The dos and don'ts of business email

While email has become an everyday part of our work-life, you still might be doing it wrong.

Email is part of our everyday life – an almost universally accepted form of quick and easy communication.

In 2018, there were 2.8bn email users and 5.2bn email accounts globally1. Whilst social media has had rapid growth for social communication, in the world of business, email remains the single most pervasive form of communication.

The ease with which we can access email contributes to its ubiquity – we can be ‘just checking email’ from our desk, our phone or even our wrist, with 50% of all email access in Australia now from a mobile device2

Email’s been a part of the business world since the '80s, meaning that the majority of the current workforce cannot even remember a time without it. Like many tools that have become second nature, there is a tendency to become very relaxed about the way we use them.

Yet there is an email etiquette to follow if we’re to use it harmoniously and for maximum benefit.

So what are the rules of modern emailing? Here’s some suggestions:

Contact details

We have come to expect that when someone sends us an email, it is a record of their contact details. Modern email etiquette is that you have at the very least a phone number, and often an office address under your signature. To not do so risks looking like you have something to hide and can come across as less than professional.

Group emails

Nothing wrong with group emails per se, but be aware that if you want someone to take action, they are the least effective way to get it. The reason is simple psychology – if you see something addressed to a group, the easiest assumption is that someone else will action it.

If you do genuinely need to send to a group, make it a small group and name each of the recipients, with a separate paragraph, starting with their name, for a specific action you want from them

Timing

‘We believe in work/life balance’, has said many a boss, before firing out an email at 1am. The implication for the recipient being ‘you should have been checking email at 1am’. If you’re an insomniac, or a workaholic, who does write emails in the wee small hours, consider saving them and sending at a more socially acceptable time.

Spelling, grammar and structure

Because email is so quick and simple to write and send, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of it as an informal communication tool. It’s easy for bad grammar, incorrect spelling and lack of structure to slip in.  At best they lessen the impact of your message and at worst they can make it completely incomprehensible to the recipient.

A good tip is to think of emails in the same way as any other business document:

  • Use bullets and paragraphs to structure your words into a logical flow
  • Check the spelling and grammar
  • Read and re-read before you send

Reply vs Reply All

We’ve all experienced the frustrations of being on the receiving end of a ‘reply all’ - the invitation that goes out to 100 people, 99 of whom hit reply all, and fill up your inbox with details of their (completely irrelevant to you) availability. Reply all is a useful tool - in the right context. Think about whether you really need to reply to everyone, or just the recipient. Check whether your email system defaults to ‘Reply All’ and if so, change the default to ‘Reply’.

Check the subject line

When you reply to or forward an email, remember that the subject line will, by default, be what was chosen by the original sender. Think about whether this is still useful/appropriate and change it accordingly if you need to.

Emotion

Many an email has been written and sent in the heat of anger, with the sender regretting their words as they calmed down. A good plan if you are all fired up, is to write your email, save it and do nothing with it for several hours. When you go back and review it with a calmer mind, in 99% of cases, you’ll amend or delete it, saving yourself a lot of embarrassment and anguish.

Unprofessional email addresses

An apocryphal tale tells of the young man with an excellent CV, who kept getting turned down for job interviews. Unable to understand why, he finally asked a recruiter who had rejected him for an explanation and was told that his email address of partyboy95  was letting him down. Having a personal email address is fine (and in fact is a good way of ensuring that you don’t send and receive personal emails from a work account) but if you are using it to look for a new position, consider the message it sends.

1Email Statistics Report -  Radicati Group Inc

2Ultimate Guide to Email in Australia - Litmus

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