messages – by priority, subject, date, sender – whatever helps to find important emails
- Create subfolders to file emails you may need later
- In a long email thread that has responses by several people, read all the responses before replying – someone may have already made your point for you – especially if you have just returned from a period out of the office
- Help other people manage their inboxes by asking whether you really need to send them an email
- Help other people by using properly descriptive subject lines
- Use the Out of Office Assistant to let people know that you will not be replying straightaway.
Protect Email addresses
- You should treat other people’s email addresses with respect:
- Do not divulge other people’s email addresses without careful thought
- Use the BCC feature if appropriate
- Consider deleting the list of email addresses when forwarding an email.
Viruses are commonly spread through email. While there are systems in place to catch virus- infected emails, some do occasionally get through. Users are the final line of defence, so:
Be suspicious of email from people you do not know and certainly do not open any attached file or click on a web link. If you are sure that an email is spam or carrying a virus, just delete it.
If you receive an attached file you were not expecting, check to see whether the covering message is out of character. If in doubt, phone or email the sender before opening an attachment or following a link.
Spam and Phishing
‘Spam’ is a generic term for unsolicited email. Its worst form is the billions of email sent indiscriminately each day to massive mailing lists. Whilst many email applications have Spam filters in place, they cannot catch everything. There are steps you can take to help reduce the amount of spam you receive:
- Be cautious about where you post your email address
- Never forward chain messages, which often reveal other people’s email addresses
- Never respond to emails offering pots of money
- Subscribe only to websites and newsletters created by people and organisations you can trust
- Do not click on any links in spam email. If you click an unsubscribe link, that action merely confirms that your email address is valid – it will be sold on to more spammers.
‘Phishing’ is the attempt to steal personal information, often online banking login details. Some of these are easy to spot because of bad grammar and typos. Some are more sophisticated. To be on the safe side, never click on links in email claiming to be from financial institutions. It is better to open your web browser and navigate direct to the official website.