But despite all the extra email experience we’ve gained over the past year, it’s still not uncommon to receive messages that feel unprofessional or just plain rude. From unhelpful content to passive-aggressive language, there’s clearly much room for improvement when it comes to work email etiquette.
“A professional email should be courteous and conversational so it’s important to put some thought into the email,” said Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of the Protocol School of Texas.
Of course, etiquette can vary based on company culture, but there are many helpful guidelines that apply in all settings. HuffPost asked Gottsman and other etiquette experts to identify the faux pas they often see people committing in work emails. Read on for nine examples.
“Proofread every message before you send it out,” advised Patricia Rossi, a civility expert, keynote speaker and author of “Everyday Etiquette.” “If spelling and grammar mistakes show up in your communication, the other person might get the impression that you are rushed, do not pay attention to detail or have a careless attitude. If mistakes occur just once (maybe because you are in a rush) it might be overlooked, but if it happens on a regular basis, you can be sure that you will lose credibility and trust. Your competence might be seriously questioned.”
Misspelling the recipient’s name comes off as inconsiderate, and even simple typos or punctuation errors can change the meaning and tone of an email.
“Thank goodness for spell check and grammar check,” said life etiquette expert Juliet Mitchell, aka Ms. J. “Use them. One time I typed ‘hello’ without the ‘o.’ Enough said.”
Make sure to include all the information the recipient might need to make responding easier. This may include specific deadlines, addresses and alternate ways to contact you.
Rambling On And On
“In general, etiquette is all about being mindful of other people ― their feelings, their time and their space― and this definitely doesn’t change when it comes to writing an email,” said Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and co-host of the “Were you raised by wolves?” podcast. “Your communications should always be respectful, clear, on topic and concise.”
People are busy during the workday so be considerate of their time. Instead of rambling on and on in an email, get to the point you want to convey and address the topic quickly.
Personal emails, on the other hand, offer the opportunity to be more long-winded.
“When you’re talking to a friend or relative, this is your chance to use your language to tell your story, express your emotions and connect ― especially during the pandemic when our social interactions are limited,” said Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.
Hitting ‘Reply All’ Unnecessarily
We’ve all been on email threads that painfully drag on with one unnecessary reply after another. Show consideration for people’s time by being thoughtful with your use of the “reply all” function. Ask yourself if everyone on the chain needs to be copied on your response.
Don’t muddy the conversation with side chats, needless corrections or rebukes of a colleague or subordinate in front of everyone. If you disagree with something, you can address it with the person separately.
“This is particularly important if you have a potentially uncomfortable message,” Gottsman noted. “If it is serious, pick up the phone instead or shoot them an email requesting a conversation.”
Gossiping About Colleagues
“As a quick glance of Twitter easily proves, it’s very easy to screen-grab and share an email or Slack conversation with others, so don’t write anything you wouldn’t want blown up on a billboard in Times Square, especially if it’s gossip about someone you work with,” Leighton emphasized.
Criticizing colleagues in writing is both rude and unwise for your professional future. Email can be carelessly forwarded to the wrong recipient. Even if you feel like you’re being cautious, remember that your employer can access your work email account and that your company may be vulnerable to hackers.
“Don’t think for a second that your work email is private,” Smith warned. “It’s all owned by your employer.”
Lashing Out In The Heat Of The Moment
The ease with which someone can forward, screenshot, or copy and paste an email should also be top of the mind when you’re about to get heated in a correspondence. You probably don’t want what you say in a negative emotional state to be documented, so think twice about what you write.
“If you are ‘feeling some kind of way,’ you should wait, review, revise if necessary and then decide whether to send ... or not,” Mitchell recommended.
“Once it’s out there, it’s out there,” noted Smith, who advised typing your message in a separate document so that you aren’t tempted to hit send before you’ve given yourself time to cool down.
Crossing Professional Boundaries
When sending a work email, consider your relationship with the recipient and the boundaries of your work life. Using swear words or including unprofessional content like NSFW gifs or information about your romantic life are not the ingredients for success.
“Boundaries shift as we may become friends with people we meet at work, but we need to be able to change out our point of view based on who we’re talking to,” Smith said. “So when we’re writing professional emails, we need to remember these are our colleagues and co-workers and not our friends. We have to match the mode of communication with the method and message we’re trying to send.”
She noted that cultures vary from workplace to workplace, so try to get a sense of the norms and expectations where you are.
“If you work for a hip radio station, you may be calling people by their first name, using slang, sending emojis, gifs, swear words,” Smith said. “But if you’re in a law firm or conservative climate, that would not be OK.”
Pay attention to the way colleagues phrase things in emails, the length of their messages, the use of BCC or CC, the formality of tone, etc. You can also ask questions to better understand the culture.
“You need to be savvy enough to match your level of communication through to your email,” Smith added.
Being Disrespectful Of Feelings
Many different options for communication mean many opportunities for miscommunication, Rossi noted. “Let’s also not forget that others can’t see our body language and hear our tone of voice. Therefore, try to be always positive, constructive, upbeat, kind and helpful when interacting with others online.”
Don’t let being clear and direct keep you from being gracious and respectful as well. For instance, Mitchell advised using the person’s name.
“Starting off an email with a request, demand or information can sound curt and thoughtless,” she said. “It only takes 2-3 seconds to type ‘Caroline’ or ‘Hi Caroline.’ The greeting should reflect the nature of your relationship with the person ― ‘Hello,’ ‘Hi,’ ‘Dear’ or name.”
If the message is serious, uncomfortable or easy to misconstrue, consider taking it off email and speaking by phone or arranging a meeting instead.
“Don’t use any electronics to avoid a conversation,” Smith cautioned. “If you have a concern or are angry, pick up the phone and call them. Don’t try to have it play out in a passive-aggressive manner through email.”
“In general, it’s best to avoid emojis in professional correspondence,” Leighton said. “Sometimes people feel the need to add emojis in order to clarify the tone with which they said something and avoid a misunderstanding, especially when something is intended to be a joke, sarcastic or ironic, but it’d be better to just revise whatever it is you want to say so that the emoji isn’t necessary in the first place.”
For example, he suggested it would be more professional to simply write, “Hey, everyone, please clean and put away your dishes after use” ― rather than “Hey, everyone ... did anyone leave dirty dishes in the sink? Our maid is off-duty today. 😉”
That’s not to say that emojis are totally off-limits. But try not to overdo them and aim to match the practices of your work environment, industry or email recipient.
“Some people scoff about sending emojis,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes an emoji conveys the sentiment quite well. Just keep it in perspective.”
Not Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
Many companies foster an environment where teammates and managers are expected to shout out individuals for their contributions, especially in email. A simple phrase like “With thanks to Susan” or “Shout-out to Mike” can go a long way and remove any sense that you’re taking credit for or failing to appreciate a colleague or subordinate’s work.
“I’m a big fan of giving credit where credit is due,” Smith said. She did note, however, that some companies emphasize promoting the team over the individual. Again, it’s best to suss out the culture you’re dealing with and act accordingly.