By Will Schwalbe — Many people who are nice in person do things with their emails that they wouldn’t think of doing face to face. Here are five ways to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.

1. Remember chain of command.
When you email people several rungs above or below you and forget to cc: one or two of those in between, you can create an environment where paranoia thrives. Unless your workplace is totally apolitical, try to remember to include on your emails one or two key people between you and the person you are emailing.

2. Thank appropriately, not indiscriminately.
If one person worked really hard on a project, and six others just worked on it a bit, don’t write one thank-you email where they are all in the “To:” line. That just shows the one person who worked the hardest that you either don’t know or don’t care how much he or she did. Either delineate the contributions, or write separate emails.

3. Be specific what you want.
And name the time period in which you hope to have it done. Many people have noted the damage done by bosses who muse on email, “I wonder what teenagers think of our product,” and then find out that a whole division of the organization has diverted itself from the tasks at hand to engage in months of teen focus groups.

4. Managers should respect the impact an email can have on an employee.
When an employee sees an email from their boss, their blood pressure actually goes up, no matter what the content of the mail is. But, understandably, blood pressure went up even more when employees got angry emails from the boss, or emails from a boss they perceived to be unfair. If you get in the habit of sending little bombs throughout the day, you will create a truly deadly workplace.

5. Be consistent.
People read a lot into emails because the emails are devoid of the nonverbal cues we use to judge a message delivered in person. If you usually send very cordial ones, and then send a cold one, people who depend on you will spend hours analyzing it. The more consistent you are, the more people will focus on your content and stop wasting time trying to figure out subtext.

Will Schwalbe is the co-author with David Shipley of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home.

8 replies
  1. Greg
    Greg says:

    One more:
    Go easy on the CCs, especially if there is a potential problem or negative.

    I work in IT, and occasionally I will get "Explain this unresolved issue!" email from a site manager or low-level executive, CC'd to my entire chain (CIO down) and their entire chain (Division President down), usually 6 or more executives. In most cases there is either an acceptable explanation or I can resolve it quickly. But then I spend two hours calling, dropping in on, and emailing everyone that the event was a non-crisis. (the one plus is I get to tell my side of the story, which end with "Gosh, if they just emailed or called me direct, I would not have needed to waste you're your time – )

  2. Brian Johnson
    Brian Johnson says:

    On the flip side of point #5, as a manager I’ve found that it’s important to remember that often times your employees may NOT be taking this into consideration, or they simply may not be strong writers. Before I read too much into an email from an employee with an unexpected tone, I’ll first consider the general strength of their usual writing skills. Then If I still suspect something is amiss, I’ll follow-up with a phone call rather than email to get the non-verbal pieces of the puzzle. I’ve learned the hard way not to jump to conclusions about notes from my employees whose writing skills may not be why they were hired for their position.

  3. Duane
    Duane says:

    Go especially easy on the “bcc” (blind cc). It’ll get you in trouble more often than not. You’re basically saying “I want to hide the fact that B has seen what I said to A”, and it’s the rough equivalent of denying that people are in the room while you’re on speaker phone.

    I had that happen once where I was sent something by my boss, then replied to all with my input, and then I got a chat message from him saying “I bcc’d you on that, so don’t reply.” Too late!


  4. Scot Herrick
    Scot Herrick says:

    Since a tremendous amount of delegation and task assignment is done via e-mail, I would add something more than just “being specific.”

    That is, right at the top of the e-mail, place your task assignment, what the successful outcome of the task looks like, due date, with the person assigned to complete the task.

    One of the most difficult things for a knowledge worker is figuring out if there is something THEY need to do based upon receiving the e-mail. This is completely understandable when one receives many e-mails a day and half of them have ten other e-mails buried underneath the top one.

    Then, once they figure out there is something that needs to be done, they have to figure out what the successful outcome is of what they are doing and when it would need to be completed.

    Let’s do that up front and leave the rest of the e-mail as “context” filler for what the actual task is that needs to be done.

    Much better than leaving someone to figure out what to do with a top line from a manager saying “fix this!” and having nothing but 100 people copied and 40 e-mail messages below it to try and determine what to fix.

    And we all know that happens, right?

  5. Kerry Dexter
    Kerry Dexter says:

    Point number 5 especially is equally important for independent professionals to consider, on both sides of the sending and receiving equation.

  6. Will Schwalbe
    Will Schwalbe says:

    Very interesting point on the “cc” — many people complain about the volume of emails they get, but don’t realize the extent they contribute to email overload. When you add up all the time that is wasted by people’s over-cc’ing, it’s really staggering. And the “bcc” caution is always a good one.

    The discussion around point five — consistency — makes me think that this is one of those areas where each of us needs to be more careful — but, also, where each of us needs to cut others more slack. That is, it’s good to be sensitive to our outgoing, but a bit more thick-skinned on the incoming. A really good reminder on the outgoing, Kerry, and incoming, Brian.

    And that’s very strong advice, Scott, fleshing out the idea of being specific. People love to focus on email “disasters” but most of the problems with email, I think, come from people just not being clear about what they want and when they want it.

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